Divorce rates have fallen to their lowest level since the 1970s but breakdowns continue to spike after the festive season, and professionals are encouraging couples with rocky relationships to focus on talking to each other in the run up to Christmas.
Many attribute the stress and financial burden of trying to create the perfect Christmas as the reason why many married couples head for divorce in January, with family lawyers and support organisations receiving more enquiries in the New Year than at any other time.
And while the latest figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) show that overall rates of divorce have reduced, experts say this does not directly translate into more couples experiencing a ‘happy ever after’.
There were 90,871 divorces of opposite-sex couples in 2018, a decrease of 10.6% compared with 2017 and the lowest number since 1971. Couples are also staying married for longer before they divorce – 12.4 years for those divorcing in 2018, up from 9.6 years in 1996. But analysts suggest that these figures are due in the main to marriages taking place later in life and often following a period of living together, which can act as a pre-marriage trial. The figures also reflect that there are far fewer marriages taking place overall, at nearly half the number of 1974.
Administrative delays at Ministry of Justice divorce centres have driven last year’s figures down as well, with the subsequent catch up on processing of divorce petitions expected to translate into a higher number of completed divorces in 2019.
Unreasonable behaviour remains the most common reason for divorce. In opposite-sex couples, 51.9% of wives and 36.8% of husbands petitioned on this ground.
At present, the only grounds for divorce are that the marriage has broken down irretrievably, through adultery, unreasonable behaviour, the rarely-used ground of desertion, two years of separation where both parties agree to divorce, or five years’ separation in which case the consent of the other party is not required.
Said family law expert Michael Dear of Grant Saw Solicitors. “There has been much discussion about changing the law to allow for no-fault divorce, without the need for a long separation, but we are still waiting. In the meantime, we need to support couples in navigating the process and help them avoid a recriminatory approach, which is even more important when children are involved.”
This echoes guidance from support organisations such as the NSPCC who encourage parents to talk to their children and prepare the ground for separation and divorce, by avoiding accusations and blaming or asking children to take sides.
He added: “Talking things through is always best, and you don’t have to do it all on your own, as someone can sit in to help focus those conversations on positive negotiation, whether it’s just between the two of you, or as a family with your children.
“It doesn’t have to be a professional at this stage, although it’s a good idea to get some expert input before you make any agreement over asset sharing or custody arrangements, to be sure it is fair for both sides.
“Approaching separation on the basis of collaboration and mediation may ease things and make this very difficult phase of life just a little less tough. When a marriage is failing, positive communication between parents is perhaps the best Christmas present the children can be given.”
This is not legal advice; it is intended to provide information of general interest about current legal issues.