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November 17, 2011

Family lawyer Marilyn Stowe might have witnessed thousands of divorces, but she still believes in those sacred vows.

I’ve been invited to countless weddings in my life, but I’ve been present at far more divorces. Roughly 10,000 at the last estimate. As a family lawyer, I mostly see the other side to the church and taffeta, Champagne and speeches. The majority of women who arrive at my office are broken and at their lowest point – even if they chose to end the marriage. Divorce brings out the very worst in people: they can become mean, greedy, deceitful and conniving. It’s hard to believe that something so beautiful can become so ugly, but it can.

So you would think I’d have thought twice about saying yes to my husband Grahame when he acted on impulse and asked me to marry him just after 35 days after the first time we met.

I first set eyes on Grahame 29 years ago in a divorce court, of all places. It was a particularly nasty case, too: I was representing the poor downtrodden wife; he was the defence for her abusive husband. Grahame and I had exchanged a great deal of correspondence, but it wasn’t until the case reached court that I actually met him and thought, ‘Wow’. He was tall dark and handsome with a deep ‘court room’ voice and a great smile. I’d been in love before, but this time, well, I just knew. When he called me out of the blue for a date, I accepted the invitation like a shot. That evening, we never stopped laughing. It was as if we’d known each other all our lives. Our wedding, five months later, was a simple affair – no pomp or ceremony, just a lovely lunch for family and friends.

For too many people today, marriage is about the day, the dress, the wedding cake. They rarely look beyond the honeymoon to imagine what life will be like a few years down the line. I blame the recent cult of celebrity for that: the Hello spreads that make us all want to be Victoria Beckham for a day. One client confided that she knew she was making a mistake even as she stepped down the aisle, but had spent so much money on the dress and the venue, running from the chapel didn’t feel like an option. They were separated within a year.

Not that my husband and I haven’t had our rough patches – I don’t know any relationship that hasn’t. However, deep down there’s that fundamental understanding that we’re there for each other, walking together hand in hand through life’s storms. Passion waxes and wanes throughout a relationship – that’s normal; it’s love and friendship that lasts and sustains a couple. Many of the people I see in my office have lost sight of that. They seem unfulfilled – they hate their job, want a bigger house, long for more excitement, complain of boredom. But rather than change their life, they blame their partner. Before long, they stop talking and sharing and then one or both of them pulls back and the resentment begins to set in. By the time they reach my office, it’s usually too late. Social networking sites have a lot to answer for, too. Facebook and Friends Reunited have both been cited in recent cases I’ve worked on. People become nostalgic and get in touch with old flames, without asking themselves why they’re going backwards.

Pre-recession, the divorce rates soared to one in three marriages ending in failure, but this seems to have dropped now. Much of this, of course, is to do with the fact that it’s harder to sell up and divide your assets in the current housing market, but I like to think it’s also partly down to the fact that people are re-thinking their values. The ‘have it all’ generation had it all and look where it got them. There’s only so much stuff you can accumulate before you realise what’s truly important in life: love, family, security. It’s better to focus on the one precious thing that money can’t buy and cherish it.

People always ask me if I signed a pre-nuptial agreement. The answer is no way. Yes, it makes good financial sense, but it also undermines the very concept of marriage: ‘til death us do part. I realise I may be putting myself out of a job here, but the whole thing has got too cynical. People give up too easily. And yet, ask me if I still believe in the sanctity of those simple vows after everything I’ve seen and I’ll tell you: I do.

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