“Anecdotes are all very well, but the data is what matters”
So says Sir Paul Coleridge, the Chairman of the Marriage Foundation.
The important thing about data, however, is how you use it.
In an article yesterday in a certain national newspaper Sir Paul used the result of a survey as evidence that “a significant proportion of people who separate wish they had not five years down the line” (the five year period does not seem to be mentioned in the survey, in which case I’m not sure where Sir Paul came up with it). The survey, of 867 divorcees and separated spouses, had indicated that 22 per cent of those who were divorced or separated wished they had not done so.
Well, yes, I suppose 22 per cent is a significant proportion. However, surely 78 per cent is even more significant? Isn’t this data even more compelling evidence for the assertion that the vast majority of those who divorce or separate don’t regret it? I suppose a headline reading “Four out of five couples glad they split” does not fit with the agenda of the Foundation (or, for that matter of the certain national newspaper that ran the article).
We all know the expression “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics”, even if we do not know who first coined it. Of course, statistics by themselves don’t lie (provided that they have been properly obtained), but they can be made to tell a lie if they are misused. Assuming that these statistics have been properly obtained, do they tell us that a lot of people regret getting divorced or separating, or do they tell us that most people don’t regret those things? I will leave you to choose.
Putting that question to one side, I have to say that I don’t find anything at all surprising about a figure of 22 per cent regretting getting divorced or separating. My lengthy experience practising as a family lawyer taught me many things, including that very often only one party will want the divorce or separation. On that basis alone, one might expect half of those couples to regret what happened. It also depends upon what happens next in the lives of those who separate or divorce – if, for example, they don’t meet someone else, then they may well regret giving up on a previous relationship. No, 22 per cent doesn’t seem very high a figure at all.
Moving on, what else does the survey have to say? Well, I have not seen the survey itself and can only go on what was mentioned in the newspaper article. That said that the survey indicated that 21 per cent regretted the way they conducted their divorce, that 33 per cent regretted the way it effected their children, and that 24 per cent wished they had avoided the financial consequences. Once again, there is nothing remotely surprising about any of this. All it tells us is that divorces can bring out the worst in people, that they can adversely affect children and that they can be expensive. None of which is exactly profound.
Lastly, we are told that “Only one in five had no regrets at all about their divorce.” Again, not surprising given the above, but note the language used here. Only one in five. One could of course use exactly the same words for the proportion who regret getting divorced or separated. I guess it all depends upon your point of view.
Yes, the data matters, but it also matters how you use it.
Photo by Sébastien Gagnon via Flickr