Divorcing is never part of the plan. But the reality is that getting divorced is something we may have to face in our lives: which is why it feels shocking that couples still have to blame one another for a marriage breakdown if they want to begin divorce proceedings straight away. Regardless of how fraught the relationship may be between the individuals in the marriage, the legal process known as ‘The Blame Game’ adds tension to an already unpleasant situation. The good news is the old-fashioned legislation is finally being eradicated by the Justice Secretary, David Gauke, and when new legislation change comes into action, which Gauke has said will be as soon as possible, couples needn’t allege unreasonable behaviour to start proceedings. They can just get straight to the point and say they simply don’t want to be together anymore. It’s the latest move towards a softer and more open-minded approach to divorce, across an institution that has traditionally been seen as tense, impersonal and highly legalised.
‘Divorce used to be something to be ashamed of, but those attitudes have changed,’ Kate Daly, co-founder of Amicable, a digital divorce service that helps couples divorce amicably, tells me. ‘Couples still do sometimes still feel shame and a sense of failure when a marriage ends, but the shift is towards divorce being a sad ending to a relationship, but not a bad one.’
Daly thinks the introduction of the no fault divorce legislation ‘will help couples to stay amicable right from the start,’ and will ideally help individuals feel less hostility towards one another while they work together on their divorce. The more compassionate legislation responds to ‘a much greater understanding of how staying together is not good for a couple’s mental health,’ she adds.
A number of factors, including the rise of awareness around mental health and discussing our feelings, have led to discussions of divorce feeling more commonplace, argues Daly, who describes her business as ground-breaking in the way it ‘works with couples, rather than forcing people to pick two separate lawyers… meaning both people hear the same legal viewpoint rather than getting tied up in knots’.
Divorce figures, at first glance, don’t appear to be going in the direction Daly suggests. Recent statistics from the Office of National Statistics say divorce rates in 2016 among opposite-sex couples were the lowest they’d been since 1973, and a 5.6% decrease from the year before. However, culturally it may feel like there is an increase in divorce as conversations increase around the topic.
Katharine Landells, a partner at the law firm Withers Worldwide, agrees that a similarly open-minded and collaborative approach is the key to a good divorce. She warns that if there is hostility, people naturally may want to instruct a very aggressive lawyer, but in the long run, that path is destructive as individuals will likely be having similar arguments that damaged their marriage, but are paying lawyers to have the arguments for them. So people using the traditional approach of hiring an individual lawyer each should carefully consider their ultimate goals, says Landells.
‘Without common goals and acceptance on both sides then it can be really hard to reach a constructive end point,’ she tells me. ‘Both sides must be open to that process of communication to have any chance of the divorce going smoothly. Choose the right lawyer: this is something that will have a major impact on your situation. Take the time to find someone you trust and have chemistry with because you will be working together very closely, often in stressful circumstances, for a concentrated period of time. If it isn’t working out, then find a new lawyer’.
When you’re sure the right person is on board, ‘ask them to spell out your options,’ says Landells, who insists a good lawyer must ‘guide you through each step and to ensure that you fully understand what all of the legal documentation, processes and terminology means. Consider their advice carefully, and challenge it if necessary. It is also important that both sides have relatively balanced representation.’
Landells calls the new governmental legislation a ‘major step’ towards the removal of ‘fault and blame’ from the process, which is where bad feelings, stress and anger are often harboured. ‘Hostile petitions have historically wasted lots of time and generated continuing ill-feeling,’ she adds.
When past the arduous legalities, some choose to lighten the mood dramatically, by throwing a divorce party. (You read that right). Of course, many don’t: but the idea that individuals are choosing to celebrate their divorces is an interesting comment on a wider trend for a much healthier approach to separation.
‘They may not be everyone’s cup of tea, however for some people they’re exactly what’s needed to draw a line under a very difficult experience, and to remind them how to have fun again. Life does go on!’ says the website of party planners Orchid City & Spa, who offer bespoke divorce parties for the ‘lots of women’ they say are choosing divorce parties. Similarly, the website Party Packs, which sends party goods to private addresses, have their own whole page devoted to divorce parties. In the centre of the page in large colourful writing reads: ‘I do, I did… I’m done!’
The government’s new legislation will speed up the divorce process for those who genuinely need it sped up. It is responding to a wider cultural one about more compassionate, open-minded conversations in difficult times: divorce parties earmark a new beginning.