Whether fiction or fact, marriage breakdown issues have been stealing more than their fair share of headlines in recent weeks.
BBC Radio 4 listeners tuned in to hear revelations about the oppressive relationship endured by Helen Titchener in the Archers storyline. And in celebrity news, the announcements by Angelina Jolie and Zoe Ball have resulted in many column inches of speculation and rumour.
It may seem like coincidence, but post-summer is a peak for relationship breakdown, a close second to so-called ‘divorce day’ in early January. According to divorce professionals, it’s often the result of families being forced into each other’s company during holidays, whether on the beach or around the Christmas tree, with those in fragile relationships finding the extra strain too much.
And while high profile cases may seem a world away from reality, according to the professionals it’s worth trying to learn lessons from them, if your relationship is going through hard times and the worst happens.
The Pitt-Jolie divorce has the potential of a bitter battle, with Jolie seeking to secure sole custody of the couple’s six children. Apparently, the divorce petition was revealed to Pitt just hours before the papers were filed with the court, and the world was aflame with the news. In stark contrast is the muted note of the joint statement put out by Zoe Ball and DJ husband Norman Cook, best known by his stage name Fat Boy Slim. They spoke of their sadness and promised to support each other and to raise their children together. It’s always a sad situation when a couple splits, but avoiding anger, managing emotion and making a conscious decision to work towards co-operation from the outset can help reduce the pain of break-up, especially when children are involved. Under the Children and Families Act 2014, a separating couple must consider using mediation before they can ask for a Court decision, and that will be easier if you can approach it with some form of accord in place.
One advantage the Jolie-Pitts have is that they are able to apply for an immediate no-fault divorce without proving wrong-doing or placing blame on one partner. That’s not available here, and having to ascribe blame to get a swift divorce can fan the flames, by stirring up grievances to make a case. Again, seeking agreement and avoiding nasty surprises can help. There must be sufficient reason for the divorce, but the bare facts are usually enough, without the detail.
Unlike California, no-fault divorce is allowed in England and Wales only after a two-year separation, something which can be difficult for many couples to manage without the financial settlement that comes with divorce. As a result, spouses are likely to resort to citing grounds to get a speedier divorce, which can be on the basis of unreasonable behaviour or adultery. Coming together, or attending mediation, is not always possible, particularly in cases of domestic abuse, such as that portrayed by the fictional Titchener characters in Radio 4’s Ambridge. The storyline in the Archers is a more complex one. The issue of child custody has been portrayed in a series of court hearings, highlighting the dilemmas involved in maintaining parental contact in such situations. Clearly it would be difficult for the parents to sit down and work things out together, or even to cooperate over visitation rights. The courts recognise that, and where there has been domestic abuse, a couple would not be required to attend mediation together. Importantly, this story has depicted a situation that reflects the new offence of controlling or coercive behaviour in intimate or familial relationships, which became law earlier this year under the Serious Crime Act 2015. It’s a criminal offence, quite separate to any action for divorce, although such conduct could be the grounds to end a marriage, if used as evidence of unreasonable behaviour.
We don’t know what the story editors are planning for future instalments of the programme, but in the meantime, raising awareness of such situations, and how such abuse may not be visible to those outside the relationship, is an important message.