I read a news story over the weekend that told me that the divorce rate for newly married couples has halved in the last twenty-five years, according to new research by the Marriage Foundation and The Times newspaper.
Specifically, it said that the number of couples divorcing after three years of marriage has dropped by half, the number divorcing after five years is down by over a third and the number divorcing after ten years is down by a fifth.
The story told us that this news of a “relentless and steady decline” is positive, but Sir Paul Coleridge, former High Court judge and the founder and chairman of the Marriage Foundation, is quoted as saying that “there remain three big blots on this optimistic landscape”.
Strangely, the story didn’t explain what all of these were, but a quick look at a press release from the Marriage Foundation provided the answer. The “blots” are: too few couples getting married, too many couples cohabiting, and the fact that cohabitation was “especially a feature of the lives of the less well-off who have in recent decades largely turned their backs on marriage.”
The press release also quotes Sir Paul as saying:
“For those of us who are in the long-term business of confronting and combatting the national scourge of family breakdown, with all its attendant pain and suffering for children, it is rare to encounter genuinely good news.
“But this is a really good news story. Divorce amongst the recently married – the period of the highest divorce risk where young children are invariably found – is on a relentless and steady decline from its peak in the swinging sixties and seventies.
“Amongst the middle-aged and above, painful as divorce is, it has never been at levels which are out of hand. The fact is marriage works and is the single most effective antidote to family breakdown.”
The message is crystal clear: marriage equals good, and therefore divorce equals bad. Every other sort of relationship, (and perhaps even no relationship at all) also equals bad.
All of which got me thinking.
Now, I accept that there is no longer really a stigma attached to divorce as there certainly once was, but all of this talk of a “national scourge” causing “pain and suffering” can do little to make those going through divorce feel any better. Stories of the horrendous consequences of divorce, particular upon any children involved, are surely likely to make many going through divorce feel guilty. And it’s not just divorce: simply not being married is clearly being frowned upon as well.
But should anyone who is getting, or has got, divorced really feel guilty about it in the twenty-first century? Should they be made to think that they gave up on the marriage too easily and that perhaps they really should have tried harder to make the marriage work? And should they be guilty thereafter for not being married?
The first point that I would make is one that I have made here on a number of occasions, including in a post just last week: my experience of a quarter of a century practising family law is that most people do not take the decision to divorce lightly – they only do it after long, hard, and careful consideration. I don’t recall ever acting for anyone who did not consider divorce to be the last resort. I often discussed the possibility of marriage guidance with them, but I could count the number of times this happened on the fingers of one hand, and the number of actual reconciliations was negligible. The fact of the matter is that people do not instruct solicitors to proceed with divorce unless they are certain that the marriage is over.
The second point to remember is that, just like it takes two to make a marriage work, it more often than not takes two to cause it to break down. Hopefully, we will soon have at last moved beyond the requirement to prove fault for a marital breakdown in order to get a divorce, but nevertheless, there are of course reasons why a marriage breaks down, and very rarely do all of those reasons fall at the feet of one party.
But the main reason why you should not feel guilty about getting divorced is that it is almost certainly for the better. Rather than remain in an unhappy relationship that is bad for not just the spouses but also, of course, their children, divorce enables the family to move on to something better, especially if it can be conducted in a constructive and conciliatory fashion. As I said, there is no stigma to divorce in the twenty-first century, and a family that lives in two separate households can be just as much a family as one that still lives under the same roof.
In short, to talk of divorce as if it is inevitably a bad thing is not just patronising, it is wrong. Divorce can often be the best thing that happens to a family.