Lonely city, lonely heart: the difficulty of reconciling a broken marriage

Divorce|January 4th 2012

Working in London is very different from our other two offices. Travelling to Harrogate I’m used to a leisurely short drive through gorgeous Yorkshire scenery, parking easily and then enjoying a comparatively relaxed pace of life I had never before fully appreciated…until now. It’s the same in Cheshire. Even on the long drive over the Pennines, I go at my own pace, in my own time and after a morning at work can literally pop over the road to the Greenhouse, a fantastic and friendly veggie restaurant.

But London is different. There is no such thing as leisurely or friendly, or so it seems to me. The pace is fast, people race along the pavements, no one smiles and everyone looks positively grumpy.

It was raining yesterday when I set off for the first full day at our new office, so I hailed a cab. Coming up Chancery Lane we drove past a fellow family lawyer who had his head down and was striding towards his office. Dressed all in grey and looking thoroughly miserable, his mood seemed to match the day perfectly.

“What have I let myself in for?” I asked myself as we swept past.

I don’t think people are fully back at work yet. High Holborn wasn’t as jam packed as usual and arrived in good time and felt relieved to see a set of friendly faces. Partner Gavin Scott who has come down from Hale and Paul Read, my trusted lieutenant from Harrogate. They both inspire confidence and I’ve no doubt they will inspire others too. Their firm, confident voices were very reassuring and I started to relax, despite all the teething troubles everyone who has ever set up a new office knows only too well!

On my walk home yesterday evening I was struck by just how dark the London streets were; the outlines of those same fast moving commuters only illuminated by the yellow light of passing cars, shops and street lights. When I reached home I found my flat was also uninvitingly cold, dark and empty.

I love being in London, but always know that my real home lies waiting in Yorkshire – and that I can head home whenever I want. This is something that those in broken relationships can’t do: go home. They are often trapped with feelings of loneliness, isolation and anxiety and my heart goes out to them at one of the toughest times of the year.

People don’t like living empty, grey and lonely lives. They like to be happy, which generally means living as one half of a couple. They like the companionship and all that brings: conversation, colour, arguments and ups and downs. Even if another party is involved, a marriage break down can still be achingly, unbearably painful and lonely. And divorce doesn’t give anyone immunity from pain.

So why does Sir Paul Coleridge, who has spoken on the same theme for some time now, think it’s possible to set-up a brand new foundation to save broken marriages? Why does he keep saying it’s as straightforward as his catchy slogan: “mend it – don’t end it”? How can he really think his foundation will work when a couple may have decided it can’t, and that their lives have changed for ever?

Had Sir Paul not been a hugely successful QC at the family bar before going up to the bench, and had he not personally known all his clients inside out, I could have better understood the formation of his Marriage Foundation. He must have heard first-hand from his clients during conference, when they were talking to him and pouring out their heart’s emotions, feelings and pain, that it is not as easy as to simply say “mend it” rather than “end it”.

A broken relationship is not always even the result of a mutual decision. A relationship usually starts to break down years or months before it finally does. The couple starts to “uncouple” and if they don’t realise what’s happening to them, by the time they do it will be years too late. I’ve heard of countless couples who realise there is nothing left when their children leave home. One or both of them choose to end the marriage and move on to start a fresh chapter while it’s still possible.

Divorce lawyers know by the time they meet their client any chance of a successful reconciliation is almost impossible. It can happen, but in my experience it doesn’t often – and that is nothing to do with me! I don’t make those decisions and know that the loneliness of a broken relationship can never be underestimated.

I have also never yet met a divorcing parent who doesn’t agonise over their children, who doesn’t consider the pain being inflicted on the family, but who also believes that overall the decision is best for all of them. These decisions are never easily made, they are made because those involved genuinely believe, or have come to accept, that the relationship that once existed is now dead. Criticise them or not, understand them or not, these couples have a right to end a marriage in the same way they have a right to enter into it.

So if any good needs to be done for society then by all mean let’s encourage couples into marriage, something which Sir Paul says is the gold standard for a family. There I completely agree, but the number of couples marrying is substantially dropping, so there is obvious work to be done by his foundation and others.

But again I recognise that not everyone does want to marry.  I happen to agree there is more chance of a successful family if the parents are married, but to try and force couples to get married or force them to stay married is, to my mind, plainly wrong. To impose a different standard on them, to require them to ‘mend it-not end it’ is wrong.

I also wonder whether the Marriage Foundation will campaign for divorce reform, and if so, should a judge be involved? And while I respect Sir Paul’s decision to speak out and campaign, isn’t a “guilty” party going to feel concerned if he or she comes before him in court, knowing of his views?

The founder of Stowe Family Law, Marilyn Stowe is one of Britain’s best known divorce lawyers. She retired from Stowe Family Law in 2017.

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  1. Ashley Murray says:

    Dear Marilyn,
    I expect the real source of the marriage/relationship breakdown problem is really centred earlier on in your piece – namely the fact that you can be walking down any of our streetsand never hear a good morning or good anything and if you were to utter such welcomes you might be arrested as some weirdo – the loneliness is at the heart of life and families in Britain.

    The fact that a married Mum and Dad with children in the same household are now in the minority of families speaks volumes, as does the fact that most people in a recent survey did not know the identity of their neighbours. I remember many years ago hearing another lawyer who had
    spent years working abroad recalling that when he returned here from a country in Africa where few had wealth but family life was still vibrant, his first impressions of ‘home’ after being away so long was of the ‘grey skies, the grey rooftops and the grey people’.
    I agree with you that telling people to ‘mend’ their
    relationships is very much shouting at the empty barn
    when the horse has bolted and is several stages removed from where the real problem lies.

    I also recall that when many years ago we befriended a family in Crete with children and they invited us out of season to stay with them – it was very clear that ‘family’ and ‘neighbourliness’ where at the very heart still of their society. The Husband was a vet, but neither he nor any of
    his colleagues wanted to move away from their family to further their career on the mainland. As he took us by car
    from the airport to his home, he pointed out a large new building in the main town as we passed by and declared it a disgrace, explaining it was the first old peoples home on
    the island. Each day the family received phone calls from and made calls to their relatives every few hours and as we took their children around their village, on our return they had received many phone calls enquiring whether they knew
    their children were walking with strangers.Such connections can be very awkward to maintain in a busy schedule and families tend to tell you how it is without you inviting their opinion – but their blood and their genes are ours too – if anyone is likely to be able to equip their children for life – then parents and the wider family have a head start over all others for these reasons alone. Old fashioned this is seen to be – but a child still, normally, has the best chance with his mum and dad at home.

    We are told there is ‘nothing new under the sun’ and so modern life and its individual isolation as we perceive
    it has I am sure been here before in some other form – but I am equally sure that this is not the ‘groundplan’ for how it was intended to be and we dabble in such experiments probably to our ultimate peril.

    So as every change must have a certain turning point on a
    one to one basis – I will say ‘Good Morning’ to you and I hope this very day will, at least, give both you and me an opportunity to smile at another face, however miserable they may ‘appear’ to be.


  2. Lukey says:

    “There I completely agree, but the number of couples marrying is substantially dropping”

    Yes, and it is substantially dropping mainly because the costs of uncoupling if either party bails out – and here I am talking mainly about the wealthier spouse – are grossly unfair. To split 50-50 all assets gained in the marriage is usually reasonable – but to split 50-50 all assets (including pensions etc.) generated before the marriage is thought by the general public to be ridiculous and rightly so.

    As for ‘mend it-not end it’ – good freaking luck with that ! Frankly it is patronising and suggests people are too stupid to make considered thoughtful decisions for themselves – but Sir Paul will ride to the rescue !

    To be blunt it suggests Sir Paul is a tool if he thinks that’s going to work:-)

  3. David says:

    As a wedding photographer I sometimes have a feeling foer who is right for each other and who is not. The more weddings I do the less I want to get married. Most of my clients and second marriages, its obviously something people still believe in but personally being in a long term relationship I’m not getting married unless theres kids on the scene.

  4. Kathryn Evans says:

    Marilyn – I completely agree with you that by the time couples reach us, there is almost always no going back. My only concern is that the stigma still attached to counselling and therapy, in our society, prevents couples seeking much earlier intervention which could (potentially) assist their relationships.


    Tees Solicitors

  5. Marilyn Stowe says:

    Thanks Kathryn
    My son Ben told me about the sociological theory of the ‘uncoupling’ process that goes on in a marriage which he came across when he was researching the subject for his dissertation at University. (He got a first so it must have been good!)
    It seems that over a period of time one or both parties starts to ‘uncouple’ from the other, in many ways, small and insignificant at first, sometimes mentally sometimes
    physically and by the time the decision is made to divorce the uncoupling is complete and irreversible.
    This makes a lot of sense to me which is another reason why I don’t go along with the ‘mend it’ theory at the divorce stage.
    I do think clients would benefit from counselling, if they recognise what is happening early enough and when I meet a client I certainly don’t hesitate to recommend therapy and also a visit to the doctor for short term medication at that stage because even though the divorce is gong ahead in many cases it’s necessary to help the client come to terms with what is happening and better deal with a very tough time.
    Thanks very much for your comment.

  6. David says:

    In response to Kathryn:

    Not only is there a stigma to counselling there are other barriers namely time & money. If you go NHS they wont offer after 7PM appointments which means you end up paying a private counsellor such as RELATE £45 / HR.

    The cost of getting professional help is becoming a service for the cash rich 🙁

  7. Sophie Harris says:

    In response to David and all,

    You have it spot on there. I have been recently looking for a pre-marital guidance course as a pro-active discussion forum for my partner and I before our wedding and it’s virtually non existent or very expensive. Plus I think Kathryn’s point about the stigma related to all things “self help” is very damaging. No doubt he will pull a face when I suggest it.

    We all know that feelings, finances and future plans are terribly unromantic concepts for the newly engaged but as we all see from the end result, they really should been given a great deal more thought at the early stages.

    I have always loved this genius bit of marketing by family law firm Bross Bennett; their compatibility quiz. See here

    I might take it home tonight for some research!

    Fahri Jacob Solicitors

  8. Marilyn Stowe says:

    I think its just having the same sense of humour and smiling through the rain?
    Very best wishes to you both and may you never stop smiling

  9. A 2012 review: part one - Marilyn Stowe Blog says:

    […] January I discussed  the Marriage Foundation  which was set up by Sir Paul Coleridge – its aims seemingly to […]

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