Marital breakdown is at a new high, and technology is being blamed. But were you aware that divorce is a relatively recent phenomenon? Or that the UK's legal bill for separation comes to Â£2 billion a year? Terry Kirby tells you everything you ever wanted to know about the sticky subject of splitting up, from Henry VIII to Britney Spears
4 September 2004
By Terry Kirby
The man who started it all
Divorce used to be much more difficult than it is today. In 1533, Henry V111 caused the break between the English church and Rome because Pope Clement VII refused to sanction his divorce from Catherine of Aragon, the first of his six wives. Catherine had failed to produce a male heir, so Henry wanted to marry Anne Boleyn, hoping that she would provide one instead. Henry also divorced Anne of Cleves, wife number four, but chose execution, rather than divorce for two of his other wives, Boleyn herself and Katherine Howard, wife number five. But it was his first divorce that has had such lasting impact on history. Not only was Henry divorced from Catherine of Aragon, but England was divorced from the Catholic church, the Church of England was created and the reverberations have continued down the centuries.
For the next couple of centuries, divorce remained the exclusive preserve of rich men, who, like Henry, had sufficient resources to enable them to obtain an Act of Parliament, for which proof of adultery or life-threatening cruelty was required. The first woman to get a Divorce Act in Britain was Jane Campbell in 1801, who divorced her husband on the grounds of his adultery with her sister. She also obtained custody of their four children.
It was not until the Matrimonial Causes Act of 1857 that ordinary people could get a full divorce allowing re-marriage; 24 were granted that year. Prior to this, individuals without means or access to Parliament could only get a legal separation, called a mensa et thoro, from an ecclesiastical court, and damages for adultery from a civil court - this was called a suit for criminal conversation. But divorce remained a stigma and, ironically, frowned upon by the Church of England as well as the Catholic church, until the social changes of the post-Second World War years.
The modern world ...
Successive bouts of legislation progressively made divorce easier, encouraged by the more liberal climate of the Sixties and Seventies. The rate of divorce per 1,000 of the married population thus rose from 2.8 in 1950 to 4.7 in 1970 and reached 12.0 in 1980. Alhaji Mohamed made British history in 1975 when he became the first man to secure two divorces on a single day, having had two wives under Muslim law. The peak year for divorce in England and Wales was 1993, when there were 165,000 - a "rate" of 14.3 divorces per 1,000 of the married population.
Today, a climate of easy access to the internet, the growth of online dating, emailing, text messaging and sites like Friends Reunited has been blamed for the 3.9 rise in the divorce rate in England and Wales, which, according to figures released this week, rose to 153,490 in 2003 from 147,735 in 2002, a seven year high and equivalent to 13.9 divorces per 1000 of the married population. Marriage guidance experts say that it is now more easier for people to revive affairs with old flames or begin new ones using the new tools of communication. At the same time the stresses of modern life and our long-hours work culture are also playing their part.
Among next year's statistics, it was revealed, will be England goalkeeper David James, who is now involved in a divorce with his wife after he began an affair with a girlfriend from his teenage years, who he contacted through Friends Reunited. It is now, of course, also possible to divorce online.
The average age for divorce for both men and women continued to rise in 2003: for men the average age was 42.3 years, up from 41.9 the previous while for women it was 39.8, up from 39.4; this may reflect the trend to marry later in life.
The scary legal bit ...
The days of hiring a private eye to assemble evidence of your spouse's adultery are long gone. There is now only one ground for divorce in England and Wales - that a marriage has irretrievably broken down. Evidence for that must come from the petitioner - the name given to the person seeking the divorce - who must prove one of only five facts: adultery is still there, together with unreasonable behaviour, desertion of more than two years, separation of two years, as long as both parties consent and separation of five years, irrespective of consent.
However, it is still much harder to get divorced than to get married and it is only possible after one year of marriage. The vast majority of couples these days are content to wait through two years of separation - thereby avoiding the need to proof fault. Those wanting a quicker procedure need one party to admit one of the three faults.
Once a court is satisfied that the grounds are proved and that there are adequate financial and domestic provisions for children, the decree nisi is granted. But it is only when this becomes a decree absolute, which cannot be sought until after a minimum of six weeks, that the divorce is final and legally binding. It is, in theory, a cheap and simple legal procedure. Complications only ensue with arguments about children and property.
Nevertheless, high profile divorce cases which reach the courts have, sometimes provided rich entertainment - none more so than the famous Headless Man case of 1963, in which the Duke of Argyll accused his wife, Margaret, of infidelity; the court was shown Polaroid photographs of her naked and performing a sex act on a man, whose head was obscured. Much speculation centred on the man's identity, with then defence minister Duncan Sandys and actor Douglas Fairbanks Jr both later named; the matter was never completely resolved and may have been both. These days, such disputed cases are almost always held in camera, with only the details of the financial settlements sometimes being officially released.
The scary expensive bit ...
It costs an average of Â£13,000 per divorce in Britain last year, just Â£1,000 less than the cost of a wedding and made up of such items as solicitors fees, about Â£150 an hour for a reputable professional in London, court fees, around Â£8,000 for a relatively simple hearing, together with re-mortgage and various other property costs. London has now overtaken New York as the world's most expensive place to get a divorce.
In both Britain and the United States, property owned prior to marriage is included in the division of the spoils, a situation which has led to the growth of pre-nuptial agreements among the wealthy, although these only affect about two per cent of divorces in the United Kingdom.
About 35 per cent of people are forced to sell their marital homes in a divorce settlement, an issue facing almost all those divorcing who are not on high incomes. In order to achieve equality, courts often order the sale of the family home so that both parties have enough to make a fresh start - but this becomes complicated when there are children involved with judges sometimes having to decide that it is preferable for them to remain in the home to which have become accustomed until they reach 18. It is usually the father who is forced to leave and, effectively set up a new home, incurring further costs - such as a new car and household items - on the same income that once supported one home, while simultaneously continuing to support his family by way of maintenance payments.
But less than a third of divorcees pay or receive maintenance and around six per cent agree lump sum severance payment, usually when children are not involved. All this amount to a massive Â£2bn annual bill for divorce in Britain. Pet custody cases, now common in the United States, have yet to take off in this country.
The process of divorce takes its strain on individuals, with 50 per cent saying it is their most stressful experience above bereavement and redundancy.
For the sake of the children?
Children are the helpless victims of divorce. About 55 per cent of couples in England and Wales divorcing in 2003 had at least one child aged under 16; a total of 153,527 children. Twenty-two per cent of these children were under five. Care and future custody of children becomes an agonising issue for most parents, with one party usuallyÂ having to assume the major parental role but with the other allowed access at agreed times. The recent protests of the organisation Fathers for Justice are made by men who believe they have been treated unfairly by the divorce courts in the amount of access they are allowed.
Country music singer Tammy Wynette articulated perfectly the anguish suffered by such parents in her classic hit "D.I.V.O.R.C.E": "Our little boy is four years old and quite a little man/So we spell out the words we don't want him to understand/ But the words we're hiding from him now/ Tear the heart right out of me/Our D-I-V-O-R-C-E becomes final today/Me and little J-O-E will be going away" Wynette was speaking from the heart: four of her five marriages ended in divorce.
Trouble and strife
Much has happened to the role of women since the days of Jane Campbell, but it was not until 1932 that women had completely equal rights in divorce. And they still strive for equality: in a divorce settlement earlier this year, Karen Parlour, former wife of footballer Ray Parlour, once of Arsenal, now of Middlesbrough, was given an allowance of more than Â£400,000 a year out of his Â£1.2m annual income in lieu of the help she had given to his career, setting a new benchmark for cases involving high earners. But she still has some way to go to beat the world record for a divorce settlement, which is held by socialite Soraya Khashoggi, awarded Â£500m by her arms dealer husband Adnan in 1982. To some, it is not just a question of money - for Diana, Princess of Wales, it was retaining the title of Her Royal Highness after her divorce from the Prince of Wales. She failed.
Vying for the title of the world's most divorced actresses are Elizabeth Taylor and Zsa Zsa Gabor, both of whom have been divorced seven times. Gabor is currently on her eighth marriage and once said: "Getting divorced just because you don't love a man is almost as silly as getting married just because you do."
Retying the knot
Although two out of every five divorced people say they never intend to marry again, around 20 per cent of all marriages in the UK involve one divorced partner while in 18 per cent of all marriages both partners are divorced.
Remarriage of divorced people, where the former spouse is still living, has become a major point of issue for the church. It was the Church of England's refusal to allow divorce after remarriage that led to the great abdication crisis of 1936, when Edward VIII became the first monarch to relinquish the throne only a few months after his coronation. As Supreme Governor of the Church of England, it was deemed unacceptable for him to marry twice-divorced Wallis Simpson.
It was not until 2002 that the General Synod of the Church of England, while reiterating its belief that marriage is a "life long union" finally and formally recognised that some marriages do fail and that, "in exceptional circumstances" divorced people could remarry in church. However, the Synod made it clear that, as had been the informal custom for many years, it was the right and responsibility of individual priests to decide on the suitability of those who wished to remarry in church.
Some believed the Church was now simply positioning itself to avoid a repeat of the abdication crisis over the future remarriage of its next Supreme Governor, the Prince of Wales, to Camilla Parker Bowles, situation that has increasingly caused agonies for traditionalists and much theorising by constitutionalists.
Since Diana, Princess of Wales is dead, the Prince is a widower, not a divorcÃ©, and so there is no problem with him marrying for a second time. But as Mrs Parker Bowles has a former husband still alive, she is technically a divorcÃ©e. However public opinion and opinion within the Church has shifted somewhat to a point where a majority would accept a second marriage.
Only in America ...
The United States has the highest divorce rate in the world. It was also the home of the world's most divorced man, tycoon Thomas Manville, who had 13 wives. The record for the most divorced woman is held by Linda Chandler, of Indiana, with 22.
Clifton Hammersmith married six sisters from the same Bostonian family. At the sixth wedding, the first five he had divorced served as bridesmaids. The world's oldest divorcees were Simon and Ida Stern of Wisconsin, who parted in 1984, aged 97 and 91 respectively. Dennis Rodman, the basketball star and Carmen Electra, an actress in Baywatch, had their marriage annulled - which effectively means it never really happened - after just nine days in 1998; Rodman said afterwards he had been too drunk to realise he was getting married. A similar intoxication is believed to have led to the marriage of Britney Spears to Jason Alexander, a childhood friend, on a night out in Las Vegas earlier this year; it was ended within 55 hours, possibly the world's fastest celebrity annulment.
Reno, also in Nevada, is to quickie divorce what Las Vegas is to quickie marriage. It has become the divorce capital of the United States. Non-Nevada residents can obtain a divorce in four weeks at a cost of around $900; for Nevada residents, it can be done in less than two weeks and the price drops to $379. Playwright Arthur Miller wrote The Misfits in Reno while waiting for the divorce which would allow him to marry Marilyn Monroe; it became her final film.
The rest of the world
Divorce remains taboo in many religious communities and countries. But in the Western Sahara, a territory administered by mainly Muslim Morocco, the dissolution of a marriage is celebrated with a party lasting three days.
Britain is now fourth in the world league of divorce, with a rate of 3.08 divorces per 1,000 of the total population. The United States divorce rate is 4.95, followed by Puerto Rico, with 4.47 and Russia, with 3.36.
The country with the lowest divorce rate is Sri Lanka, with 0.15 per thousand. This is followed by Brazil, with 0.26 and Italy, with 0.27, reflecting the influence in those countries of the Catholic Church, which, under the current Pope, John Paul II, continues, as it has done ever since the days of Henry VIII, not to recognise divorce.