Divorce or destruction? When relationships reach the bitterest end
Ending a marriage is never easy – but what happens if the man you once thought was the love of your life turns out to be your worst enemy? Anna Moore looks at the devastation that can be caused when divorce gets messy…
Though Caroline Spencer may be baffled and bewildered by her former husband Earl Spencer’s behaviour during their divorce proceedings this summer, there will be other ex-wives across the country feeling a sorry shiver of recognition.
First, the earl woos and marries Caroline, telling the world, ‘I’ve found somebody I respect and love and I feel deeply happy.’ Then the couple settle into an enviable life, dividing time between their canalside home in Northwest London and the Althorp estate in Northamptonshire, where Caroline soon makes her mark with an annual literary festival.
After the birth of their son, Ned, Caroline declares herself ecstatic, telling one journalist that every day she feels ‘blessed’. When asked about the earl’s track record – his previous messy divorce which ended amid accusations that he was a ‘callous adulterer’ – her reply is unequivocal. ‘I can’t think of anyone less callous,’ she says. ‘Strong, determined, all of those things. But never callous.’
Words that must haunt her now. Just two years later, in September 2006, when their daughter, Lara, was four months old, Charles Spencer abruptly left, declaring he needed ‘time and space’. He was soon involved in a very public relationship with an American broadcaster who’d come to interview him months earlier.
Two stone lighter, with shock etched on her face, Caroline retreated to the London home with the children, a home that became her refuge. But anyone expecting the earl to be contrite or conciliatory couldn’t be more mistaken.
Despite his estimated fortune of £100 million, he has fought fiercely to remove Caroline and the children from the property. It may make little financial sense, but as a friend of Caroline’s has commented, ‘This isn’t about money. It’s about Charles digging in his heels.’
If Caroline Spencer is wondering what happened to the man she married – and how, in divorce, he could turn into someone quite so beyond her recognition – then she certainly isn’t the only one.
Nicola Phipps helps run ‘Wikivorce’, the biggest divorce website in the country, with 40,000 members. ‘We have a saying on Wiki that, “The person you divorce isn’t the person you married”,’ she says. ‘They can literally seem like two separate beings.’
So what is happening? ‘When you marry, you both want the same thing, your aims converge, you’re on the same side,’ she says. ‘It would be nice to think that, in divorce, that’s still the case – that you both want what’s fair, what’s best for the children. That is possible – it does happen – but on Wiki, we tend to see people when the chances of an amicable divorce are long gone. We see extreme unreasonableness, people acting out of terror, guilt and anger, people who are temporarily deranged. And those on the receiving end can be totally traumatised.’
This is certainly the case for Kate, 47, whose experience in some ways mirrors Caroline’s. Sixteen years ago, Kate too was married to a successful, ‘strong, determined’ man, who turned overnight from a loving husband into a ruthless opponent.
‘We’d been married five years,’ says Kate. ‘I thought we were happy. But when our baby was three months old, Paul left abruptly. There’d been no warning signs. He’d met a girl at work and announced he was moving in with her before I even had time to catch my breath. He gave me no explanations, no forwarding address. It was terrifying and devastating.
Kate, a designer, struggled on as a single mother and after two years alone filed for divorce. ‘I saw it as a formality and hired a nice, conciliatory divorce lawyer,’ she says. ‘Paul was living with this other woman and I thought he’d be relieved. At first he ignored the letters, but when he realised it was serious, he hired London’s toughest divorce lawyers and became hellbent on destroying me.’
Her husband’s lawyers proceeded to roll all over her own. ‘He did his best to avoid paying anything at all and I ended up with the absolute minimum settlement,’ says Kate.
Shortly after the divorce, Paul sold his company for many millions – and so Kate returned to court and won a slightly better settlement, though it barely scratched the surface.
‘He was triumphant,’ she says. ‘He crowed – and even invited his divorce lawyer to his subsequent wedding. I hadn’t fought in the way you need to fight. I was still in shock, trying to understand how someone I thought I knew could change so much.
‘I remember asking my divorce lawyer what was the biggest mistake women make in divorce and she answered without missing a beat: “They expect their husbands to act honourably.”‘
So what can cause a once-trusted spouse to fight so viciously? Does it all boil down to money? Divorce lawyer Marilyn Stowe doesn’t think so. Stowe has acted for aristocrats, footballers’ wives and rock stars’ spouses and she handles cases involving assets worth millions.
According to Stowe, it’s often an issue of ‘control’.
‘If a client is a powerful man – a company director, for example – he’s used to getting his own way,’ she says. ‘With divorce – especially if you’re not the one who filed for it – the control is taken from you. Going through the procedures, finding yourself facing a judge, coming up against rules, is like being on an aeroplane. You’re flying at 40,000 feet and all you can do is sit there. Some men can’t cope with that and react in terrible ways. To concede an inch is to lose face. They’re rude and aggressive; they cut maintenance and hide assets.’
Kirsten Gronning, co-founder of divorce coaches Breakup Angels, agrees. ‘I don’t want to sound sexist – I have lovely male clients who are doing everything humanly possible for their ex-spouses and their children – but for some men, especially competitive, driven men, it’s about ego,’ she says. ‘A divorce can become a battle, a very public battle, and they cannot be seen to lose.
‘In all cases, bad behaviour is basically a way of releasing our negative emotions – fear, anger, revenge, guilt, greed. We live in a very materialistic society and, even if you’re wealthy, some people are extremely threatened by the prospect of losing half of everything.’
According to Stowe, divorce is like the grieving process, with clear stages of denial, shock, anger and acceptance, during which time either party may be incapable of acting rationally.
‘And the two parties can be at very different stages,’ she says. ‘One may have made a decision to leave a long time ago, made plans, seen a new life and decided on a course of action that is cruel and cold. The other may be still reeling from the shock, trying to catch up.’
And in divorce, men and women often have very different priorities. ‘It’s the Venus and Mars thing,’ says Hazel Roberts, head of family law for Northwest-based firm Canter, Levin & Berg. ‘For a woman, the house is the home, it’s her only security when her world may be tumbling around her. Men are more likely to view it as the major asset – and with finances they can cut off the emotion completely.’
In fact, men are almost programmed to take the cold, clinical route, says Linda Blair, agony aunt and author of Straight Talking. ‘Men find it easier to cut the strings,’ she says. ‘It’s in their DNA. Women don’t have clear boundaries – they’re programmed to care a long time for an ungiving, ungrateful infant. Men are on this earth to pass on their DNA.
‘Of course, lots of factors will influence their behaviour – friendships, role models, how they were raised. But in general terms, men move on more readily.’
(As Charles Spencer did after just 18 months with the American broadcaster, having reportedly woken one morning with the chilling sense that he ‘no longer found her attractive’. He is now involved with aristocrat Lady Bianca Eliot.)
Though all this may shed light on her own ex-husband’s behaviour, 16 years on, Kate still sometimes finds herself baffled. ‘We had a much-loved child, but it was as if he didn’t care what happened to her,’ she says. ‘I suppose Paul liked being in control – and when we had our daughter, maybe he felt slightly jealous. Perhaps he felt his control was slipping.’
On Wikivorce, one ex-wife has her own explanation for an ex’s Jekyll and Hyde behaviour. ‘I believe what changes them more than anything is the guilt,’ she writes. ‘It consumes them but they are not willing to admit to feeling guilty and so they blame the other, innocent person.’
For clients on the receiving end of cruel behaviour, Gronning has this advice. ‘Try to recognise where the behaviour is coming from,’ she says. ‘It may be a latent unpleasantness, a side you’ve never seen before – but now you’ve seen it, thank God you’re getting divorced.’
How hard you fight back is really up to you. ‘There are no easy answers. Some people fight on and spend thousands in legal fees for relatively little gain. Others give in just to get rid of the problem – which can be almost like handing the power to the other person.’
Whichever route you take, at the end, Gronning urges clients to see divorce as a fresh start.
Which can be easier said than done. For Kate, recovery took years. ‘The whole experience was massively traumatic and petrifying,’ she says. ‘It damaged me emotionally. It was eight years before I could contemplate having another relationship. Until then, I simply focused on raising my daughter and working hard to support us both.’
Now, her daughter is a smart 16-year-old who knows her father and has the measure of him. Kate is in a long-term relationship and enjoying a successful career.
Perhaps turning the other cheek, taking the higher ground and finding real happiness is the ultimate revenge – or perhaps not. Kate understands exactly why Caroline Spencer is still in that canalside house with her children, fighting back for all she’s worth. ‘If I had my time again I’d act differently too,’ she says. ‘I’d go for the sharpest, most aggressive divorce lawyer I could find.’