Untangling marriage

After all the moral handwringing, divorce will be a different affair now the Commons has passed the Family Law Bill. Patricia Wynn Davies talks to a couple who have tried the changes Parliament thinks will help troubled relationships
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Jeremy and Helen really tried to save their marriage. It was not the snap, throwaway decision that many imagine divorce involves. It was a slow, painstaking and painful process that took years, not weeks or months.

They have been through all the processes that Lord Mackay's Family Law Bill advocates for many thousands of others contemplating a break-up. They had marriage guidance counselling, plenty of it, they went through mediation, they came to grief at the hands of lawyers, they emerged at the end with a fierce resolve to do no more damage to their children. The story of Helen and Jeremy spotlights the reality of what future divorcing couples might face.

"We had a lot of marriage guidance counselling," says Helen. "We had exhausted all the avenues." Eventually, after 15 years of marriage, they reached a joint decision that it had, to quote the existing law and the new, irretrievably broken down.

"It wasn't as though we were constantly fighting," said Jeremy. "We decided together `We can't make it work now.' "

They had been to Relate and gone through a series of counselling sessions. There is a three-month "quarantine" period in the Bill in which couples can explore counselling but must desist from getting on with anything else to do with the divorce - the next best thing to being given compulsorily marriage guidance. But, as this couple's experience shows, many people have already explored the marriage guidance avenue long before they seek a divorce. Thus, say some critics, the three-month "stand-off" period may prove to be counter-productive, perhaps even damaging to families where children desperately need a new settled way of life.

Jeremy and Helen, who had tried counselling at a much earlier stage in their marriage, are proof that some couples do try very hard to save their marriages. But trying to become reconciled is as much as can be expected, and no amount of protracted discussion by policy-makers, still less party politicians, will ever alter that.

In Helen and Jeremy's case, nobody else was involved. The root of the problem lay in a lack of communication, exacerbated by Jeremy's refusal to go back to a full-time salaried job in medicine. After a business venture failed, leaving the family with huge debts, he combined work as a locum with a consultancy for international companies.

"We never learnt to communicate through disagreement," he says now.

Their decision finally to split up had been gestating over a period of years - not at the breakneck speed some MPs appear to consider is the norm - but none the less they ended up getting a divorce on the grounds of unreasonable behaviour. They got their decree absolute a few days ago.

They had begun by consulting a lawyer friend, who advised them that this was the quickest way to bring about a conclusion to a long-drawn-out and painful process. Under the existing law, the alternative would have been to separate for two years. Under the new Bill, because their children are under 16, they would have to wait 18 months: three months for "reconciliation" and a further 15-month period of "reflection and consideration".

Their decision, once it had been reached, to get it over with is the sort of experience that has prompted some family lawyers to warn that the 18-month cooling off period required by the Bill could have the opposite effect to the one intended, with people jumping on to the counselling- waiting-mediating-divorce rollercoaster at an earlier stage than they might otherwise have done.

As it was, someone had to present the petition, which Helen duly compiled through the lawyer. "I would rather not have had to apportion blame. It is a sordid business. And when you list the items, they sound incredibly petty. There is no way that anybody from outside can judge."

The lawyer friend, she adds, had emphasised that it was, frankly, irrelevant whether the finger of blame was pointed at her or at Jeremy. "I glanced at the petition once," says Jeremy. There was never any question of a counter-claim of competing allegations. That this fiction is now to be removed from the law - by the introduction of "no fault divorce" - was and remains, despite the political machinations, a fundamental plank of the Bill.

The more pressing question is none the less whether the Bill can live up to claims that the mediation (resolution through a trained third party) of disputes, rather than resorting to an acrimonious exchange of solicitors' letters and, worse, court hearings and court orders, will convert some of the hostility and bitterness into constructive discussion about the future.

There is no compulsion as such to use mediation, although a growing number of couples are doing so even under existing law. Mediation might also persuade a few more couples to stick together, and it does help to prevent divorce being so acrimonious.

Nobody, however, should imagine that the process can somehow be anxiety- free. Jeremy and Helen had been to marriage guidance, but all the old feelings of sadness and disappointment still came flooding back. Helen recalls feeling emotionally overwhelmed on their first meeting with a mediator. "It was because of the recognition that things had broken down irretrievably," she says. But she feels mediation - the couple had a series of sessions while they were still living together in the same house - was the key to handling the really difficult issues, such as telling the children, who are now aged nine and seven.

"We did not have very many friends who were divorced. We had nobody to turn to for advice on how to say these things. While mediators do not tell you how to do it, it did give us the confidence to know what we were going to say."

The floods of tears from the children duly came, and Samuel, their seven- year-old, would still like Jeremy and Helen to live in separate flats, "one for mummy and one for daddy, one above the other".

While stable at the moment, the family's emotional future is unknowable. But Jeremy and Helen at least had no difficulty in reaching agreement about caring for the children. Helen, a junior school teacher, has primary care. The children stay with Jeremy one night a week and on alternate weekends, while their parents babysit for each other on evenings out.

"Helen would like me to see more of them. But we consult our diaries at the beginning of each month and try to work it out," says Jeremy, as he gives the children their Sunday morning breakfast.

Equally, no one should imagine that nothing will go wrong. Arguments about money and property are just as emotionally charged as arguments about children. The Bill also insists that a divorce can be withheld if "arrangements for the future" have not been made, opening the way for recalcitrant spouses - a few anyway - to make an unreasonable package of demands the price of a divorce.

For Jeremy, the business of sorting out the finances took a turn for the worse when solicitors became involved.The hostility and distrust that he felt they had managed to keep under control was reintroduced.

He feels the outline agreement that had been reached during mediation was unstitched in the nine months after Helen sought legal advice. The issue was the familiar one of the extent of Jeremy's earnings as a self- employed person. Helen concedes that it is this episode that has left Jeremy feeling particularly raw."I know he feels a great deal more negative about that than I do," she says.

For her part, she was grappling with the dilemma of signing an agreement at a time when trust and respect had gone. But, she emphasises: "The mediators were very clear that I needed to seek legal advice because it wasn't straightforward."

Jeremy believes that she saw a solicitor too soon. While the mediation sessions came to pounds 500, he spent a further pounds 1,500 in solicitors' fees.

Eventually, the "clean break" was achieved - Helen got the house and maintenance for the children and no further call on Jeremy's assets for herself. They are resolved to avoid unhappiness for their children at all costs. But the tussle over the financial settlement left Jeremy soured. "The family is several thousand pounds the poorer," he says.

The Bill is in a sense unique in the way that it promotes the institution of marriage while also trying to make the best fist it can of divorce. So do Helen and Jeremy, at the end of a lengthy period of counselling, mediation and then divorce, still, as Lord Mackay would like, believe in marriage?

Neither seems in any doubt about still supporting marriage and both, cautiously, hope to marry again - but better prepared than last time, when they were 23 and 24. They are older and wiser.

Says Helen: "I am still convinced that marriage is a worthwhile thing. There are couples who are happier together in 15 or 18 years than when they first married. I was very happy within my parents' marriage. For me it is still an ideal. There needs to be more help before marriage. Lack of communication was our big problem. I think we had very high expectations of one another."

Helen and Jeremy are a couple who tried hard, a million miles removed from the divorce-at-will stereotype protrayed by so many MPs, some of them divorcees, during the passage of the Bill. The new legislation has taken no chances by ensuring that most divorces will take longer to accomplish and that it will be much more difficult to embark on a second marriage without dealing properly with the aftermath of the first.

There will be lots more information (information sessions are the only mandatory aspect) and much more forceful reminders of parents' responsibilities for the welfare and feelings of their children, perhaps a lot more counselling and probably a lot more mediation, with often good and sometimes not so good results.

But when breakdown comes for the many who are just like Jeremy and Helen, to dispute whether the new law makes divorce "harder" or "easier" is to miss the point. The truth is that ending a marriage is difficult and daunting, not neat and tidy and mechanistic. The Bill has pitfalls, but at least the law has matured enough to reconcile a belief in marriage with today's social realities.

Some of the names in this article have been changed.