Christmas: A splitting headache?

Janet and Paul are one of the couples considering their future together... or apart. Credit: ITV News / Tonight

How was your Christmas?

You may well have managed to pull off the perfect family moment, living up to all the wild expectations of harmony and goodwill... but if you’re honest, you might be a little bit glad it’s all over.

And if you struggled through it with a marriage on the rocks, it might have been the moment when you realised it truly IS all over.

That’s why this week in January is bonanza time for divorce lawyers.

So with a mounting campaign to change the laws on how our marriages break up, we decided to take a long cool look at exactly where we’re at with divorce in the UK.

Senior judges are among those campaigning for change. Credit: ITV News / Tonight

On the face of it, it seems astonishing that even though marriage has undergone unprecedented change in the last 50 years - the fundamental laws which govern how it comes to an end haven’t changed since 1973.

At the moment, the only way you can get a quick divorce in England and Wales (Scotland has already changed the rules) is by blaming or being blamed for unreasonable behavior or adultery.

Otherwise, you need to wait for two years and separate in the interval. It’s this element of ‘fault’ which campaigners (including many senior judges) want to remove: they argue it unnecessarily introduces conflict in an already difficult situation.

There are other hurdles, too.

  • Anthea Turner went through a divorce in the public eye:

However you navigate it, divorce is expensive - over £500 to file a petition - and with cuts to legal aid since 2013, more and more people are trying to represent themselves in court, rather than hire a solicitor.

One mother we spoke to told us trying to prepare for court was like studying for a degree.

But despite all this, there are those who argue that these pressures for change undermine the institution of marriage: that it SHOULD be difficult to break it up, if not only for the sake of trying to keep families together.

It raises big questions about how society now regards and respects marriage. Should it continue to be the bedrock on which that society is built? It’s one of the reasons politicians have been so reluctant to act.

  • Janet and Paul are one of the couples who have been to the 'Divorce Hotel':

So on Tonight, we speak to divorcing couples to get their take.

We also visit a ‘Divorce Hotel’ which offers to help smooth the process; get advice from experts for those who may be about to split; and we hear from Anthea Turner, who’s gone through two divorces in the very public eye.

What’s struck me most is how courageous so many of them have been in talking about something so personal - and so painful.

  • Watch Divorce Wars: Tonight at 7.30pm on ITV on Thursday

Jo Edwards is a partner and mediator who heads up the family team at London firm Forsters LLP and has practised family law for 20 years.

Here she gives her top 10 tips for a friendly divorce:

  • Be sure that divorce is what you really want. All relationships go through a rocky patch and couples counselling can help. If you agree that the marriage is over and that you have tried your best to save it, you are more likely to have an amicable separation.

  • If you are the one driving a divorce, be patient with your husband or wife and don’t rush the process. If you are on the receiving end of a request for a divorce, don’t be afraid to ask for time to come to terms with it. The most acrimonious divorces tend to be those where one or both spouses isn’t emotionally ready. Therapy can be a useful way to discuss and understand why the relationship ended, which tends to make the legal process smoother.

  • Prioritise the needs and feelings of any children, ensuring that they have a relationship with both of their parents during and after divorce provided that it is safe. However much bad feeling exists, marriage breakdown is never the fault of a child. Exposing them to conflict, and/or making them take sides, will cause them lasting emotional harm.

  • Ensure a line of communication is always open with your ex, during the divorce and (where there are children) afterwards. If direct contact isn’t possible at first, perhaps use a third party or email. If you are a parent, you need to be able to work together for many years.

  • Be open about what you want from the divorce. The sooner you make clear where you’re coming from and what you want, the more likely it is that your ex will see your viewpoint. At the same time, be pragmatic and open to compromise - entrenched positions lead to delay and acrimony.

  • Be realistic and take advice about what you may be entitled to expect, in terms of money and children. Most cases that end up in court do so either because one person is trying to achieve an unrealistic outcome, or because one has not been fully transparent about their finances.

  • Work together to agree what the family finances are, before addressing how assets and income should be divided to provide for two households. Openness and honesty are key; attempting to withhold information will only cause conflict and is ultimately pointless, as full disclosure must be provided in the end.

  • Mediation or collaborative practice are the best processes for achieving a good divorce. You and your ex will be directly involved in discussions and will be able to hear what the other has to say, but in a supported environment. An arrangement agreed between you and your ex will likely be more successful in practice than one imposed by a judge.

  • Educate yourself about process. There is a lot of information available online about divorce. Although it is sensible to have legal advice, you can save on costs if your solicitor does not have to explain process to you and their involvement is limited to advising how the law may apply to your specific case. Make sure you agree a budget for costs and stick to it.

  • Look after yourself and keep your friends and family close at hand. A support network is very important as you go through divorce so you don’t feel isolated or overwhelmed.