Breaking up is not so very hard to do
Divorce is regularly billed as one of life’s most traumatic events; guaranteed to devastate children, damage adults and leave all parties financially and emotionally wiped out. But after a huge spike in the Seventies, it seems those in today’s moribund marriages remember the toll the combative process took on their Baby Boomer parents, and are increasingly designing bespoke break-ups instead — continuing to share names, neighbourhoods, holidays and even the family home.
To wit, last week actress Sienna Miller (36) explained that she spends “half her time” living with her ex, actor Tom Sturridge (31), so that their daughter Marlowe (4) has stability. “Everybody will stay over or we’ll all go on holiday, because we genuinely want to be around each other,” Miller said. “It’s great for our daughter that she has two parents who love each other.”
Antrim-born actor James Nesbitt’s 23-year marriage may have ended last year, but he recently revealed that he still “lives round the corner” from his ex-wife, and the erstwhile family spends Christmas together. Even in Hollywood, once a bastion of Babylonian plate-throwing, Jennifer Garner and Ben Affleck have remained so reluctant to divorce after their split that friends have openly wondered if a reunion is on the cards.
The great conscious uncouplers themselves, Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin, were the most visible early adopters of the trend, holidaying together shortly after announcing their split, and still hanging out as a family. Last Christmas, they took the children to a Broadway show with Gwyneth’s mum, Blythe Danner.
The softly-softly approach has spread to casual relationships, with actor/nude paddleboarder Orlando Bloom and newly politicised pop star Katy Perry dreaming up the expression “respectful, loving space” to describe their break-up. The pair weren’t married, nor do they have children — but they do have a PR virtuoso capable of crafting a sickly buzzphrase that makes ‘split’ sound practically barbaric by comparison.
The divorce rate is at a 40-year low, and has dropped by around 30pc over the past decade, with lawyers reporting growing numbers of clients who want to split amicably, without the battle of divorce. (The only group seeing a rise in divorce is the over 50s, perhaps because older couples are more financially stable and less concerned about the impact on older children.)
James Hall of UK law firm Hall Brown, which recently conducted a study of divorce rates, said: “A common factor is eagerness to avoid the kind of long drawn-out, bitter and expensive divorce (couples) have read about in the media.”
The research found that the traditional adulterous meltdown has been replaced by “growing apart” as the most popular reason for a split. Perhaps that’s why, without the tempestuous emotions of betrayal to navigate, couples are increasingly taking a gentler approach to marital breakdown — but is “semi-splitting” an antidote to years of acrimony, or are couples just kidding themselves and prolonging the agony?
“I do think it’s the way forward,” says Paula Cryer (41), a music therapist. “Our children are just five and eight, and my ex and I couldn’t make our marriage work, but we are still friends. For the first four months, he slept in the spare room, then we pooled our resources and rented him a nice flat nearby, so he can come back at weekends, while I go out and see friends.”
This “bird’s nest” approach — the trend for parents to keep the family home and take turns parenting there — is increasingly popular. “My parents had a very nasty divorce and we didn’t see my dad for years,” explains Paula. “When it comes to our children, we will do whatever it takes to keep things stable.”
Increased awareness of the impact marriage break-ups have on children has led to a new approach, says Sara Davison, break-up and divorce coach and author of Uncoupling: How to Survive and Thrive After Breakup and Divorce.
“Couples with children will often take longer to leave, as there is more at stake for them,” she says. “They want to make sure they won’t have any regrets. The first stage will be separate bedrooms, explained to the kids by saying ‘mum or dad snores’. The second stage will be taking turns to look after the children at weekends, so that even though they live in the same house they will alternate child care. Then the final stage is operating separately during the week, too.”
Sara thinks the arrangement can work well for children. “It will acclimatise them to the split when it finally happens, as they will be used to spending time with each parent separately,” she says.
Cryer isn’t worried. “The kids just want to see their dad regularly, and neither of us is looking for someone else. We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it, when they’ll be older and less reliant on having both parents around,” she insists.
They’re not planning on divorcing, either — “at the moment, everything is working well. I can’t imagine marrying again any time soon.”
Perhaps the new vanguard of un-divorcees — house-sharing, child-caring and refusing to play the blame game — have finally got it right.