My marriage had been in difficulties for years when we finally went our separate ways. It still came as a shock to many.
Why? Because admitting your marriage isn’t working remains mired in shame. It is something to be hidden behind closed doors, meaning when you start to talk about getting a divorce, you’re pretty much guaranteed to elicit a variation on one response, regardless of how you feel about the matter. “I’m so sorry,” people sigh, tilting their heads in pity.
Divorce, after all, is bad. The yin to marriage’s cheerful yang. The opposite of happy. “Can you try again?”, people ask, assuming a bit of effort will make things right. “Have you considered counselling?” they probe, as though it were a panacea. What they’ll never say is “Yay, good for you, you’ll be so much happier.” Because while it might feel like a positive decision, wider society will leave you in no doubt that divorce isn’t just a last resort, it is very much a failing.
And yet, so many of the happiest women I know, myself included, have found themselves thriving after a split. Could it be that the picture is a lot more nuanced than our societal recognition of it suggests?
Battle of wills
“Divorce has a terrible reputation,” writes Samantha Barry, a family law barrister and co-founder of The Divorce Surgery, where she blogs about all things separation. “Say the word, and I guarantee none of the associations you think of will be positive: conflict, acrimony, guilt, a long and painful process and disproportionate expense.”
In reality, divorce doesn’t have to be that way. Our legal processes, pitting one side of a couple against the other, are long overdue an overhaul. Divorcees are grown adults, yet they are often infantilised and condescended to by proceedings that tell them the decisions they are making for themselves require the intervention of two competing and costly grown-ups. If your boss is a bully, you quit. If your spouse is a bully, you have to ask for permission and hire a lawyer.
Now, with family courts impacted by the COVID-19 crisis, many couples have found themselves left in limbo. Thousands of divorces due to be finalised early this year remain stalled in court, but it’s a backlog that’ll need to be cleared quickly – our at-home isolation has ensured thousands more cases are coming down the tracks. Why are we making divorce so difficult?
The reasons for our pessimistic view of divorce are manifold but essentially boil down to one thing – its brand remains relentlessly negative.
But with a recent study by Co-op Legal Services suggesting a 42 per cent rise in separations during lockdown, isn’t it time we reconsidered that view? After all, while separation is complex, individual and rarely the result of one bad month, many experts in the field believe the recent rise comes as a direct result of lockdown exacerbating existing problems in many marriages – escalating abuse, unequal division of labour, financial imbalance and childcare chief among them.
Tracey Moloney, Head of Family Law at Co-op Legal Services, says, “We know that divorce can be a difficult decision at any time. Currently, concerns about finances and employment, coupled with the fact that households are having to spend an increased amount of time together, can add strain on relationships.”
Many women, separating or not, have complained that lockdown has left them feeling unemancipated, beholden to the ties and duties of family life in a way they didn’t choose. They’ve been forcibly returned to a 1950s family model, and they don’t like it.
When Boston Consulting Group carried out a study of household labour in lockdown, it found working parents are having to do an additional 27 hours’ housework each week than before – with women dedicating an average of 15 more hours to household chores than their spouses.
In short, with cleaners cancelled, who has taken on the household maintenance? With childcare closed, who has taken the brunt of responsibility for childrearing? With takeaways off the table, who is doing the cooking? In many households, it seems, the buck stops with women. And in that context, it’s unsurprising 42 per cent more of them are saying ‘enough is enough’.
They’re backed by hard evidence. A second report by the London School of Economics found women are not only more likely to lose their jobs than men in the incoming economic crisis – they’re also more likely to be taking on extra housework and childcare whether working or not.
The study, carried out by the institution’s Centre for Economic Performance (CEP), points out that, as female-dominated sectors such as hospitality and retail face devastation, it is women who are facing the duel threat of redundancy and household responsibility most keenly. It would be foolhardy to think that this picture is not contributing to an incoming surge in divorce rates too.
To be clear, I’m not suggesting anyone is walking out on family life merely as a result of being left on dishwasher duty once again. But if these problems, already in existence, have been worsened in a period where we all have so much more time to contemplate our futures, is it any surprise that some are discovering their needs and wants have changed?
Of course, many women choose to remain at home with their children, or live in households that enjoy the balanced split of household labour we all aspire to. And more power to them! But when that utopia is sorely absent, it is easy to shift our thinking towards viewing divorce as a feminist act.
Professor Barbara Petrongolo, Associate in Labour Markets at the CEP, says: “The Covid-19 crisis is currently widening the gender gap at work, but there are a substantial minority of families where fathers now shoulder the bulk of childcare. Together with the way we are adapting our working lives to cope during the lockdown, this gives me hope that in the long term, a more equal society will emerge.”
One can only hope that she is right. But as we re-examine our roles in the world, as we view these modern examples of equality, isn’t it fair for women to reject any model that is no longer working for them, even if that model is a failing marriage?
We all have choices, and during lockdown, many are realising that they made the wrong choice when they said “I do”. It’s not a rejection of the idea of marriage to support those women who, faced with caring for demanding husbands as well as children, decide they’d be happier going it alone. In fact, isn’t that the very distillation of feminism?
It feels like it’s high time we started viewing divorce for what it really is – a choice made in recognition of the fact two people are no longer offering each other the opportunity to be their best selves.
The days in which marriage was essential to financial and familial security have long gone. Now, a successful marriage is a choice, a decision made every day to stay with a person who makes you feel happy and supported as an equal. When you have that, it’s a wonderful thing – but when you’ve been missing out on that and decide to pursue your own happiness instead, that’s something to be celebrated too.
We live in a society in which personal growth and self-care is prized. For women who’ve outgrown the men they live with, sometimes divorce is a step towards better self-care. Lockdown or not, it is time we learned to respect that decision.