Do any of my readers remember D-I-V-O-R-C-E by legendary country and western singer Tammy Wynette? In the lyrics to this famous song, the protagonist spells out words like ‘divorce’ and ‘custody’ to avoid her upsetting her four year old son, succinctly capturing the emotional turmoil many people feel when their significant other walks out the door – especially if there are children involved.
Of course it hurts when relationships end, but there is a special sting to divorce. Almost by definition, marriages happen in public: you stand up in front of your closest friends and family and make a personal and legal commitment to the other person, and so any later divorce must also happen in public.
This may seem like a strange statement to make, but I actually think marriage means more to couples who walk up the aisle these days than it once did. Why? Because nowadays couples have a choice, perhaps not legally but certainly socially.
A few decades ago, marriage was the only socially acceptable option for couples. Now they are perfectly at liberty to live together if they wish and give each other a ‘trial run’. Cohabitation is no longer just common, it is almost mainstream. So couples who do tie the knot are, in a way, making a more heartfelt commitment to each other than they may once have been and the sense of failure if it all crumbles into divorce can be even greater, although it is certainly true that today’s divorcees escape the stigma that once attended the decree nisi.
Of course, there are also pragmatic and legal reasons to marry: marriage provides each party with solid financial, property and access rights. But in my experience these rights are rarely considered by couples considering a wedding – instead many people simply follow their hearts when deciding whether to propose or to say yes, and given the widespread confusion about the rights of cohabitees, I suspect many people have only the haziest idea of the legal rights established by marriage.
I recently spent an interesting half reading an article in the Mail called Can You Ever Recover From Divorce? It mixes celebrity stories with the experiences of ordinary women. Some had amicable splits from husbands they just didn’t love, others bitterer experiences fuelled by infidelity.
The stories reminded of so many of the clients who have come through my doors over the years. The challenges recalled by the women were all familiar ones: feelings of guilt and failure; the difficulties of maintaining an amicable relationship with a badly-behaved ex for the sake of the children; a sense of loneliness sometimes warded off by the presence of those children; finding a new perspective and moving on.
Marriage is the most intimate relationship many of us will ever enter into. It is preloaded with a sense of commitment and visions of the future. Sometimes those wedding day dreams die hard and moving on can be tough – for some people very tough, especially if you have been pitched into the situation through no fault of your own. If a spouse that you still love comes home one day and announces that it is all over and they are going to run away with their secretary, you may have a long dark road ahead of you. Eventually, however, with help from your friends and family, the sun will rise again. You will gain a new sense of yourself and put the painful experiences into perspective. I tell every client who comes through my doors to focus on the future, no matter how desperate they may be feeling as they sit across the table from me. The future is the only thing that really matters.
Ten years ago I wrote a book on divorce called No Looking Back. Those three words are still the best advice I can give to anyone struggling to cope with the end of a marriage.