Splitting up can be a good thing—even for the kidsby Hephzibah Anderson / December 10, 2018 / Leave a comment
My parents had to get divorced. That was the conclusion I drew as a 13-year-old, possessed of the kind of fiery certainty that only teenage girls and political zealots can muster. I had begun to observe how other people’s parents were together, and saw that my parents in no way functioned as a couple.
More troubling still, my lively-minded, creative mother was a different person in the presence of my father—she was cowed. The idea that me and my sister might set off into the world and abandon her to that marriage in the back-of-beyond filled me with sadness.
I would quiz my mother relentlessly about her marriage and she’d talk of social pressures out in the sticks, of low expectations engendered by a rickety upbringing. Nothing she said seemed to adequately explain why they’d got together in the first place, and nothing I saw seemed reason enough for them to remain that way.
When we had moved to the home in which most of my childhood would be spent, my father’s first act was to fit a lock on his studio door. Soon after, he built a new workspace in the garden and would enter the house mostly after we were asleep. The crunch of his footsteps on the gravel path would send a frisson of unease around the living room like a wintry draught.
But if there were bitter rows in the car, there was also engaged conversation about art and politics over the Sunday papers. To me it seemed not so much unbearable as illogical.
Of course, there was a great deal more going on that my mother shielded us from. There always is. Other people’s marriages are deeply mysterious, even to those who live under the same roof—sometimes even to the spouses themselves.
It took a while but eventually my campaigning succeeded. A sit-down with a solicitor, a bit of paperwork, and hey presto: with a smattering of Latin that sounded to my ears like a magic spell (decree nisi, decree absolute!), it was done. I’d freed my mother.
This was in the early 1990s, when the divorce rate, rising since the 1960s, peaked. While marriage has undergone radical changes in the 25 years since, evolving to embrace stay-at-home dads, same-sex couples, and the blended families that often result from remarriage, divorce remains as traditional as the puffy white meringue dress.
So antiquated are its laws, adultery still means extramarital shenanigans between a man and a woman. In the eyes of the family court, it’s simply not possible for a gay woman or man to be adulterous, or indeed for a husband or wife to be unfaithful with someone of their own sex. And because there is no such thing as a no-fault divorce, acrimony is positively encouraged. Just look at what happened between Shula and Alistair in The Archers.
On the no-fault divorce front, however, the government is finally consulting on change. But a quick flick through a tabloid is enough to remind you that while we’ve loosened up about most aspects of relationships, divorce retains at least some of its stigma. Simplifying the process will be the end of the family as we know it, shrilled the headlines, no matter that the rigid nuclear family has always been part fiction, and began changing long ago.
In this age of anxiety parenting, research about the supposed toll that it takes on kids is potent. In 2017, one UK study at first blush appeared to be saying the same old thing: children of married parents who divorced are almost a third more likely to exhibit behavioural or emotional problems.
Yet it bucked the conventional wisdom in one important respect. Whereas past studies said it was better for children to remain trapped with feuding parents than to suffer divorce, this one blamed pre-divorce circumstances for the damage. (It also faces up to an uncomfortable class dimension: much of the apparent cognitive gap between the kids of divorce and their peers could be explained by their parents’ relative lack of education and financial resources.)
If things between a couple have become so bad that they see no other route ahead but divorce, then any children caught in the crossfire must surely be suffering. In such circumstances, divorce, however distressing, must in the end be beneficial.
Divorce is getting rarer: it’s now at its lowest in 45 years—largely because fewer people get hitched in the first place, but the old spectres of “broken homes” and wrecked futures are hard to dispel, and still encourage failing marriages to linger on.
My friends are nothing if not on-trend. Only half are married and of those who have tied the knot, scarcely any are divorced. A while ago, though, I met up with an old university boyfriend who has a couple of young kids. In the two years since I’d last seen him, he and his wife had divorced. “I’m sorry,” I said. It was a reflex response. “Don’t be,” he replied. “It’s brilliant.”