How To Avoid A Dirty Divorce
Select Magazine July 1982
Seven years after he and his wife savaged each other in solicitors' offices and the divorce courts, CHRISTOPHER LONG looks back and wonders why they put each other through even more misery during the split-up when the misery of a failed marriage was what they were trying to escape from.
By Christopher Long
In my mind's eye there is a strip cartoon. In frame one there is a perfectly round desert island with a single palm tree. All around is an empty ocean with just the stern of a capsized ship in the distance. Swimming ashore come two survivors.
In frame two the contented couple bask together on their idyllic island, quite blissfully happy with only the clothes they're wearing and two round life-belts. Time goes by.
In frame three they've put up a shelter and are contentedly cooking and fishing. Time goes by.
In frame four they're having a row.
In frame five they're squabbling over two life-belts as a rescue ship sails into view.
In the last frame they're still squabbling over the life-belts instead of waving for help. This time the ship has gone by.
It's a strange thing about separations, but it's very unusual for anybody else to know exactly why a couple are breaking up. Very often they don't really know themselves and, oddly enough, they don't even agree on the reason if you ask them. They'll give you a thousand reasons it was money problems; the sex part was a disaster; they were bored. There was her family; his drinking; other men and other women. We fought; he hit me; I didn't love her; she didn't love me. It was a disaster ... it couldn't go on any longer. The blunt truth is that it/we/I was a failure.
Looking back on my own disastrous marriage I have one doubt and two regrets. I doubt if the misery of our marriage was anything like as bad as the misery we went through unravelling it. I regret that either of us ever allowed the vultures of the legal profession to squabble, gloatingly, over 'who would get what' out of the corpse of our marriage. And I regret that I didn't follow some very good advice from someone who had been through it all himself. If I had, I would have been busy waving at the rescue ship rather than squabbling over the life-belt!
It seems incredible to me that we've allowed the present misery-making process of separation and divorce to continue for so long. Do we really expect that piles of correspondence between the husband and his solicitor, the wife and her solicitor and between the two solicitors themselves are going to make for a quick, clean break? We're so used to the idea that marriage break-ups are a battle-field that we don't even stop to think that just by going to separate solicitors we're heading for confrontation before we've started. The legal profession has got it made! After all, there's only a limited number of things that have to be decided, divided or shared, the children, housing for him and her, financial provision for everybody and who gets what in the way of personal belongings, household goods and savings, for example.
In my own case I clearly remember the night we finally decided we couldn't take any more. We had both seen it coming but we put all the dreadful past behind us as we sat opposite each other and began to try to come to terms with what we'd decided. It was the last decision we would ever make together.
We were probably closer to each other then than we had been for a long, long time. We were tired, shattered, frightened and lonely. Nobody tells you about that. After all, if you're supposed to be the ill-treated, betrayed and tragic victim, you can hardly go around telling people you're heart-broken. You either have to put up the 'suffering in stoic silence' facade to tell everyone how bravely you've coped all this time or else come up bristling with righteous indignation, anger, resentment and revenge. The only other course open is to accept all the blame yourself and hope that no one will believe you!
That evening I went to see my wise old friend. I told him what had happened and he immediately got down to practicalities.
"Well," he said, "have you decided what you're going to do?"
"No, not yet," I said.
"Well you're lucky there aren't any children. But there's the immediate problem about who stays and who moves out. You've both got to be able to go one working and you've got to decide about finance and bills and belongings and all that sort of thing."
To me it all sounded like reading the will before the death certificate was signed. But he was right.
"It's all right," I said, "we're both seeing solicitors tomorrow."
"Oh God!" he said. "Do you have to? What for? Surely you haven't disagreed already."
And again he was right, because solicitors should be there to help solve disputes not fuel them. We weren't in dispute! For once we had agreed on something together to separate, settle our affairs and divorce! At that stage, like many couples, we hadn't the heart or the energy for a dispute. We were vulnerable and afraid and the last thing we wanted was another fight.
"My suggestion is that you sort out the practicalities between you and when you've decided what you're both going to do, tell your solicitors to put it into action if you must. I know you both and could sit down and help."
His own divorce had been long and messy. By the time he and his wife had spent months quarrelling over bits of furniture and who had contributed this, who had paid for that and whether the cat was his or hers, the legal fees were astronomical. They had entrenched themselves in a war of attrition and they'd both come out of it feeling cheated, guilty, persecuted and bitter. Their friends had been forced to take sides and in the end were bored by the feud. They could have refurnished a house with the money they both ended up paying to the solicitors and the cat, in the meantime, had probably produced three litters of kittens.
The point was that, having decided together to separate, they missed the chance to decided together how they would do it. Vulnerability and fear led them to confrontation in solicitors' offices where they were persuaded that they could 'do better', get 'more', fight claims with counter-claims. Two years after the night I stupidly didn't take that good advice my wife and I were duly divorced. Seven years later I am still carrying the scars. Not scars from my marriage, but scars from the savage way it ended.
Of course, lots of couples get through it without a fight. They're very 'civilised' about it all, or are so enthralled by a new lover that they couldn't give a damn who has Aunt Enid's wedding present. But if you ever contemplate divorce take my advice, even if there's a little bit of injustice by sorting it out quickly between you, that's nothing to the pain and punishment you'll get from a so-called 'just' settlement arrived at by lawyers and the courts. The time and cost alone is prohibitive.
Make your decision, pick your moment and sit down with a friend whom you both trust. List all the items which need to be discussed. Remember that the aim and object of the exercise is to give each of you the fairest chance of surviving and starting again. Of course, it's tempting to turn the issue into a re-run of past resentments and to score points off each other. But it isn't worth it. When you've worked it all out, write it down and let the friend arbitrate if you can't agree. Depending on the circumstances, you may or may not want to involve your solicitors, but if it turns out that one of you won't stick by the rules, you've still got resource to solicitors and the court, who will in any case negotiate maintenance, custody and access where children are concerned.
In my own case I'm certain that the result was very unfair from my own point of view (but then I would, wouldn't I?) but looking back it all seems rather trivial now. Yes, most of my valued family belongings and childhood treasures vanished thanks to the principle that a wife can't steal from her husband.
Yes, I'm sure the cash settlement and vicious way in which technicalities such as Class F Land Charges were used to extract more money were unfair. But neither of us would have thought about all that if the solicitors hadn't put us up to it. Inflation has made the money side look ridiculous nowadays. The furniture wouldn't have fitted my present house anyway. Like lifebelts, they were all we had left to fight about after we'd begun to go our separate ways. We missed the boat and missed the point.
Couples who think they might benefit from specially set-up conciliation services, of which about 25 are already operating throughout the country, should make the Citizens Advice Bureau their first port of call.
The first such service to help couples sort out the problems of who-gets-what was probably the Bristol Courts Family Conciliation Service, according to Barbara Stowe of the CAB. Since then, many groups have sprung up and local CAB offices should be able to say if there is one operating locally. The Citizens Advice Bureau itself has had a lot of experience in this sort of work and can often help with advice and assistance if there is no formal conciliation service nearby.
Another way to find out what help is available is to ring the Surrey Family Conciliation Service on 0306 882754 where a co-ordinated list of groups is available to enquirers.
"We feel that this sort of service which helps couples decide for themselves how they can best arrange their separation is an excellent idea," says Barbara Stowe, who is the Legal Services Officer at the CAB.
"In complicated cases where there may be problems over property or maintenance, we still feel that a solicitor's advice may be essential. Nevertheless, anything which can help to get couples to sort things out themselves, without confrontation, is obviously a good thing.
In addition to the CAB, couples may find that they qualify for free or reduced legal advice from a solicitor under the Green Form scheme. This is based on a means test and is similar to legal aid, although it doesn't cover litigation and court costs or representation."
Surprisingly, too, the local Probation Service can often help. They are increasingly involved in the problems of separation and divorce and are usually represented on conciliation service panels.
You don't have to be on the verge of divorce to make use of the expert help offered by the Divorce Conciliation and Advisory Service, 38 Ebury Street, London SW1, tel: 01 730 2422. This organisation also deals with the problems encountered by non-married couples separating after a long relationship.
N.B. The notes above regarding organisations and advice services will by now be obsolete. The law regarding divorce and separation may also have altered since this article was written.
Picking up the Pieces
'Tis better to have loved and lost; than never to have loved at all,' wrote Lord Tennyson. It is doubtful that anyone newly on the losing side of a long term relationship would agree with him. 'I wish I'd never met you' is undoubtedly the expression which would spring more readily to their lips. But of course people do recover from their broken hearts. Time eventually dulls the pain even if all else fails. We spoke to five victims of divorce to see how they had coped:
CHARLES, ENGINEER, 35
Other women were how I 'recovered' from my broken marriage. It sounds rather trite, I suppose, but there's a lot of truth in it and I did have to learn the hard way.
Our marriage was a disaster for a long, long time, now that I look back on it, although the strange thing is that I find I can't remember very much about it. I suppose nature is kind and you forget the painfulness of it all.
When we split up, my wife and I reacted in very different ways. Her feelings of failure and despair soon turned to anger and bitterness with me. I put on a sort of detached, businesslike front which I kidded myself into believing was real. I thought that I would cope all right that I would just write off the past five years and start again. But it wasn't as easy as that.
It's funny, you know, but if you really love the person you're with, even if the relationship is a disaster, you don't want to hurt them but you can very quickly believe that their anger and bitterness is justified, which makes you feel it's all your fault that you're the one who let her down. I don't believe that now, but I did then.
As a result I suppose I thought that if I wasn't good enough for her then I probably wasn't going to be good enough for anyone else either. When I was alone again I thought that if someone else fancied me it was either because they didn't know the truth about how badly I'd behaved or else that they must be pretty hard up!
I don't want to be a member of any club that has people like me as members, if you know what I mean. That didn't stop me from being very interested in other women I always had been but I was very wary. I needed comfort, reassurance, not to feel threatened and not to feel that I was being judged about my marriage, my career, my sexual performance, or anything like that.
Unfortunately, my ex-married status (ideal bachelor existence with what appeared to be a very attractive way of life) attracted a lot of people I couldn't cope with while I found myself attracted to a lot of very submissive, undemanding women who weren't very good for me. They encouraged me to wallow in my loneliness and despair. It's like a bereavement, I suppose. You need to be allowed to go through the grieving process, but not for too long.
I remember feeling desperate at times. I was always with people who made me feel worse.
Then, about two years later, I met someone who was a lot younger and had never been married. I found her very, very attractive and it turned out to be an enormous success for the four years we lived together. I think the reason was that she had so little idea of what I'd been through and had never been disillusioned about relationships herself, so she didn't allow me to go on grieving. She just accepted me as I was and told me once that she didn't think my marriage could have been worth very much if it had resulted in such a lot of pain and misery. Within days or weeks of meeting her I found myself looking forward, not back.
That's it, I think. It's all a question of being able to look forward and stop digesting the past. I think you can do that for yourself, given time, or thanks to someone else if they are brave enough or shrewd enough to catch you at the right moment and say 'Right, that's enough!'.
However awful you feel I think you've got to take risks. It really isn't as bad as you think and the risk isn't really a risk at all. You're just the same nice, interesting, sexy, awful, bad-tempered, loving old sod that you were before, except that now you've grown up a bit and you're older and wiser with any luck!
GILLIAN, SECRETARY, 35
I have to admit that the ending of my marriage was a relief. I really felt no pain at all. It was probably made easier because I was living abroad when the final break came. I simply leapt on a plane and came home. I didn't have to sit in an empty house surrounded by memories. I was only 27 at the time so it wasn't difficult to find a job and a flat and make a new social life for myself.
It was four years later that my life was devastated by the ending of a relationship which I had felt sure would end in marriage. Everything about it seemed to be right, including the fact that I had known the man concerned for years before my marriage. In those days we had been very close on a purely platonic level. When we started going out together after my return from abroad, the physical side quickly bloomed and I felt we had the perfect relationship romance and passion built on a genuine friendship.
It lasted two years then, completely out of the blue, he broke it off. I was absolutely heartbroken. Life seemed completely meaningless. I could hardly bring myself to move. I found it impossible to stop thinking about him. Questioning why it had happened - over and over and over again. I would relive all the happy times we had had together. I fantasised about how he would come back and tell me it had all been a huge mistake and that we'd live happily ever after. I bored my two really close girlfriends into the ground with the whole sad story. But they were fantastic. They never judged, nor told me to pull myself together.
Somehow I dragged myself through the days that followed, doing what was absolutely necessary at work and no more. After a couple of months a girl I knew vaguely suggested I should move in with her. I had been living on my own and was finding the evenings unbearable, so I agreed, albeit unenthusiastically. Naturally, I poured out the story of my broken romance to her as well and she was very good about it.
But not being on my own certainly helped my state of mind. I was forced to do my 'bit' towards cleaning, cooking, etc. I couldn't just fall into a state of total disintegration after I'd finished my working day. And of course her friends would pop round for a drink and meals, so for short periods at least my mind was taken off my own situation without my really being aware of it.
Even so, whenever I had the opportunity I thoroughly indulged myself by never attempting to turn off my thoughts about my departed boyfriend and I do think it helped simply because after a few months even I became bored by the same old depressing thoughts.
Nevertheless my social life was practically nil and I had no desire to resurrect it. I had little interest in anything. But eventually nearly a year after the break-up a friend challenged me to a game of squash. I'd never played before and I was starting to get restless and fed up with my cloistered existence. So I accepted and it really was the turning point; the start of my entry back into the real world. I wasn't slow to notice that the club had a lively bar and an obviously active social side. Through the friend who had first introduced me to the game I met other people who were willing to play a complete novice and eventually I did become a fairly familiar face at the club.
It wasn't long before I started receiving invitations from some of the men. But I still wasn't ready for any kind of close male/female relationship so I always made my excuses. But inevitably there came the night when I met a man who attracted me strongly. He asked me out and although the relationship only lasted about three months, it was great fun and set me back on the road to full 'normality'. By that I mean that I felt able to accept invitations from all kinds of people simply because I liked them and felt I could enjoy their company - not just because I wanted to go to bed with them. But what is clearly important is that I needed to meet a man who I could quite spontaneously 'fancy' to make me realise that I was finally 'over' my broken affair.
In retrospect it's hard to say whether I didn't meet any men who attracted me for such a long time because I was still so in love with someone else, or whether the few I did meet wouldn't have turned me on under any circumstances. I actually think it's possibly the latter. In which case it seems that if I had forced myself to get out and meet new people a great deal sooner after my affair had ended I might well have been 'cured' rather earlier.
ANTONIA, EX ROYAL BALLET DANCER, 43
"I wasn't heartbroken over the ending of my marriage. It was just something we both agreed was inevitable. But I did have to adjust to not being part of a pair anymore. And that wasn't easy. I just went on the rampage like there was no tomorrow. It was just outrageous. Meeting men was no problem because I was doing film extra work at the time. I was sleeping with anybody. I'd never done it before, you see. I just never did the things that most young people do so to a certain extent I was making up for lost time. I remember sleeping with three different men in one weekend. And I wasn't involved with any of them. Then after about ten months I just woke up one morning, asked myself what on earth I was doing, and stopped.
"Then I had an affair which ended disastrously and it was then, I think, that everything hit me. My broken marriage, behaving like a tart, everything. I just collapsed and nearly had a nervous breakdown. I just used to sit and do nothing. My brother's an analyst but he couldn't really help. He just said not to fight the depression and he encouraged me to go to group therapy. It did help quite a lot. Then I took up bridge. You can't be depressed when you're learning to play bridge it's an extremely complex game and you really have to concentrate.
"The trouble was it took over my life completely. It became like a drug. I used to eat, sleep and breathe bridge. I'd take four books out of the library three on bridge and one novel. The novel never got read. Nevertheless it was a real life-saver. The people I met were fantastic. But since then I've had one disastrous affair after another. I don't know why but I always seem to attract the wrong people. After the latest affair I was just dead for six months. Well I suppose I wasn't really. The truth is I was loving the drama of it you know, crying all the time. Something to be really miserable about. I think it must be something very deep seated about me. After all I was a ballet dancer for a good many years; then I did film extra work. All escapist things.
"Now after five years of bridge and all these disastrous affairs I've finally torn myself away from the game at least. I'm arranging to join another group therapy course and I've also got myself a full time job. I haven't started yet and I'm absolutely terrified but I'm hoping it will introduce me to what I call 'normal' people the kind I want so much to be like. The bridge crowd were fantastic but loony. Bridge is their whole life just as it was mine.
"I think perhaps if I'd had to work from the very beginning to keep me and the children things might have been different but my ex-husband always made sure we had enough money to get by on.
"I dread to think what I've done to my son and daughter. I do worry about their future. I just pray to God they'll be OK. They never knew about all the men in my life but they certainly suffered because of my terrible depressions. How other people like me manage to keep up a pretence in front of their kids I'll never know. I just about used to be able to get them to school and back. Then it was fish fingers for tea. Fortunately they're very close which must be some kind of comfort. My daughter's extremely musical and very bright. She's terrifying. She's twelve now and gives me the most dreadful lectures. I just feel so ashamed. She says I must pull myself together - that one makes one's own happiness. I feel so horrendously guilty.
"I'd love to get married again. Maybe my new 'proper' job is a first step. It's seven years now since my marriage broke up and perhaps I'm only just beginning to pick up the pieces."
© (1982) Christopher Long. Copyright, Syndication & All Rights Reserved Worldwide.
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