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My former husband, Garden Naturalist, is a fine man. He has settled into the role of former husband with grace and thoughtfulness, continues to buy me lunch from time to time (or allows me to buy lunch for him as the case may be), and recently took me to see The Magic Flute, with its aria about ‘the joys and sacred duties of marital love’ (we nudged each other and laughed).[1] We talk on the ’phone and he can be in a room with Giant Bear, and while it’s clearly a bit odd for other people, they’ll get over it.[2] It’s now nearly a year since we decided to separate, and so I’ve been thinking about how to have a healthy divorce, and how the legal part of the process could be changed to make this easier, as well as making it easier for couples who consider divorce (but nevertheless decide to stay together) to do so in a healthy manner.

To start with, let me blow your mind: at the time of writing, there is no such thing as no-fault divorce in England and Wales. You can file for divorce on the grounds that you have lived apart for more than two years, so I suppose in that (presumably uncommon) situation, this might constitute no-fault divorce. However, for people who want a divorce because their relationship has broken down, rather than because their partner went out to buy a paper in 1987 and never came back[3] there is no way to get the marriage dissolved that doesn’t involve somebody taking the blame. The options are as follows: adultery (in which case you have to name the third person, who presumably you can then both blame for the whole thing), unreasonable behaviour, or desertion. That’s it. There is no box you can tick that says something like ‘look, we’ve done our best. We worked hard and spent thousands of pounds on counselling and tried to do the right thing, and it just hasn’t worked out. It’s nobody’s fault, and actually saying that it is somebody’s fault is really unfair and unhelpful.’ Equally, there is no box for ‘nobody asked us to tick boxes giving reasons why we wanted to get married.[4] It’s none of your fucking business why we got married, and it’s none of your fucking business why we want a divorce.’[5] One of you has to divorce the other, and unless you want the process to drag on even longer, that means one of you has to take the blame, in the eyes of the law at least. No-fault divorce was suggested several years ago, and it was voted down by MPs who thought it would ‘undermine’ marriage. What the current situation does instead, however, is to undermine whatever relationship it is that the two of you may have left.

Here are the two main things that make me angry about the process of getting divorced. Firstly, divorce is something that happens to both the people in the relationship. The divorce papers frame it as something one of you inflicts upon the other, in return for his or her atrocious behaviour, but in reality I think very few relationships end in circumstances where 100% of the blame can be laid at the door of one person only. The divorce forms ought to reflect the fact that divorce is sad and painful and, above all, normal. If the divorce rate is 50%, and we assume that not all the people who are still married are happily so, one of the conclusions we can come to is that divorce is necessary (and that there is a wider shortage of relationship skills, which also needs to be addressed). Relationships go wrong. Sometimes, relationships go so wrong that they have to come to an end, and a bad relationship coming to an end is a good thing for everyone concerned. It also does *not* mean that a relationship has ‘failed’: it just hasn’t worked out the way you thought it would.[6] Alistair Cooke quotes a judge from Reno as follows:

If the marriage of two hearts that beat as one is a sacred thing, then by the same token a divorce where love is dead is a holy thing. It is a kind of spiritual surgery.[7]

The knowledge that your relationship might go wrong or come to an end should be something that motivates you to look after it properly. Rather than promoting the idea that someone is to blame, the formalities surrounding legal divorce ought to encourage both people in the relationship to take responsibility for the end of it, and the manner in which it comes to an end. This would surely make it much easier to be at least courteous to each other afterwards (and there will be an ‘afterwards’. Even if you don’t have children, you have mutual friends, and there will be birthday parties and weddings and christenings and funerals forever, many of which will be organised by people who will want to invite both of you and who need you to be able to be in a room together). I simply don’t understand why there isn’t a ‘mutual consent’ box that indicates that, for reasons that don’t matter to anyone outside the relationship, the two grown-up people involved have agreed that staying married is no longer an appropriate reflection of the relationship they have with one another.

Secondly, there is no ceremony to a divorce. When one gets married, the important parts are making a public commitment in a suitable building, surrounded by friends and family, and celebrating what you have together now and what you hope to make together in the future. Nobody says afterwards, ‘well, the whole public declaration of love thing was OK, but my favourite bit was when we signed that extra-wide certificate thingy. That was ace.’ The bit that carries the emotional weight is exchanging rings and making vows, isn’t it? The legal part of the marriage ceremony is a formality: an important formality, but a formality nonetheless. It may be the most important part of what you are doing in some sense, but it doesn’t feel like it. You still have to decide for yourselves as a couple what being married means for you, and the only bit of the ceremony that helps you do that is the part where you make promises to each other. When Garden Naturalist and I got married, I felt that the emotional, religious and legal strands of what we were doing ran alongside each other, and got plaited together in a way that I couldn’t explain. Divorce frames itself as the disentangling of those three parts, and the termination of the legal strand only. It has nothing whatever to say to (or about) the other aspects of the commitment you made to each other. These are, presumably, also coming to an end, but in silence.

I think that means you have to decide for yourselves when the part of the marriage that means something to you has come to an end. I almost felt that getting divorced was a waste of time, because it didn’t offer any meaningful sense of closure. The sense of closure came from agreeing to separate and taking off my wedding rings (in the middle of a horrible row, while walking home from counselling). Even then, I wouldn’t say either of us had any sense of a clean break, because we still weren’t legally divorced. Divorce takes months: even a straightforward one like ours took six months. We divided all our possessions (including our home) perfectly amicably without legal help, and we don’t have any children. Why does this take so long, when getting married takes a couple of weeks from banns to registrar? Why assume that people might try to get out of a serious commitment for the wrong reasons, but not make equivalent provision to prevent people from getting into that same serious commitment for the wrong reasons? Nobody would argue that people who want to get married should have to explain themselves, and yet people who want to get divorced are legally obliged to do so.[8]

Overwhelmingly, I feel that the law needs to treat people like adults. Rather than encouraging couples to point at each other like five-year-olds and say, effectively, ‘he/she started it’, divorce paperwork could acknowledge that sometimes relationship breakdown isn’t anybody’s fault, and that being able to say to someone you used to love ‘this hasn’t ended the way I wanted it to, but that isn’t your fault’ might be a really important part of the healing process for both people, and for laying the foundation of the relationship you’re going to try to have in the future. Furthermore, rather than putting pressure on people to just stay together by introducing delay into the divorce proceedings (like the parts where you can’t apply for the next part of the process to happen until an arbitrary period of time has passed), the government could subsidise relationship counselling: it’s worth every single penny, but it’s not cheap. That would encourage couples to work on their relationship in a sensible, structured way, with help from a trained professional who can help them to decide whether staying together is actually viable or not. We stayed together for a long time because we simply didn’t know what else to do, and for much of that time we were both too depressed and demoralised to do any meaningful work on repairing the relationship. Even if we had felt able to do the right thing, who really knows in that moment what the ‘right’ thing is? Our counsellors were both wonderful ladies, who were able to call us both out when we said stupid or inflammatory things, and could help us explore issues that we just couldn’t talk about calmly with each other. Our second counsellor told us that she felt we were waiting for someone to give us permission to separate, and she was absolutely right: not only did we need permission, we needed permission from someone who really knew what they were talking about. Those conversations were one of the things that helped us have a healthy divorce, as did both of us being adults, both of us continuing to care about our relationship in whatever form it took, and Garden Naturalist being a decent man. None of the legal hoops (and they are hoops) helped at all.

[1] Spoiler alert: The Magic Flute has the stupidest plot of anything I’ve ever seen, including Lost. The plot summary on Wikipedia includes the following helpful sentence to describe the end of the first scene: ‘Together, Tamino and Papageno set forth (Quintet: “Hm! Hm! Hm! Hm!”).’

[2] As Fitz says in The West Wing with reference to allowing people of colour into the military, ‘it did disrupt the unit. The unit got over it.

[3] Or who, you know, want to get on with their lives, for goodness sake.

[4] And if you *did* have to fill out a form when you applied to get married, what the hell kind of questions would it have on it? ‘Do you have affectionate feeling towards your proposed spouse? Yes/No (delete as appropriate)’.

[5] Surely making it hard to get married makes a lot more sense than making it hard to get divorced? People who really wanted to get married would see it through, and those that didn’t would make some other, less formal commitment to each other, both of which would be just fine. I still can’t decide whether making divorce lengthy and slow makes you work harder, or whether it just makes you work for longer. I doubt very much if any couple has ever turned to each other and said, ‘well, we both really want to get divorced, but it’s just so bloody inconvenient. Let’s not bother. Then we won’t have to pay £400 and fill out a load of crappy forms. That feels like an excellent reason to be together.’

[6] ‘The idea that a relationship is a ‘failure’ because it ends is a pessimist’s construct, anyway.’ (Lindy West (2016), ‘Strong People Fighting Against the Elements’, in Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman (London: Quercus), p. 128). Yes. Surely one of the options when you start a relationship (and certainly the most overwhelmingly likely) is that it will run its natural course and you’ll split up? If someone had said to us when we got married ‘look, you’ll have fifteen years together, and about half of that time will be good’, I for one would have taken that.

[7] Alistair Cooke (1979), ‘Angela Davis v. the Establishment’, in The Americans: Fifty Letters from America on our Life and Times (London: Bodley Head), p. 102.

[8] Much as people who decide to have a child are never met with ‘oh, really? Why is that, then?’, but childless couples will be asked to justify themselves by strangers, colleagues and family alike.