Carol Sarler: Just good friends – or just good actors?

The 'amicable' split to which Dawn French and Lenny Henry aspire is more common than we might imagine

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When we were told last week that Dawn French and Lenny Henry had separated, after more than 25 years of apparently exemplary marriage – bar, that is, what Dawn calls Lenny's one-night "blip" – the announcement came with what has become the standard addendum on these occasions: the parting, we were assured, was entirely amicable; they love each other very much; they remain the best of friends. To which the public response was also pretty much par for the course, as weary followers of such affairs muttered under a cynical breath, "Yeah, right."

It is, after all, barely a month since similar bestie-friends, nobody-else-involved sentiments clothed the formal separation of Kate Winslet and Sam Mendes – after which it took the usual suspects among the press exactly two days to "reveal" that Mr Mendes was "being comforted" in a friendship that it was intimated had been a thorn in Ms Winslet's side for a darn sight longer than 48 hours. Gotcha, Sam.

As collective wisdom has it, there is no such thing as a truly amicable divorce; nor can or should there be. Pretend all you will, prattle on about the sake of the children and keep up appearances till they shine. The greater truth, the sages agree, is that the death of a marriage brings with it something of the misery of any death: a sense of bereavement, of loss, denial, then despair – and that's before you count the extras: anger, jealousy, abandonment and a yearning for revenge. No wonder the pots and pans fly, with writs in hot pursuit.

It is hard, however, to consign French and Henry to an inevitable battle ground. First, because they have survived tribulation, not only from the public trappings of fame or the private woes of failed IVF, but from the added pressures of such unholy racism in the early days of their marriage – up to and including physical threat – that they were effectively driven from their London home. From this kind of shared experience comes more enduring bonds than most.

Second, their separation is happening at a time when a great many other couples are setting example by capably demonstrating a quiet but persistent revolution: in place of the presumption of hostility as the default position following the end of a marriage, there is a growing presumption that it need not necessarily be so.

Notably, there is the text-book conduct of the Duke of York and his ex-wife Sarah. In the 14 years since their divorce, they have taken holidays together with their daughters and routinely shared a family Sunday lunch; twice, when Sarah has found herself "between homes", she has accepted long-term lodging under Andrew's roof. Has one or the other – or both – smarted, especially when the ex-spouse is publicly involved with another? Not for us to know but, by golly, it is civilised.

Hardly less so was the divorce of Andrew and Camilla Parker Bowles; in spite of whatever humiliation he must have felt over her affair during their marriage, each still accepts invitations to the same events. By the same token, the Princess Royal and Mark Phillips share matters of children and horses much as they ever did.

When Kathryn Bigelow trounced her ex-husband, James Cameron, at the Oscars last month, he leapt to congratulate her. Through gritted teeth, you say? Maybe so. But she only made her film, The Hurt Locker, after seeking his advice on the script. To elect to spend millions of dollars and months of your life on a single project, courtesy of a thumbs-up from an ex, points to a good deal of continuing respect.

As for Chris Evans and Billie Piper, where to start? With no children together, the immutable warmth of their ex-ship nonetheless puts many on-going marriages to shame; Evans even hosted Piper's reception at her subsequent wedding to Laurence Fox. Word is, each plans to be god-parent to the other's babies by new spouses.

Meanwhile, Cameron Diaz and Justin Timberlake, four years after they parted, are filming together and getting along famously – in spite of his new partner. Last weekend, banking heir Matthew Mellon married his fiancée Nicole Hanley in a ceremony shared with only a handful of their closest friends – among them his ex, Jimmy Choo boss Tamara Mellon. And on Wednesday, our old friends Kate Winslet and Sam Mendes emerged into the morning sunshine, to share their children's school run.

All very well for the rich and famous? And anyway, as well as being "just good friends", perhaps they're just good actors? Yet the better-known have always set the pace, and even the smallest of straw polls around my own social circle spots a similar trend – like the couple who divorced five years ago but who used to enjoy an annual holiday built around staring at peculiarly eclectic artefacts. They still do. Or the gay couple who separated 20 years ago and are now with other partners – yet the wealthier of the two has recently proposed a wholly chaste civil partnership with his ex, the better to avoid inheritance tax on the money he wants to leave to his very best of friends.

Closer still to home, and beyond all else the reason I know it can work: my ex and I spent six months after our separation licking wounds, then reconvened as the greatest friends either of us would ever have again until, 25 years later, together with his then wife and daughter, I was with him when he died. Today, both women count among my dearest.

No doubt it would be too Pollyanna-like for words to suggest that, with a bit of gumption and a fair wind, all separation and divorce could be as sunny. There remains much to militate against the potential for happy outcome; it is a truism, for a start, that the legal system will tend to agitate – and, when parties are sufficiently well known or when settlements sufficiently spectacular, so will the accompanying headlines. Last week's court ruling, for instance, that QC David Vaughan should pay a lump sum of £215,000 to a woman from whom he was divorced 25 years ago, ranks up with Heather Mills McCartney's millions to reinforce the notion that "poor men" are perpetually fleeced by women.

More sombre, statistical headlines have the opposite effect: men, by and large, will be financially better off than women after a divorce; women who rely upon the ineffectual forces of the Child Support Agency will be left in penury, and so forth. Money may not be everything, but when all else is hurting anyway it is a powerful tool for continued aggrievance – and every divorce lawyer's better interest is served by his retainer being topped up for as long as possible. No wonder, then that few bar the bitter victorious have been left with affection for the labours of their legal representative.

Then there is the question of why the relationship ended. If one or other party has been, say, a violent, abusive bully, there can be no point in being nice about it. And there is the question of passion. If one has retained lust and the other become indifferent to physical charm, real friendship is an aching impossibility.

Nevertheless, among the 140,000 divorces in the UK each year – one of the highest rates in Europe, applying to almost half of all marriages and between them affecting 125,000 dependent children – there must be many that are not about the relative destitution of one partner or the other, that have not been brought about by extremes of ill behaviour and that do not wobble upon a mismatch of ardour. Personal experience and observation suggests, in fact, that given a secular tolerance of the breaking of vows, the most common cause of marital rot is, as a friend of French and Henry put it, "they feel perhaps more like old friends".

Other couples say, "like brother and sister"; others still have ruefully reflected that, with hindsight, they might have been better off remaining friends in the first place, without trying to make a marriage out of what never amounted to much more – or much less – than a deep, mutual fondness. And these are the divorces which are either leading the social revolution toward a grasp for post-marital harmony – or at least trying to lay down the weapons that have made divorce such a ghastly industry.

We have to wish them well, we really do. Not just for their sake or their children's – or for the sake of friends, finally relieved of the appalling duty to take sides – but because the old way was such a shocking waste. As agony aunt Virginia Ironside once said, with her usual perspicacity, not to stay friends with an ex is like enjoying a wonderful roast chicken then not making stock from the bones.

Quite so. And if I had to stake money on it, I would guess that Dawn French and Lenny Henry will become the latest among the couples who go on to make a damnably good bowl of soup.

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