how to have a better divorce

If you can't make a success of marriage (even with the aid of our special report last week), then you'll be relieved to know that breaking up can be a 'growth opportunity' - at least, that's what the experts think. Angela Neustatter reports

Divorce can never be a happy experience, but you can have a better or a worse divorce. So says solicitor Roger Bamber, who has just co-written a book on the subject. But the "successful" divorce, he says, needs to be carefully planned, just as we would plan any other major event in our lives.

Divorce in Britain has reached a critical level. The writer Pat Conroy talked of each divorce as "the death of a small civilisation", but today's figures make it seem more like the death of a large civilisation. The UK has the highest divorce rate in Europe and the latest figures from the Office for Population Censuses and Surveys suggest that just over four in 10 marriages are likely to end in divorce: more than 300,000 adults and 150,000 children are affected each year. Whether you think this is due to the pressures of the times making it harder for marriages to survive, or to the feckless inability of contemporary generations to muster a bit of sticking power, the fact is that marriages are breaking down after a shorter amount of time. Eight years is the average time that a couple, who will go on to divorce, remains married.

The controversy surrounding Lord Mackay's Family Law Bill, with its proposals for reform, has demonstrated how difficult it is to create a way of divorce that is universally acceptable. But divorce is here to stay, and we need to find the best way of dealing with it. Conciliation and damage limitation are now the buzz-words among the professionals. This is a very different approach from the traditional adversarial one where, as one family lawyer puts it: "Solicitors take on the role of a wrestling coach and encourage couples to slug out their differences in the court. The financial and emotional price for the partners is high and can leave a legacy of bitterness." The new view is that, for many couples, the longer they can hold back before plunging into the legal process, the better.

THE BETTER OR WORSE DIVORCE

The way in which a marriage ends - whether there is blame, deep hurt, whether one partner is being pushed to divorce against their will, whether there are children involved - will all affect how people behave when they decide to separate. More often than not, the first instinct is to conduct all-out war. Judith Wallenstein, who has conducted a 15-year study of the impact of divorce in America, describes the feelings involved as "the opposite of falling in love... divorce unleashes our most primitive and most profound human passions - love, hate and jealousy". In this minefield, the experts universally counsel enormous caution.

Jacqueline Burgoyne and the co-authors of Divorce Matters (Pelican) urge us to try to find a way to make decisions together and to hold back from saying the most wounding things we can. Rowing in front of children is to be avoided. Parents should try to tell them together what is happening, how it will affect them, and to reassure them that they will still have a loving mum and dad in spite of the changing circumstances. Doing these things will not get rid of the anguish involved in ending a marriage, but effort made at this stage makes a huge difference to the future.

"People decide to divorce because they are unhappy and they think, 'If I divorce then I will be happy,' '' says Roger Bamber, whose forthcoming book The Family Through Divorce (Thorsons) is designed to guide couples along the least destructive route. "What they don't see is that they are changing one set of problems for another. But most people go into it unprepared, with no idea what the outcome will be."

Better divorce, he claims, is more likely to be achieved if people give themselves time to work through some of their feelings, and make clear plans before going further. "I start from the position that a couple will do better if they don't see their marriage as a lost investment, but something which has had its time and which is similar to a bereavement," he says. "It requires a time of grieving, with a beginning, a middle and an end." But to enable this to happen, he says, there needs to be a big cultural change, so that the solicitor is not the first port of call. Or, if he or she is, it should be to check out the legal situation, not to embark immediately on the divorce petition.

The first step in Bamber's scheme of things is to see "somebody not emotionally involved who will listen to the husband's or wife's story, and help them to talk it through". He recommends a counsellor, but a friend or colleague who can offer support rather than involvement would do too. Mediation for the couple together is a useful next stage so they can sort out arrangements for children, and over property and finance. The solicitor is then there to help with whatever legal dealings are necessary.

Bamber is always pleased when couples reach "a fair and sensible resolution" without litigation. He adds: "It has been shown very clearly that if a couple can talk at the beginning of the process it is the best marker for the future."

STATE-OF-THE-ART DIVORCE

A clutch of supportive professionals who can all help in different ways sounds fine in theory, but couples in distress may not have the emotional resources to find them. It is with this in mind that moreservices are being set up which bring together all the different forms of expertise involved. A much-praised model for this state-of-the-art divorce is the Cambridge Family and Divorce Centre, where the menu of services on offer includes counselling for children and adults, parent support and local referrals to marital counselling, legal advice and the Welfare Benefit Agency, which, according to the director, Celia Dickinson, has been described as "the Swiss Army Knife of the divorce business because we have so many bits". The Centre, which attracts a high percentage of self-referring clients, was set up because: "People feel as though they are on the edge of new territory without a map. Our idea was to fill in a route for them which would lead them to whatever services they need. "

MEDIATION

Mediation has been hotly debated since Lord Mackay recommended that couples should try this before petitioning for divorce. In fact it started in the 1970s, primarily to bring couples together under the guidance of an impartial third party, so that they could work out arrangements for their children.

Thelma Fisher, director of the National Family Mediation, which now has 60 centres around the country, explains: "People want to do the best they can for their children and to maintain their relationships with them. But they often find it impossible to sit down sensibly and discuss this when they are very angry and upset with each other. In mediation each gets the opportunity to speak and the mediator will not allow them to have rows."

There is evidence that mediation works in many cases. Research conducted by the Relate Centre for Family Studies at Newcastle University two years ago came up with results so positive that the Centre recommended mediation be used on all issues. Couples reported reaching agreed decisions, improving communication and finding a way to go on being joint parents. Many said it helped them to "find peace of mind".

CHILDREN

A major study by Dr Kathleen Kiernan into the effects of divorce on 11,000 children for the National Child Development Study showed that divorce always has some impact. But it is also clear that if parents can be calm and reasonable when they meet, if visiting arrangements go smoothly and the child is helped to maintain a good relationship with the absent parent, the pain and damage can be minimised.

Children frequently "tell" their distress with symptoms and behaviour. In small children this may be difficulty in falling asleep or sleeping through the night, and they may be very frightened when a parent goes away. Older children can have difficulty concentrating at school, they may become aggressive, or withdrawn and depressed.

It can be difficult being a good parent at such a stressful time, says Rosemary Stones. Her book, It's Not Your Fault (Piccadilly), was written to help children make sense of what is going on. Parents reading the interviews could get valuable insights themselves.

Katherine Gieve, a family law solicitor, says: "It is important to have channels of communication open so that children can say what they want, and it may be valuable to let them feel they have some say in what goes on. But they shouldn't be given too much responsibility or be allowed to manipulate big decisions. What they need is to feel secure, which means feeling the parents have worked things out and are united in their decision."

The divorcing couple may want as little to do with each other as possible afterwards. But, says Bamber: "If they can keep relations strong between children and their grandparents and other close relatives or friends, it can make the difference between them losing a whole way of life and just a parent. The grief of losing loved grandparents can be one thing too many."

Divorce is never going to be painless or easy. But it's not all bad news. Wallenstein says her research demonstrates that, even after everything they go through, many husbands and wives do succeed in using this life crisis as an opportunity for growth and a new beginning.

With a bit of help, many couples can find themselves achieving the "better divorce" - or at least a well-managed one.

Solicitors Family Law Association can advise on services mentioned in this article. Contact Mary I'Anson, Permanent Secretary, SFLA, 24 Croydon Road, Keston, Kent (tel: 01689 850227)

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