Focus: Divorce - how to survive and start again

Breaking up costs money and hurts like mad, even after the lawyers have been paid, the house sold and the CDs shared, says Mike Bygrave. So how can some people say it's the best thing they ever did?
Click to follow
The Independent Online

You're miserable. You're trapped in a loveless marriage. But getting out of it will cost a fortune, if the most-publicised divorce cases are anything to go by.

You're miserable. You're trapped in a loveless marriage. But getting out of it will cost a fortune, if the most-publicised divorce cases are anything to go by.

You might end up having to flog the family silver like Mark Dixon, who made a fortune from office rentals then announced last week that he was selling £28.7m-worth of his shares to pay the costs of divorcing his wife. Mind you, that is still less than the £40m that divorce cost Stephen Marks, founder of the fashion chain French Connection.

Lawyers don't come cheap, of course. The celebrity divorce lawyer Raymond Tooth, 64, whose clients have included Sadie Frost, Patti Boyd and Mrs Michael Barrymore, was found by a court last week to have overcharged non-celebrity Olga Spasic by £12,000. Mr Tooth, who owns racehorses and once said "no sane wealthy man should get married at all", described Ms Spasic as "her own worst enemy".

And the consequences of divorce can even last beyond the grave. The Appeal Court has just handed back a £7 million inheritance to a second wife who was branded a "witch" and a "Hitler" in a court battle with her stepchildren. Yvonne Sherrington had only been married to a wealthy, divorced north London solicitor for two years when he died in a car crash, leaving his fortune to her in a disputed will.

Such stories make you wonder how anyone survives divorce, or why 166,000 couples put themselves through it every year. According to lawyer Elizabeth Muirhead, "the publicity surrounding divorce is so negative because the ones that go swimmingly don't tell the tale. It depends on your practice, but 75 per cent of my cases settle amicably."

The system itself has grown fairer, lately. Courts now start by presuming that everything will be split 50-50, unless adjustments need to be made. But many questions remain, says Beverley Morris of Birmingham's Divorce and Family Law Practice. "Should we approach income the same way we do capital? What do we do about share options? We're seeing the use of offshore trusts and employee benefit schemes to divert wealth. Husbands are very nervous of the new climate of equality. It's become a question of finding the money."

Complex financial issues mean more fees for lawyers. No wonder people are put off, says family lawyer James Pirrie. "Most of my clients hate lawyers and most of them are terrified of the process."

The Government is trying to push couples towards money-saving mediation. The process of divorce has been simplified to three stages with full financial disclosure up front (on the dreaded Form E) and pauses for negotiation and settlement.

Compromise works in theory but not reality, says James Pirrie. Getting divorced does mean talking to and working with your ex, and people find that very hard. If people could compromise they might not be getting divorced. "When we've been dumped by our partners we don't feel like behaving like adults. As lawyers we pretend we settle most of our cases, but they're shotgun settlements."

Mr Pirie is working to introduce "collaborative law" to the UK, an American system which binds the couple and their lawyers to working out a settlement. In Cambridge, where enough lawyers have trained in the new system, Pirie says the result is "a transformation".

"I try terribly hard not to have people go to court," says London lawyer Rosemary Hudson. "That said, some of the big firms are pretty litigious. If you hire one of those, what do you expect?" As for mediation, she says: "Most of my clients go for one session then walk out because they think they're going to be bullied or intimidated by the other party."

Making a marriage work takes two people. Getting through a divorce unscathed also takes two people. The bad news is that they are the same people - and the more you rely on the law, the more expensive it will be.

Sandra Marston, who has been married and divorced twice but has now lived in unmarried bliss with her current partner for 14 years, says that if you can bear to talk to each other then divorce can work and still be a positive experience in the end. "I'd say to anyone facing a divorce, you're starting out on a long and, for some people, difficult journey. But it's not a journey to the end of the world: it's a journey to a new beginning."

'I realised bitterness was not going to help me go forward'

Ann Williamson, 57, is a counsellor in Doncaster. She has been divorced for three years.

Our children were grown up when we divorced. I was always confident professionally, but when my husband started an affair with a close friend of mine, I lost all self-esteem and self-confidence. His said he paid the mortgage so should be free to do as he wanted.

The divorce was difficult. We lived in the same house for 18 months. He wouldn't get a solicitor but kept trying to go through mine, which meant it went on my bill. I worked three jobs, night and day, to pay for it. I was absolutely on my knees.

I must admit there was one night I hit him. If there had been a knife, I would have used it and answered to any court. There was huge rage, but that night was my turning point.

I did become quite ill after it was all settled and took a few weeks off to take stock. Then I thought, bitterness is not going to help me go forward. Concentrating on my work has rebuilt my self-esteem. It's really important to have some goal, not just to drift.

I don't think I'll remarry. I don't want to go back to that place of doing for someone else. It might be different next time, but I don't think the confidence is there yet.

'I was sleepwalking through life before all this happened'

Francine Kaye, 46, from Stanmore, Middlesex, is a divorcee and relationship coach.

I'd been married for l5 years when I was confronted with the affair my husband had been having with a close friend of ours. I had two small children of five and eight, had not worked for years and was totally dependent on my husband. I had no money of my own. I got a lawyer and secured the home for myself and the children, but because my husband had financial difficulties, I had to find a job straight away. My ex gave me money for the children, but I continued to feel controlled financially.

I knew I had to rebuild my life but the fear of how this would happen was overwhelming. I remember feeling so solid with pain that it was virtually impossible to move. I began to realise that I'd lived unconsciously for l5 years: I'd loved being a stay-at-home mum, living according to my husband's values instead of my own. Divorce was my wake-up call.

Itrained as a divorce counsellor ( www.fionaharrold.com), and began to rediscover myself. I've been told that I am now virtually unrecognisable to the person I was. I have designed my life how I want it. I have a committed, long-term, live-apart relationship. Looking back, I was sleepwalking before all this happened. I've refound myself, I love my life now thanks to the divorce.

'Without the divorce I wouldn't appreciate what I have got now'

Sonia Badland, 37, is a mother and former accountant from Bicester, Oxfordshire. Her first marriage lasted just two years.

I believed it would last forever. When I found out he was seeing someone else I felt completely shattered, hurt, stupid, and angry that some of our friends had known.

We had to live in the same house for about three months while we sorted out the mortgage. The hardest thing was when he brought back his new girlfriend one night, and asked if I minded if she stayed the night. I did.

I started drinking too much. I was sure I'd never trust anyone again. Eventually, I got to the stage where I hated David for what he'd done and I wanted to move on. We got a solicitor and divorced on the grounds of his unreasonable behaviour. Splitting up our possessions was quite simple until it came down to the silly little things. I remember arguing over who'd played which CDs the most.

After we sold the house, I moved back with my mum and dad for a few months. That's when the healing process started, but I don't think I really got over the divorce until I met Steve, 18 months later. I was very bitter before, but he took that away.

We have a two-year-old daughter, and got married last year, and for me, this is as good as it gets. Perhaps if I hadn't been through the divorce, I wouldn't appreciate what I have now. I've actually been told I'm a nicer person for it.

'It was the start of things'

Peter Allen, 57, from Basingstoke, is a financial business reviewer.

I was shocked when my wife asked for a divorce. She said: 'Things aren't working and I want you to leave.' I moved into a one-bed flat. It was lonely.

The divorce became bitter. Some things lawyers persuade couples to do can be very unhelpful, like bringing up the behaviour of your ex. I can now see the anger in my own correspondence. We never argued over contact with our children, but we had differences over financial needs. I ended up paying the old mortgage, the new mortgage and child support. It was difficult.

I met Denise two years later through Divorce Recovery Workshop. It was euphoric being in love again. We were married seven years ago. Communication is so much better this time around: we both know what a bad marriage is like. It took the shock of divorce to look at things afresh. There's been a lot of pain, but in some ways, it was the start of things for me.

'I had to go through this to become happy'

Anil Tandon, 40, is a dentist in Birmingham. His divorce came through three weeks ago.

I'm Indian and my wife is Jewish. She helped me build the business. She was the practice manager. It was really the stresses of life that broke us apart. People change.

The major breadwinner, whether male or female, is persecuted when it comes to divorce. Sure, the woman does school runs and things like that for the children, but when the man comes home, he's got to provide an equal input, in emotional support, in taking care of the child, and that's not recognised by the courts. They split the assets 50-50 or 60-40 if there's a child, and don't take into account his double input.

We have a son, aged five, who lives with his mother. I fought for joint residence and lost. As a father, you don't stand a chance of getting an order in your favour. It was a bitterly contested divorce. My lawyers were brilliant but I paid a fortune in legal fees, partly because neither my wife nor I provided information on time. Personally, I feel I had to go through this to become a happy person even though now I have to earn £50,000 a year before I can even think about myself.