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This marriage isn’t over – I don’t want a divorce!

I heard the Labour MP Frank Field on BBC5 Live the other day as I was driving through the beautiful Dales scenery on my way into our Harrogate office. He said something that really jarred: “Pay a lawyer enough money and they will tell you what you want to hear” –  or something to that effect. Alone in my car I felt like answering. “Spend a day with me, Frank”, but of course I didn’t. I switched over the channel and listened to some music.

The reason it struck such a chord with me is that the exact reverse is often the case: we frequently have to give  our clients advice they really don’t want to hear.

In an ideal world all would be fluffy clouds, sunshine and no rain. But we don’t live in an ideal world. People sometimes do get hurt and with the best will in the world there isn’t much we can do about it except help people to move on as best we can.

One especially stark example of this principle are those situations when a client has learned their spouse wants a divorce that they didn’t see it coming. At other times the client had some inkling of what was coming but opted to bury their head in the sand hoping it would all blow over. And of course it didn’t.

The spouse might have explained the decision face to face, or left a letter or simply upped sticks and gone. I’ve heard it all. The bottom line remains the same: the marriage is over and they want out.

So the client, who might have been brought in by a worried friend, is sitting in front of you looking shell-shocked and protesting that the marriage isn’t over after all. The client tells you their spouse must be going through some kind of crisis and there’s no way they want to end it really. And you sit there thinking “I’ve heard all this so many times before.” The sad reality is – it probably is all over.

In my experience few people will ever leave a marriage, especially if there are children, unless their mind is firmly made up and they are convinced there is no point in continuing. Occasionally there are exceptions, but not many. They have had time to reach that decision.  Usually a third person is involved or a difficult relationship has become simply intolerable. No-one ever just leaves the person they love and really want to be with, even for a short time. It would be much easier after all, to simply stay with them. Instead they leave, because they simply don’t want to be with that person any longer. The future looks better elsewhere, the grass greener. The things some say to ease the parting – “Don’t worry, I’m just trying it out” – can be pretty cruel too. False hope, allowing someone to think it isn’t over when it clearly is. A coward’s way out.

So what can be done for the client?

First of all, it’s vital to understand what’s happening. Coming to terms with the shock, fears for the future, the natural anxiety about money, possibly having to leave home, worries about the children and how you will cope – it’s a great deal to take on board, and all made worse by the pain of rejection. You’ll need time to process it all.

After shock typically comes anger, denial, bargaining: please, let’s get back together, it will be better if you come home! When the answer to these pleas is a predictable “no” it really hurts.

Ultimately of course, acceptance finally arrives. Getting to that stage however, will take time and for many it could take years. In the meantime your emotions will be unpredictable, up and down like a yo-yo . I advise a client caught up in that situation to live only for the short term and look no further forward. Expect that the day head will be bad and it might be bad or it might not be. It might even be okay, not bad – and as time passes more and more such days will indeed arrive.

In the meantime, there are all those sympathetic friends who might in reality be having a great time comforting the friend and then having a good gossip afterwards. Their hearts may be in the right place but I’m not a fan of such folk. Friends with a tiny bit of legal knowledge can be lethal. No case is the same as another, and a copy of a feature in the Daily Mail is I promise, not going to make a difference to your case, no matter how knowledgeable the friend who gives it to you claims to be.

In any case practical measures are what really count. Encouraging a friend to wallow in her situation won’t help her long term. It’s good to talk, but it’s also good to talk in a positive way. Men, meanwhile – and yes, I’m generalising here – tend not to talk about such matters to anywhere near the same extent. Life has taught them to bottle up their emotions.. A good counsellor can help everyone. Yes, I do believe in the value of counselling.

Emotional trauma really complicates the essential process of resolving a divorce and that’s what all the recent emphasis on immediate mediation fails to take into account. Sit in the same room? Calmly agree to divvy up the assets and sell the house? Its asking way too much of those divorcing couples who may still be wrestling with some very difficult emotions – hence its failure rate at that stage.

But what you do need to think about, if a longer term plan is too much for the time being, is the here and now. Be practical. Think of the immediate future – you need to make sure essential arrangements continue for the foreseeable future and you aren’t railroaded into a decision such as a house sale that you might regret later. Make sure, too, that debts don’t conveniently pile up, a mortgage isn’t fully drawn down of all sudden and assets aren’t suddenly squirreled away or spent by a spouse who is no longer your life time partner but potentially your opponent. He or she will have had months or even years to come to terms with their decision. You, by contrast, are having to play catch up fast and it’s certainly not easy, but you do need to make yourself think practically.

So take each day step by step. Expect nothing of yourself and distract yourself as much as you can from negative thoughts. See the doctor if you’ve become depressed. Antidepressants may help to get you back on an even keel. Don’t worry – they won’t be addictive and won’t affect your case.

Allow yourself time to cry, allow time to feel sorry for yourself, but only for a short time each day. Physical exercise can really help your mood. Above all, resist the urge to email, text or phone – especially after some wine at night. It won’t help you or your legal problems either. Resist the urge to seek revenge. That certainly won’t help.

Hold your head up high, and allow yourself time to decide how and when to move on. Let the beauty of life all around you help you to heal a broken heart.

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

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  1. D says:

    Great article. What really made me chuckle was that I was talking to someone last night who has some direct experience of the MP in question. She was frustrated by the ease and credibility at which he could present ‘facts’ (from her domain) that she knew weren’t quite right. A sort of consequence of training (and requiring) people to speak with such degrees of polish and confidence.
    Interestingly exercise (and changing to the right music) could be the best advice for anyone dealing with something of gravity.

  2. JamesB says:

    Someone told me to do the washing up. So I did and that did help. Doing stuff and not going on about it helps. I do say though it is easier to get over a short term bad marriage than a long term ok one ending.

    I am posting with regards to Frank’s comment also, which I tend to agree with. I remember receiving letters from my ex wife’s solicitors telling me not to drink vitamin c around the children and to put all 18 films under lock and key and also claims for 99% of my income on a joint lives basis, they did calm down a bit but not much. If I had my time again I would have used less lawyers bouncing ineffectual expensive letters between them. You really need two strong lawyers, which is hard when there isn’t much business and you have a feuding ex come through the door, you going to say “I’m not going to write that!” most wont, not when they are paying the bills and there isn’t much business.

    I remember another letter saying something about my ex opening letters with her finger where I open them with a knife and this meant that I had read something or something. Load of nonsense really. I remember the barristers for Al Fayed doing something similar also which was sad seeing a grieving man spending money on lawyers trying to mourn his son and show his affection for his son by spending a fortune on lawyers, my ex’s father did the same thing and in the end was ignoring them.

    Expensive counsellors for the rich.

    One thing I will say, they should not only listen to each other. I told my lawyers other side were stringing along and she just went along with it, asking a lawyer to keep costs down is like telling Boris Johnson to brush his hair.

  3. JamesB says:

    On the denial point you raise, which I agree with, and all you wrote there, including if one side says its over then its over, I will add that the law is wrong also.

    Coming home to a divorce petition and being expected to accept the blame where you have been reasonable is pushing it and to hurry it through. The Scottish system is a lot fairer and more realistic and it needs reform. If one says its over then it is, the certificate blaming the other is wrong and the escalating legal costs at emotional time helping no one but lawyers is wrong also as is the grabbing children and child benefit to increase maintenance. Much of the de facto way the system works is for lawyers and not their customers.

    Blaming the customers for their bills and being emotional and not settling is a cop out, I’m with Gary Lineker on that, better to have a formula and go to counsellor instead or have pre nups. Blaming the customers is missing the point. Indeed I would have thought it a rewarding career helping people over the end of a relationship.

  4. JamesB says:

    Talk it through, get over it then move on to other things, like perhaps ensuring the politicians don’t ignore and disregard the Brexit vote and holding them to account and other things like work, many people get over by throwing themselves into their work.

  5. JamesB says:

    A social life away from the subject also benefit and good way of moving on.

  6. JamesB says:

    I try to do other things than go on about it especially as I am not paid to go on about it for many it doesn’t but life should go on. So, now to do some work and write to ask my MP to sort out EU and go out later and try to do good stuff.

    On this, years ago when I had counselling the counsellor said, don’t look for any positives from that failed relationship or go there for help but elsewhere other than where it was bad for you, or something like that and she was right as you are no point in wasting time sometimes.

  7. JamesB says:

    Oh, I suppose I should put some time into my marriage and other relationships including with the children.

  8. Andrew says:

    Make divorce administrative and there’ll be no nonsense like this.

    • Marilyn Stowe says:

      Dear Andrew
      Disagree. If it’s not consensual it wouldn’t be available.

      • JamesB says:

        What are you talking about, there is no consent, I signed it because it was the least worse option, it takes 2 to make a marriage work and 1 to break it. The process needs changing.

        With regards to moving on, well, those who forget the past are condemned to relive it (Santana), forgive but don’t forget, anyone can make a mistake but a crazy person makes the same fault twice, insanity is making the same error time after time expecting the result to be different each time (Einstein) etc.

        As my children get older I find myself thinking about relationships and we discuss down the pub with my friends our children and we wonder if our children will go about relationships the same way we have. I thought there would be anecdotal evidence of that generation sleeping around, but it seems they are into monogamy and trying to find the one also, so we aren’t promiscuous chimps, that said it is right to move on if you have really tried all you can, which brings me to my last point, which is that, the best gift you and your ex can give the children is to get on with your ex. Also, co-parenting is better than parallel parenting for all when separating.

        The point about realising it is over, well, I don’t know what to say about that, like I say if someone wants to bang their head against a brick wall then they have that right to do that without being charged for it and having the mick taken out of them by lawyers and judges. Did I do that? Perhaps for one month, no more than 2, but as I said the system needs changing.

        • Andrew says:

          Dr Johnson once described the marriage of a widower as “the triumph of hope over experience” and he knew whereof he spoke; widowed young and never remarried!

          • JamesB says:

            Yes, after such an acrimonious divorce I am married again. Its difficult to say much about my thoughts on the matter without coming across as sanctimonious. I certainly don’t recommend the path I have taken. I do regard the glass as half full, but there are many faults with all sorts of behaviour. I find myself thinking of Robin Williams, he kept on going on about how to live then topped himself as did the chap who sang don’t worry be happy. So I won’t go on about how to live, except I do think Jesus said some good things like he who is without sin cast the first stone etc. Which reminds me I need to get round to reading the bible cover to cover, but, like law, it can be hard to read like that.

          • JamesB says:

            Actually, the Bible is a law book for many. As the torah and koran and others are.

  9. Andrew says:

    I simply want to replace the petition, the affidavit, the application for the decree nisi, and the application for a decree absolute, all put through the courts, with two forms; one saying “I want a divorce” and the other saying “I still want a divorce” six weeks or so alter, both sent to the Registrar of Divorces – who will then issue the certificate of divorce. The fee could be a lot less too. As you say on another post today (and I enjoyed it!) defended divorce is as common as hen’s teeth and as for successfully defended divorce – well, find me the milk of a male unicorn while you are about it! The (residual) need for defended divorce ended when pension sharing was introduced and that’s fifteen years ago now.

    Between the two notices if the parties were not agreed about finance either could have recourse to the court. Of course in Andrewland where prenups are binding, the yardstick of equality applies to the un-prenupped, rich or poor, and Calderbank is in force again – in every case subject to delay during the dependence of children – there will not be too many arguments.

  10. JamesB says:

    In a rush don’t know where else to put the point so will put it here. Marilyn said somewhere – I do read in full her posts, which I also enjoy and find insightful, and although sometimes I disagree, as I do here, think they are well thought through and acceptable. Other posts and 99% of the time John’s I don’t read in full. Marilyn’s 100% of the time I read.

    Anyway, she said, marriage is less common. I think the law should stitch up men in divorce less as the divorce law in this jurisdiction currently puts men off. People need to be able to write their own contracts with pre nups or have fairer ancillary relief which is my preference. As well as no fault divorce, in that I agree with Andrew. I don’t think the lawyers just saying they are not prepared to change the law or back down is good as I would like to see more people get married and in that, unless she advises otherwise, I do agree with Marilyn.

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