A bad divorce is not just ruinously expensive and stressful, research shows it is bad for the mental health of the adults and children involved.
We live in a society where we aspire to live well: parenting, career, marriage, friendships, self-care. And yet this wellness epidemic appears to hit an absolute brick wall when it comes to divorce.
The minute you say the word all the associations are negative: acrimony, stress, expense, betrayal, shame. And yet, in the UK, where I am based, 42% of marriages end in divorce. In the US it’s 50%. Divorce is an everyday, normal occurrence. And yet we shroud it in stigma and shame.
I am a barrister (trial lawyer) in London specialising in divorce. What I have seen, in the hundreds of divorcing couples I have met, is a process which is not fit for purpose and damaging for the adults involved. We must do it better, and we can, because the research around divorce and mental health is shocking.
Studies have found that it takes on average twice as long to recover from divorce than it does a close bereavement (two years for divorce) and that nearly half of all the divorcing adults have the clinical markers of depression. Samaritans (a leading mental health charity) have described a causal association between relationship breakdown and suicide, and research has found that the risk of suicide amongst divorced men was almost three times that of married men. And that’s not taking into account the impact on any children involved.
The Nuffield Family Justice Observatory (a charity based in the UK) published findings last year which found that in the UK 38% of all separating couples end up in court over their children. The Nuffield pronounced this to be a public health crisis, because of the hugely damaging impact of court proceedings on children, being, quite literally, thrust into the centre of their parents’ dispute.
When you consider what a traditional divorce involves, it’s not surprising. Divorce can be toxic. It fractures friendships, alienates extended family members, the legal process can be completely disempowering and ruinously expensive, and you may be coming from a place where this wasn’t even your choice to begin with. The brilliant Oscar winning movie Marriage Story shone a nuanced and painfully accurate light on what divorce litigation can do to a family.
But there is always hope. We have a number of high profile trail blazers: Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin, Arianna and Michael Huffington, MacKenzie and Jeff Bezos. And you don’t have to be wealthy or famous to want to exit a marriage fairly and with dignity. In my experience, that’s what the vast majority of couples want. But its incredibly easy to lose your way.
So what can we all do to de-stigmatise divorce?
The first thing we have to change, as a society, is the narrative around divorce. Let’s not assume its going to be awful. It’s a life change, like any other. It’s natural to feel defensive if a close friend is facing a divorce they did not necessarily choose, but remember that de-humanising the ‘ex’, making them the monster, might provide short term relief and support but is actually a narrative that is very hard, for the divorcing spouse, to live with. When a marriage ends it is NOT a failure. It doesn’t mean that everything which went before is a mistake. Precious happy memories should continue to be cherished.
When we start a marriage, we should talk about how we would want to end it. We’re all human. Yes we all want marriages to last, but they may not. So lets talk about how we want to approach divorce if it doesn’t work: having an open narrative from day one, maintaining some level of kind communication, particularly if children are involved, being fair with each other and transparent about our finances. When lawyers become involved, because you will need legal advice: these are important considerations, choose wisely.
Pick people who share your values and goals. There is no winning in divorce: don’t buy into that narrative. You need a fair outcome for each of you. If it’s an option open to you, share a lawyer at the start of the process to get an impartial view as to what fairness in your particular circumstances looks like (this is a model called ‘One Couple One Lawyer‘ and has only recently become available in the UK, but is also widely available in many other European countries). If you have children, provided its safe, remember to give them permission to love you both, fully and openly.
Free yourself from the toxic negativity. Not only will it save you a fortune in legal fees, it will also make you healthier, a better co-parent, and ready more quickly to enjoy the new adventures that will be waiting for you round the corner.