In defence of civil divorce

What could be more miserable than an acrimonious marriage?

THIS WEEK we heard the doom-laden news that divorce was a terrible threat to children. Couples, according to Tory leader William Hague, should stay together. Divorce is altogether too easy, and marriage really is the ideal.

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.

Arts and Entertainment

Filming to begin on two new series due to be aired on Dave from next year

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Kit Harington plays MI5 agent Will Holloway in Spooks: The Greater Good

'You can't count on anyone making it out alive'film
Arts and Entertainment
War veteran and father of Peter and Laust Thoger Jensen played by Lars Mikkelson

TVBBC hopes latest Danish import will spell success

Arts and Entertainment
Carey Mulligan in Far From The Madding Crowd
FilmCarey Mulligan’s Bathsheba would fit in better in The Hunger Games
Arts and Entertainment
Pandas-on-heat: Mary Ramsden's contribution is intended to evoke the compound the beasts smear around their habitat
Iart'm Here But You've Gone exhibition has invited artists to produce perfumes
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
    Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

    The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

    A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
    'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

    Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

    Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

    The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
    Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

    Vince Cable exclusive interview

    Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
    Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

    Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

    Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
    Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

    Everyone is talking about The Trews

    Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
    Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

    It's time for my close-up

    Meet the man who films great whites for a living
    Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

    Homeless people keep mobile phones

    A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before
    'Queer saint' Peter Watson left his mark on British culture by bankrolling artworld giants

    'Queer saint' who bankrolled artworld giants

    British culture owes a huge debt to Peter Watson, says Michael Prodger
    Pushkin Prizes: Unusual exchange programme aims to bring countries together through culture

    Pushkin Prizes brings countries together

    Ten Scottish schoolchildren and their Russian peers attended a creative writing workshop in the Highlands this week
    14 best kids' hoodies

    14 best kids' hoodies

    Don't get caught out by that wind on the beach. Zip them up in a lightweight top to see them through summer to autumn
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The acceptable face of the Emirates

    The acceptable face of the Emirates

    Has Abu Dhabi found a way to blend petrodollars with principles, asks Robert Fisk