9 Jan 2023

The diplomacy of divorce

Divorce was once freighted with stigma, sleaze and social scandal and this is fortunately no longer the case. But, despite our more relaxed social mores, a divorce will inevitably have an impact on family and friends, who must be kept informed from the outset. Otherwise, your marriage breakdown will become the talk of your social circle, and you will become gossip fodder. Your in-laws, especially if you have children, must be prioritised to ensure that they continue to play a role in the life of your family.

A divorce, especially if children are involved, is for a lifetime, it is not merely a legal process. If you are civilised at the outset, you will be able to negotiate the years ahead with dignity; rage and vindictiveness may come back to haunt you.

For many people, the idea of divorcing with decorum is preposterous – this is a time when emotions are running high, when divorcing couples are forced to confront toxic feelings of betrayal, resentment and disillusion. But maintaining the civilised high ground, and armouring yourself with a carapace of good manners, is an effective way of retaining feelings of self-respect and reducing unnecessary animosity and distress. Good manners are all about communicating effectively: keeping correspondence temperate, remaining calm during encounters with your ex, ensuring that everyone is kept informed and that major decisions are matters of consultation.

Remain open and communicative throughout the entire process and you will mitigate some of the negative fall-out. Write letters to your ex-partner, communicate with him/her about your children, keep in touch with in-laws. Make sure that everyone is kept informed, including schools, your children’s parents, family doctors and so on.

Debrett’s Top Tips

• Don’t use your lawyer as a counsellor

It’s tempting to confide in a sympathetic lawyer, but it is foolish to do so while the meter is ticking away. Seek counselling from professionals or confide in close and trusted friends.

• Don’t waste your lawyer’s time

Arguing about which party should have the cream sofa or the best dinner service is not a good use of your lawyer’s time or fees. Try and resolve these issues with your ex-spouse, using a mediator if necessary.

• Communicate the news in person if possible

It’s best if you talk through your impending divorce with family and close friends: if this is not feasible, consider sending a handwritten letter or a personalised email. You will want to explain your decision, but avoid vitriol and accusations – intemperate remarks, in writing, will cause unnecessary distress. As with all bad news, text messages are inappropriate – it is hard to communicate emotional nuance using minimal words and emojis.

• Don’t be vindictive

Throwing your husband’s vintage wine collection down the loo or cutting your wife’s prized designer clothes collection to shreds may seem like a therapeutic act when you’re in the throes of rage and despair, but it can rebound on you and undermine your case. Judges will take a dim view of vindictive behaviour, so hold your head high and retain the civilised high ground.

• Keep communications open

If phone and face-to-face conversations with your ex-partner are quick to ignite into rage and recrimination, email or write regularly, and keep the correspondence focused and businesslike.

• Stay relentlessly polite and civilised

Defuse fallout amongst family and friends by meticulously observing the social niceties: send Christmas cards and birthday cards to in-laws, keep them informed of your children’s progress. No-one will be able to fault your good manners.

• Don’t try to curry favour with your children

Showering your kids with material goods and lavish birthday presents will antagonise your ex-partner and unsettle your children, making them dissatisfied with their old home.

• Don’t cross-examine your children about your ex

Children must redefine their relationship with both parents and will resent your attempts to invade that territory or extract information from them. They may react to probing by telling you what you want to hear, which can cause complications and misunderstandings.

• Protect your children

Recriminations should never be aired in front of them, and you should never confide in them. They lack the maturity and objectivity to understand and will find your distress frightening.

• Conduct handovers with dignity

Find a quiet place to hand over your children to your ex and avoid noisy cafés, shopping malls and petrol stations. Hand over your children in person – never drop them at the gate or the front door.

• Don’t be a divorce bore

Long tales about legal battles, dastardly financial dealings and flaming rows will soon have you struck off the dinner party guest list unless told with humour and self-deprecation.

• Don’t be a dating bore

Resist the temptation to re-live the low points of your marriage with a sympathetic new partner. Remember, detailed tales of communication breakdown, neglect, abuse and infidelity may set alarm bells ringing…

• It’s fine to say no

If you are invited to family occasions (e.g. your ex-partner’s remarriage, or the christening of a child with a new partner) remember you are under no social imperative to attend, and should only do so after closely examining your own feelings. Only go if you think you can cope without lapsing into animosity and bitterness but ensure that you have a friend who can monitor your behaviour, alcohol intake and emotions.

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