In defence of civil divorce
What could be more miserable than an acrimonious marriage?
Friday 19 March 1999
Coming from a family of three generations of official marital breakdown (grandparents, parents, aunts and uncles and my sister and I have all been divorced), I have to protest against the notion that divorce is the greatest social problem faced by our children. That dubious prize must go to parental unhappiness in all its forms. We all know about the emotional pain of divorce, the loss of hope for the parents and the confusion for the children, because it is a public admission of failure that the morally smug can point the finger at. But what of the kind of insidious acrimony that is buried deep within the stay-together-for-the-sake-of-the-children families?
There are no statistics, reports or surveys on the pervasive long-term effect on children of terminally unhappy parents, because it is impossible to gauge. How can you judge the disadvantages of a particular marriage? It is much easier to judge the general disadvantage of divorce.
In his family law policy, Lord Irvine of Lairg seeks to offer counselling to married couples, and the Government pledges to spend pounds 3m on grants to marriage support and research agencies. Although Lord Irvine realises that divorce is never an easy option, he also seems to understand that some marital problems are insurmountable. Sensibly, he wants couples to turn to mediation as a much healthier and cheaper option then litigation: "Scoring points off each other and paying lawyers to do it comes out of money that should go towards building new lives and the lives of children."
His policy seems to recognise that people will still split up and that no amount of disapproval from the long-term married is going to change that. What is important is not to concentrate on making divorcing couples feel like bad parents, but to help them make arrangements that will allow them to be good parents despite the circumstances.
And it is possible. Katey Robertson has a son and a daughter aged four and seven. She split up with her husband a couple of years ago because she found it impossible to live with his temper, heavy drinking and his willingness to leave all of the caring of the children to her. "I was utterly miserable and he hated living with me, but as a couple living apart we are doing really well.
"My leaving gave my ex-husband a real shock as far as the children are concerned. He sobered up and realised how much he has missed out. He takes them every weekend and picks them up from school and brings them home a couple of times a week. He now has the experience of being responsible for the children over quite long periods of time.
"We go to all parents' evenings and school events together and I know the children are secure in the fact that we are utterly committed to them. His involvement is far more regular and organised and I am much happier because I no longer feel like a doormat."
I would argue that civilised splits, which have the uncanny knack of making the parents concentrate their efforts on the welfare of their children, are actually less rare than one thinks. As the terrifyingly perfect Penelope Leach says: "Nobody would bring a child into the world intending to face him with such disruption but, if you do not have the power to prevent it, you do have the power to see him through it, so don't waste unnecessary energy on feeling that you have failed him. You will only have done so if, between you, he loses out on love."
My vast family of step-sisters, half-brothers, step-step-aunts and adopted cousins is probably as far removed from the "Janet and John" ideal of the small unbroken family unit as you can get. My Gran (who may well have started the whole thing off by leaving my grandfather in the Forties) looks around in amazement at family gatherings and says: "My family is the most extraordinary mix of race, religion and class that I have ever seen."
Part of her loves to rebel against the claustrophobic social mores of her family, who no doubt disapproved when she fell in love with another man all that time ago. She is best friends with her ex-daughter-in-law, as well as being a source of love and support not only to her own grandchildren, but to her stepdaughter's daughter, her stepson's son and her stepson's adopted son's ex-wife - to name but a few. It is a messy tribe. Within our family there is a lot of evidence that within marriage (sorry, Gran) shit happens.
Having said all this, the state of marriage remains an ideal. My parents both remarried very happily and last year I married a man who is also a product of two generations of divorce. When the best man - my new brother- in-law (himself recently divorced) - got up to make a speech, he looked around at the guests, and instead of muttering something about hope over experience, sighed and opened his speech with: "Did you know that 10 out of 10 divorces start with marriage?" Quite.
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