Yasmin Alibhai-Brown: Don't make light of the pain of divorce

The grim truth is that the end of a relationship leaves a permanent bruise
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The Independent Online

Suzy Miller is forward-looking and entrepreneurial – a kite airborne and swirling, lifted by positive energy. I hope never to meet her for I would, I fear, cut the string just to see her fall down to earth. She has done me no personal wrong and is probably a fine lady. What I detest is her business idea.

This divorcee turned entrepreneur has just launched a Starting Over Show (SOS) for men and women going through separation and divorce. During recessions, family breakdowns accelerate. Bust time for many means boom time for some. Never mind extravagant weddings, more serious money is available to those who can promise the "perfect" divorce.

SOS showcases mellifluous lawyers and friendly financial advisers, irrepressible doctors to mend broken hearts, life coaches (of course), astrologers, holiday companies, party planners, yes party planners!!! and probably tailor-made exercise regimes and hair salons. Why not?

When they split up after a long relationships women usually want a new body and a smart, fuck-you haircut. Plastic surgeons should set up stalls and cosmetic firms too, if they haven't already. Producers of porn, fast cars and motorbikes would do well here so too Eastern European and other lovelies seeking disappointed men. Ms Miller says chirpily that divorce should be "a new beginning, and an opportunity to grow and change". Those pictures of Guy Ritchie and Nicole Kidman allegedly joyously waving goodbye to their vows have encouraged the foolish beliefs now touted by Miller.

The grim truth is that the end of a relationship leaves a permanent bruise, a stain, a wound, feelings of failure and a collapse of optimism. Even when there is no other option. The most rancorous and mutually damaging partners and those who happily agree to part know that parting is, at best, sweet sorrow. Therapists and psychiatrists understand that the severance of a committed partnership disrupts something deep in the psyche, that emotional attachment which anchors us from infancy. Some say, and I agree, that the grief is as bad as bereavement – only divorce is not something beyond human control. The people who make decisions to leave marriages use free will to make or break their families. And around the world today, that decision is taken by more people than ever before.

The US still has the highest number of broken families in the world though Hollywood keeps turning out upbeat and unreal romcoms to delude the people, to mask the facts. Kramer vs Kramer was the last film I can recall that dealt with the awful reality of separation. Other nations and nationals buy into other myths – for example, that divorce is an Anglo-Saxon disease. Well, Kuwait has the second highest numbers of divorce per capita after the US. And in Poland divorce rates have doubled in the last seven years, partly as a result of migration.

In the UK divorce rates are still alarmingly high, though figures show there was a fall between 2004 and 2008. The number of lone parents should cause concern as we know that poverty blights the life chances of both adults and children in these families. (They will not be sampling the delights on offer at SOS for sure). Among all ethnic groups in the UK, an unprecedented number of individuals are ending their marriages.

I was with a group of Somali women recently. Of the 21 in the room only two were still with their husbands. It was liberating, they told me. Yes and no, I said. The memories of my own divorce nearly 20 years ago have taught me caution. Was it the best thing that could have happened to me or my son? We survived and thrive, and I'm happily remarried. We showed him who left so carelessly one day. But I would not wish it on others. And do wish such decisions were not taken lightly.

In my recently published memoir, The Settler's Cookbook, I look back at my young life when there was no word for divorce in our languages. They used the English word and pronounced it "die-worse" – apt perhaps. If couples were falling apart in my Shia Muslim congregation, the Marriage and Morality council came in to help and repair the bonds, mostly for the sake of the children. My parents stayed together for that reason alone. I wish they hadn't, that my mother had chosen to free herself from a hard life, but yet deep down am glad she stuck with Papa and us.

Children can suffer the consequences forever and yet are the last to be considered or consulted by their parents. In A Good Childhood (Penguin, 2009), a flawed yet vital study commissioned by the Children's Society, Economics professor Richard Layard and Judy Dunn, Professor of developmental psychology, conclude: "Parental conflict and separation can have a disastrous effect on children, even though some children survive unscathed."

I know a woman who went through a divorce at the same time as I did. Only she couldn't wait for the clean break and was good mates with her ex. They just thought it was best for them to go their separate ways, carry on being good mates, and share equally in the upbringing of their children. I envied them, their lack of emotional turmoil and dark thoughts.

For a while it did go fine. They exchanged kids at the door happily, spent Christmas together, with new partners and step-siblings, a thoroughly modern family. Then it all fell apart. One girl left home and school at 16 and moved in with an abusive older chap. The second daughter had a breakdown in her second year at university. Suddenly it doesn't seem all that easy or painless.

I am not being judgmental, and completely accept the right of people to leave relationships. There are too many people who feel they have to stay with violent and destructive partners. But breaking up is hard to do. Divorce celebrators only make it harder for those of us who have felt the pain of separation. So no thank you Ms Miller. Your fun fest is an affront, though I imagine plenty of credulous divorcees will come along and make you rich.