A time for celebration, not misery

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The Independent Online
Afriend recently attended a rather grand wedding and remarked afterwards how much it had depressed her. Not that she envied the happy couple, but she is a lawyer and couldn't help thinking about the huge cost, not just of the lavish nuptials but of the divorce that may well follow. Separation and divorce are usually the last thing on anyone's mind during a wedding, but that is because there is an unspoken agreement to subscribe, for the day at least, to the happy-ever-after myth. When couples break up, and around four in 10 do, the split is often accompanied by ferocious disputes about who gets what, from the CD collection to wedding presents that neither partner ever liked much.

It is to address this problem that a couple of American academics have come up with a mathematical formula to divide property fairly when couples divorce. Instead of being based on how much objects are worth in cash, it requires each partner to assign points out of 100 to possessions such as houses and cars, reflecting their emotional value. The spouse who gives the highest number to an object gets to keep it, with an adjustment to ensure that each partner ends up with property worth the same overall total.

The system looks pretty good on paper. But, as any counsellor knows, battles over possessions are often an opportunity to take revenge for the hurts that accumulate as a marriage disintegrates. There is nothing to stop an aggrieved spouse consenting to the points system then deliberately assigning high totals to any object they know their former partner particularly values. The result could be accusations of bad faith, or an outcome in which people end up not with their most prized possessions but what they think their wives or husbands most wanted to keep.

What would help separating couples much more is a change in the way we view divorce. On a trip to Edinburgh, I passed a nightclub that advertised itself as a venue for private celebrations: birthdays, wedding receptions and divorce parties. Why not? I happened to be in Damascus when my divorce was granted and I celebrated by driving through the streets of the old city in a British embassy limo to a restaurant where I enjoyed dinner with friends. If I had been at home in England, in the house where I lived when my marriage ended, I might not have felt so sanguine. But, despite the sadness that attends any break-up, divorce also felt like a liberation.

Many people realise this later, when they look back on what has happened. But we have been brought up to regard divorce as an unmitigated disaster, not as a sensible way out when two adults realise they cannot live together any longer. This is, in part, because separation has social costs, which right-wing commentators never cease banging on about - and because so many divorces are initiated by women, representing a challenge to old ideas about male authority.

Governments are not keen on divorce either, which creates absurd anomalies. The Family Law Bill published in April 1996 was an attempt to simplify our divorce laws, yet it started with this little homily: "The institution of marriage should be supported. Where a marriage has broken down the married couple should be encouraged to take all practical steps to save the marriage."

What this means is that the state prefers private misery, which was the condition many couples endured during the 19th century, to adopting a neutral position on the way its citizens organise their emotional lives. This overt disapproval keeps unhappy couples together too long and creates rancour about decisions affecting property, children and pets. If we accepted that the pattern for most adults is several significant relationships over a lifetime, the prospect of breaking up would not seem anything like so catastrophic. Nor would we get into such heated disputes about who is going to keep the fish knives, the scratchy Deep Purple LPs or the Dalmatian.

THE National Theatre has just revived John Osborne's Look Back in Anger, brilliantly directed by Gregory Hersov. Watching it on Thursday evening, I was struck by how little the play is about politics, even though it was credited in 1956 with launching a generation of angry young men. The play's misogyny has always jumped off the page, but Michael Sheen's Jimmy Porter is consumed with an infantile rage for which class hatred is merely a pretext. I ended up sympathising with the "wrong" characters and couldn't help thinking that Osborne was lucky that the play was first produced when class was such a burning issue - or when so few critics knew anything about psychotherapy.

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