It’s one of the biggest riddles there is: how can couples emerge from an unhappy marriage with a relatively low body count, and minimal blowback for all involved?
Couples have been trying this for decades, with varying degrees of success. There has been the ‘don’t get mad, get everything’ faction of wives, who made the ugly divorce into an art form. Some, like Amber Heard and Johnny Depp, have walked headlong into a full-scale soap opera.
Others have battled through, staying in a miserable union for several reasons (money, children, rising rents), and therefore, staying miserable.
And then, there have been the conscious uncouplers: those who have taken a leaf from Chris Martin and Gwyneth Paltrow’s book and managed to part with as little acrimony as possible.
Just this week, Mariah Carey and Nick Cannon enjoyed some family fun on Father’s Day with their two children Moroccan and Monroe. Nick may have rapped about divorce and child custody woes in a recent song, but the pair proved that there’s nothing but love and respect between them with a heart-warming Instagram snap.
Orlando Bloom and Miranda Kerr still profess to be great mates, while Amber Rose and Wiz Khalifa actually went out and celebrated their divorce last month… together.
Most splitting couples are avowed in their intentions to keep things as civilised as possible. But hurt hearts, bruised egos and the emotional sting of court proceedings often put paid to even the best intentions.
The secret to a functional divorce, according to a new BBC show Mr v Mrs: Call The Mediator, is the introduction of a third party to the whole process.
Divorce mediators aren’t there to help anyone with the emotional reasons behind the break-up. They’re not a counselling service, or one with a view to getting the couple back together.
The mediator’s job, as it stands, is to help a divorcing pair agree on a settlement around assets and child custody.
If a mediator is doing their job right, the couple is spared the expense of lengthy court proceedings, and the anguish of a tit-for-tat throwdown. Most of all, both parties will feel as though they’ve been sufficiently heard.
The success rate is high: nearly 90pc achieve a satisfactory deal, according to primary provider, National Family Mediation (NFM).
Presiding over events on the BBC series is charismatic Irene Jackson, who has seen more than her fair share of struggling couples.
‘‘In all cases, there’s an element of emotion involved,” she explains. “An element of sadness. It’s our job to take the negativity out of the room.’’
Money is often a sticking point for couples struggling to split.
‘‘One of my lines is — do you want to spend this money on court and legal fees or on your own children?” says Irene. “Most respond well to that, but for some it is the principle.”
It’s not uncommon for the rot to have set in an unhappy marriage for so long; so much so that people have long missed the telltale signs that their marriage is on the rocks. Here are the biggest signals that you may be headed for marital strife, and how to pull back from the brink:
1. You communicate using the ‘four horsemen’
Lisa O’Hara, relationship counsellor at Mind & Body Works, pinpoints the ‘four horsemen of the apocalypse’ that signify doom: criticism, contempt, defensiveness and stonewalling.
“Research shows that contempt is the greatest predictor of a break-up,” she says. “Every relationship has a minor element of one of these, but if you see all four, the relationships has serious problems.”
2. You’re attracted to other people
It’s one thing having an ‘office boyfriend’, but anything more sinister than harmless flirtation spells trouble.
“If you’re behaving in a way or thinking in a way that might give your partner cause for concern, that is something to think about,” says Lisa. “In terms of fancying someone and paying real attention to them… well, do know the difference between harmless and something else.
3. You’re not sexually in sync
Says Lisa: “Sex can often be a mirror of a relationship. If there’s no sex, you have to see if you are connecting at all on any level. For other people, it’s the only way they’re connecting, and that’s a problem too.”
4. You’re not interested in your partner’s life
Having separate interests is one thing; quite another is a different life entirely.
“Men will often say that (in session),” explains Lisa. “They’ll say, ‘she’s not a bit interested in what I do for work’. People like their partners to be interested. It gives them a chance to connect.”
Helen Dunne, a relationship counsellor at Access Counselling, agrees: “Everyone needs their own friendships and hobbies, but it’s important to have ‘relationship’ hobbies and friendships, too. Co-dependence — when you’re
relying on a person to tell you how you’re going to be that day — is a real problem.”
5. Your only bond is the children
“If your relationship is predominantly a parenting one as opposed to a couple one, it’s likely that you no longer have that intimacy,” reveals Lisa. “A lot of couples notice when their children leave the nest that they have no real relationship, and they want help to separate.”
6. You’re not communicating at all
Lisa notes that a significant number of clients present the same issue: “Women often feel if they’re bringing up a problem in their relationship, their complaints aren’t being heard.
“There’s a period where nothing is happening in the relationship and as time goes on, she may turn around and say ‘I’m leaving you’. If she’s going quiet, it’s because she’s becoming resentful and not holding him in high regard.”
7. You’re fighting in the ‘wrong way’
Mary Johnson, director of counselling at Accord, asserts that some healthy disputes can be no bad thing.
“Conflict shouldn’t be seen as a negative thing, once it’s well-handled,” she says. “Couples can have differing opinions and some couples are better than others at managing that. You can deal with issues without being personally insulting, or resorting to name-calling.
8. You’re no longer working as a team
“One person in the family might feel overloaded in terms of responsibility,” observes Mary. “Sharing out housework and childcare doesn’t have to be 50/50, but if one person isn’t helping out when they quite feasibly can, that will cause issues.
“Rearing kids can cause difficulties too, if you have different views on how to rear them. It’s best to sit down and discuss how you will both rear them, especially if one parent is more relaxed in their way than the other.”
9. You’re no longer laughing
“When the fun goes out of the relationship, it will quickly start to sour,” asserts Helen.
“The cracks soon start to show at some level, so it’s important to keep laughing and having fun together.”
Mr V Mrs: Call The Mediator is on BBC 2 tonight at 9pm
Sex & Relationships
Take a look at a bunch of women's OkCupid profiles and you'll be hard pressed to find one that says, “I'm looking for a guy who makes me laugh, loves trying new foods, and — oh! knows how to spin a mean yarn.”