For richer and richer

Modern marriage is supposed to be a match of equals, so how come rich wives are scheming to take the money and run? By Hettie Judah

IN THE world of increasingly equal opportunities, if you want to have a really spectacular divorce you're still better off going to Belgravia. The super-rich bitches' fascination with the marital departure lounge is hardly surprising, given that it is a drama almost totally concerned with the one thing that gives them identity and importance: c-a-s-h.

This month Harpers & Queen, the parish magazine for the Knightsbridge set, has published a set of instructions lovingly detailing how the adoring spouse can best prepare to screw her husband for every penny he has, should he ever stray from the leash. Suggestions provided by a top divorce lawyer include:

1. Live as expensively as possible; your settlement will depend on the standard of life to which you have become accustomed.

2. Photocopy any document you can get your hands on, particularly if it is of tax interest.

3. Track his movements next time you visit Geneva; knowing the banks he visits will help you track down his assets later on.

4. Consider "forum shopping", basing yourself in a country whose legal system is sympathetic to the kind of settlement you hope to win.

5. Coerce your husband into giving you a lump sum, which you can then set aside, the better to fund your divorce later if you have no independent assets with which to hire a legal Rottweiler.

6. Hold a "beauty parade": set up a series of meetings with top divorce lawyers. Once you have paid for their time, confidentiality clauses will prevent them from being able to represent your spouse.

All charming stuff, particularly bearing in mind that this plan of action is to be set in motion before your husband has even started slavering over the hired help or entertaining your best friend to breakfast.

To illustrate the necessity of subterfuge, Harpers cites the example of Victoria, former wife of Earl Spencer, who is suing her previous legal firm for negligence. She is claiming that had she sued for divorce in England instead of Cape Town, she could have won a considerably larger settlement. Le beau monde is also shuddering at the ordeals of Jerry Hall, who approached her divorce so under-prepared that Mick Jagger even managed to cast doubt on whether they were married at all.

These two women are exceptional cases, both of whom suffered considerable psychological torment. It is all very well advising them after the act, but it is obvious that neither woman indulged in cynical subterfuge precisely because they were trying to make their marriages work, and they should be applauded for it, however ill-advised their actions may seem in retrospect.

Given the brevity of the marriage between Andre Agassi and Brooke Shields, even though the couple maintain that they are still good friends, it is not impossible that some form of prenuptial divorce preparation took place.

That Harpers & Queen magazine should consider printing such advice casts the role of modern marriage into confusion. The obeisance of Sophie Rhys- Jones aside, the whole Mr and Mrs game is now generally seen as a proper working partnership. Perhaps stimulated by the debate over the special financial needs of single mothers, attitudes toward old-fashioned gender roles have relaxed somewhat in the last few years, and now looking after children, running the home, and oiling the wheels of a spouse's career are again seen as an acceptable life choice for a wife or husband. And God forbid anyone who accuses you of not working.

But if marriage is to be conducted as a business partnership, it seems insane for one of the partners to be investing his or her energy in planning for its destruction. In the real business world it would be absolutely unacceptable to stitch someone up in this manner; not only does it indicate a terminal lack of trust in the partnership, but it is quite simply bad business practice. Nowhere, outside a marriage, will people take all the money and run from a partnership, knowing full well that that meant never being able to work - or, indeed, get married - again. Such behaviour is a throwback to the bad old world where girls didn't have the mouth, education or opportunity to earn themselves a living.

Their aptitude for the great divorce marks out the world of the super- rich as the last true repository of Stone Age gender stereotyping, whereby women will still go all out to separate a blonde-loving fool from his money as swiftly as possible, and where, accordingly, men still have cause to believe the worst kind of misogynistic stereotype, that of a lying, cheating wife who is after only one thing.

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