The latest UK divorce statistics show that a marriage ending in divorce has, on average, lasted 11.7 years. This has given rise to a new term: the “11-year itch”.
So why get married? Because it is still seen as the right thing to do? Because it legitimises children? Because it gives out a strong image of stability?
Why 11 years? Is it because this is the average length of time it takes to become established in a marriage, to have children, for those children to reach school age and for the marriage to go stale?
This could be one explanation – and yet the number of people who are aged 60 or over when they divorce – so-called silver divorce – has also increased. I think it shows a growing attitude in society towards marriage as something that is disposable when it just doesn’t fit anymore. People live longer and life doesn’t necessarily begin at 40 or 50 or even 60. It begins when you, as an individual, make a decision that is about you and how you live your life.
Since 2000 and the case of White v White the courts have been viewing marriage as a business partnership like any other. Think about it this way:
- In a partnership you can have good partners, industrious partners and lazy partners, but if the partnership agreement dictates an equal profit share then everyone gets an equal slice of the cake.
- Once you have got past the first hurdle in every case, which is how assets should be fairly distributed in order to meet the parties’ and dependent children’s needs, the concepts of contributions, marital acquest (all assets acquired during the marriage), relationship-generated disadvantage and compensatory maintenance are all indicators of a commercial view being taken of marriage
- We are not yet in line with Europe or America, which simply carve up everything acquired during the marriage straight down the middle – but there are stirrings towards such an approach.
The suggestion that marriage is effectively an “economic partnership” has a strong ring of truth about it. Putting religious and cultural reasons aside, the act of getting married creates financial ties between couples. It is like entering into a commercial contract with penalty clauses if you want to break the contract and get out. A person living in a house belonging to their partner does not automatically acquire an interest in that property, no matter how long they have lived together; yet as soon as that person gets married, even if they are married for a short period of time, the period of cohabitation and marriage can give rise to a claim for capital and a share in the house. Marriage gives rise to claims against income, business interests, pensions, capital and property.
To support the contention that marriage is becoming something of a business arrangement, there is the increasing weight that is being given to prenuptial agreements to dictate what should happen when it breaks down. These agreements are not automatically binding on a court. People in favour say it gives greater certainty, less scope for argument, fewer legal costs. However in all fairness the motivations and emotions of both parties before they marry will likely be different to those experienced if the relationship and trust breaks down. A legal process that is just black and white can be exploited, can lead to unfair outcomes and can prejudice the vulnerable party, who invariably will be the one with fewer assets who we should be worried about when a marriage breaks down.
It is a certainty that very few people get married expecting to be divorced. Doubtless there are some who will seize the opportunity to marry if it brings them greater financial security. However this statistic does give rise to another, bigger question: if so many of us are getting divorced after 11 years, what can we do to fix this?
Julian Hawkhead is the Head of the Domestic Family Law Department at Stowe Family Law. Specialising in cases involving complex financial arrangements for high net worth clients, often with a corporate or business element, Julian is becoming known as a leader in the field.
Julian has also trained as a collaborative lawyer through Resolution, the family solicitors group, and has successfully dealt with multi-million pound cases on that basis.