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December 24, 2008

Festive fallouts are as much a part of Christmas as turkey and tinsel, so we’re led to believe, making it a busy time of year for divorce lawyers. But is this really the case, asks Chris Bowlby.

If you feel in danger of becoming too misty eyed over all those Christmas messages of peace and goodwill, you can always revive more Scrooge-like feelings with a dose of seasonal statistics put out by the divorce industry.

Every year brings new surveys and stories suggesting Christmas is a time when many couples decide they can’t stand each other and head in their thousands to divorce lawyers come the new year.

But do these claims actually stand up, or are they more to do with the divorce and marriage guidance industry trying to drum up business.

Last year some of the most striking claims were made in two widely reported surveys. These were carried out by a marketing company and commissioned by Insidedivorce.com and the government-funded Family Mediation Helpline.

“More than 1.8 million couples will have contemplated divorcing their partner during the Christmas period,” said the Family Mediation Helpline press release. The Times suggested one of the surveys had concluded that “up to one in five couples inquire about divorce after the strains of Christmas”.

As official statistics suggest there are more than 14 million couples in the UK, this would translate to some very long queues outside the offices of divorce lawyers in January. And it is also an intriguingly high figure given the annual divorce rate is heading downwards currently towards 140,000 a year.

Some divorce lawyers and mediation experts undoubtedly do experience increase in demand after Christmas, though for its survey Insidedivorce.com only used lawyers on its books. And some other lawyers don’t recognise this pattern at all.

‘Dangerous time’

“I’ve been in practice for going on 30 years,” says Marilyn Stowe, a leading family lawyer based in Yorkshire but with a national and international practice.

Ok, family strife at Christmas can be guaranteed for some, at least

“It’s certainly not my experience that straight after the Christmas holidays people rush to get divorced, it just doesn’t happen.”

In Ms Stowe’s experience, there are seasonal variations in divorce – but the blips tend to come in the spring and early summer – when school exams are over and term is coming to an end. It allows for a good run up before school term starts again.

Christmas in the credit crunch may add to family tensions, and another survey, published on Wednesday, found relationship counselling had risen as the downturn has started to bite. But these same hard times make the cost of divorce much higher. If the value of the family home has decreased there is less to share out, for example. So even if couples consider divorce, they may go no further once they realise the consequences.

For some families and couples Christmas can, by contrast, be a bonding experience. This, however, is not something PR companies and the media find very compelling as they search for eye-catching stories when genuine news is thin.

So why had Insidedivorce.com issued statements suggesting that “the statistics make grim reading for anyone believing Christmas is a period of harmony and goodwill”?

“I think that’s possibly overstating the case” concedes Derek Bedlow, editor of the website. “But for those whose relationships are in trouble it is a dangerous time.”

So is there any measurable relationship between Christmas and divorce? The UK Statistics Authority – the official statistics gatherer – doesn’t record seasonally when divorce happens. So the idea that the festive season does more harm to marriage than good does not seem proven.

Perhaps there should be new categories for these Christmas survey statistics. Scroogeistics for those who can’t stand all the harmony and goodwill stuff. And optimistics for the romantics who believe Christmas solves everything.