First it was taboo , now its banal: how the Divorce Reform Act has influenced family life over the past 50 years

I‘ll never forget the day my mothers told me that they were getting divorced. It was the late 90 s, I was 11, and I had returned from academy clutching an lubricant pastel photocopy of Picasso’s Woman In A Hat( Olga ), 1935, which I had constructed in art class for reasonableness now lost to the fogs of day. I was agitated to show it to them. Instead, they told me I should sit down, and that their wedding was terminating. It didn’t seem appropriate to show off my picture after that.

Seven years later, I determined the painting in real life at the Centre Pompidou in Paris, learning, in a construction of synchronicity, that Picasso had covered this sad, unflattering photograph of his first spouse shortly after their marriage had collapsed. Olga left Picasso, and my mother left my father, though it was Dad who affected out of the family home. It burst my heart.

It’s now 50 years since the Divorce Reform Act 1969 was drafted. The legislation meant that, for the first time, couples could divorce without one inevitably having to prove the faulting of the other( they still needed evidence of adultery, irrational behaviour, desertion, or break-up for two years- or five years old if one party did not consent to the divorce ). It liberalised the process, realise divorce available to ordinary couples, and granting them the capabilities of a less adversarial legal process.

The legislation altered civilization, changed attitudes, emancipated women, and arguably saved many children from the psychological injury of being raised in miserable dwellings. According to the latest figures from the Office for National Statistics, an estimated 42% of all marriages in England and Wales currently culminate in divorce; and in 2017, 62% of divorces of opposite fornication duos were on the petition of the wife.

Divorce is now so common that its impact on children and their psychological wellbeing can sometimes be minimise. Yet almost every child of divorce I have spoken to acknowledges that it has determined the style they ensure the world. It feels nearly childish be talking about the psychological gift of my own parents’ divorce, how it left its recognize on me in a hundred palpable and imperceptible paths; after all, it was so many years ago. Yet nonetheless well you do it, divorce decides who we become as adults.

I set out to meet people whose parents divorced in each decade following the 1969 behave, to try to understand more about how it has affected their lives. How has it determined their postures to relationships and marriage? And do they wish their parents had done anything differently?


By the time my mothers divorced, in 2001, almost all my academy friends were living in single-parent households, so I didn’t feel unusual. Chris Marsh, however, was the only child of divorce in his Church of England school in 1972. The 1970 s might now be associated with sexual liberation, but at the start of the decade Britain remained a conservative society where divorce was stigmatised and uncommon. In 1971, 74,437 pairs divorced in England and Wales. By 1979, the number of members of divorces had almost redoubled, to 138,706.

Marsh is 57, and when we meet in a coffeehouse near his London home, he tells me that, following a nervous breakdown five years ago, he is now disabled and unable to work.” I have some dates where I can’t leave the house ,” he says. A tall, gentle person with manner sees, he talks rapidly in a cockney accent not unlike Michael Caine’s.

Marsh was 11 when his parents divorced in 1972. His father was Richard Marsh, then an MP and later chairman of British Rail.” The divorce was splashed across the front sheets of the neighbourhood newspapers and embraced extensively in the national press ,” he says. His father had left his mother for a BBC researcher. One era he arrived in the school playground and everyone knew.” A group of kids circumvented me, like I’m a human maypole. Dancing around it get:’ Your daddy’s left your mummy .'” He reproduces the scoff in the singsong voice beloved of academy bullies everywhere.” I was devastated ,” Marsh says.” I can remember their voices clearly. It was the most distressing know I’ve had .” Sent home from school, he sat in a common, and never mentioned the bullying to his already distraught mom.” I learned then that this had separated social taboos- that this was something bad .”

Marsh says the experience has left him with an intense fear of being judged, which has affected his whole life, including the way he be dealing with his virility.” I’d already have known that you don’t break social taboos ,” he says.” I wanted to conform. I didn’t come out until I was 32.” Marsh has had one long-term relationship, but “says hes” notes gay wedding at odds with the idea of gay liberation. “[ Divorce] educated me that good-for-nothing last-places for ever .”

He is scathing about the mode culture positions at the time were determined by the church.” I’m not just an atheist- I feel belief is dangerous. It specifies morals that people can’t lives up to ,” he says. His early damage was further compounded by others: his father’s second spouse, Caroline Dutton, been killed in a vehicle disintegrate in 1975, followed by his mother. “His fathers” contemplated suicide. There was so much unexpressed hurting. But there was no counselling in the 1970 s, he reminded us; to his father, that would have been weakness. They never actually spoke about the divorce.

What, I ask him, would you say to a child whose parents are getting divorced today?” Talk to people. There’s nothing wrong with feeling disorient, upset and furious .” I reflect that I should probably have had counselling, more, but at least I was able to have open conversations with my mothers.” We lost our families ,” Marsh says.” When you’re young, the most important linchpin you’ve got is your family .”


Rachael Stevenson describes her childhood as idyllic; but when her parents separated, she was abruptly taken out of boarding school. Photograph: Fabio De Paola/ The Guardian

Rachael Stevenson’s parents divorced over a decade later, in 1987, when she was 11. The 1980 s was the decade that produced the most fruitless matrimonies: of the 344,334 couples who tied the bow in 1983, 43% subsequently divorced, a higher rate than today. There was conservative panic about” lineage appreciates”, with Margaret Thatcher telling her private secretary:” Children need security and must be brought up in a stable, affection environment in which parents offer time, tendernes and advice. These things are most likely when the mothers are married- and stand married .”

Stevenson is 44 now, and lives in Manchester with her second husband. They have five children- three from Stevenson’s first wedlock, one from her husband’s first matrimony, and one together. Stevenson describes her childhood as idyllic; but when her mothers separated, she was abruptly taken out of boarding school, and her nature changed.” Unexpectedly we were up until midnight dealing with distressing situations ,” she says.

Stevenson, her brother and their father remained with relatives and in temporary accommodation( her sister remained at school ). Her mother, meanwhile, moved in with her brand-new partner and became pregnant shortly afterwards.” We didn’t have admonishing. We didn’t have anybody ask us how we were ,” Stevenson says.” We stopped speaking about my mum at home. When we had the brand-new room we had no pictures of her up- we didn’t really say the word ‘mum’ at all. It was like we hadn’t had the life we’d had.

” The thing that was large-hearted to me was that people would assume you had a mum, and I didn’t ,” she continues. Once, a schoolteacher placed her on the spot in cookery class by asking her why she hadn’t fetch any parts.” I just intent up saying,’ My mum has left, and we are living in a bed and breakfast in Southport .’ That shut her up .”

Rachael Stevenson and her brother and sister abode with their father-god( all envisioned) when her mothers separate in 1987. She was 11. Photograph: courtesy of Rachael Stevenson

Stevenson says the divorce altered her approach to relationships.” In my early teenages I became frantic for love and attachment, which I frequently misstep for fornication ,” she says. She became pregnant when she was just 18, by a US serviceman, and they married shortly afterwards. She didn’t take up her university place and went on to have three children with him, divorcing at 29.” I was very insecure about whether or not he affection me, or if he was interested in other beings. I was very jealous and had a lot of feeling sways, which I didn’t realise at the time weren’t normal .”

When she divorced her first spouse, Stevenson was careful not to speak ill of him in front of the children. She gratified her second husband through Reverse Rett, the benevolence she put up for research into Rett Syndrome, a severe disability that affects both their daughters. She has been working on her feeling about self-esteem and forsaking in therapy.

She says her parents’ abrupt divorce has shaped her own parenting form.” I am absolutely desperate for them never to feel abandoned. I can’t stand the thought of being late to pick them up from school ,” she says.” Having my child or children made me realise that parents are just people who have babes. They don’t get everything right. My mum adored us, even though things washed out the way they did .” She adds that her papa” has always been there for us “.

” When you are splitting up with somebody, your stance towards them shapes who you are and who their own children become ,” Stevenson says. Things were difficult for her leader, she says, trying to bring up three divulged children on his own, but he never spoke mischievously of their mom.” I do feel as if there’s a act of limitations for accusing your mothers. But divorce changes your life, your mentality, your ability to adoration and be in relationships .”


Emma Cottle was six when her parents divorced in 1995. Photograph: Fabio De Paola/ The Guardian

Emma Cottle, 30, from Exeter, was six when her parents divorced, in 1995. She and her brother were part of a custody battle that resulted in her splitting her hour between her mom and father’s homes: “[ I had] Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays with my mum, Wednesdays with my daddy and then we alternated weekends. I wanted to spend more time with my pa, so I asked to have Thursdays with him, extremely .” It facilitated that Cottle’s parents lived in the same village.” They were both mindful of not creating a big drama, and they craved me and my brother to feel safe and secure ,” she says.

Cottle didn’t learn the reasons for the breakdown of the union until she was 17. Her eventual heart-to-heart with her father was, she says, “cathartic”. ” Up to that degree I’d never spoken to him about it. I hadn’t wanted to open up age-old meanders .” Cottle, who is single, is philosophical about the divorce.” The thought of my mothers being together and dismal is heartbreaking ,” she says.” They’ve been so much happier apart, simply living their own lives, and I think it has- maybe too much- teach me how to be independent. I don’t look to find meaning in development partners .”

Emma Cottle with her parents and brother in 1992. Photograph: courtesy of Emma Cottle

Her parents remained civil, attending Cottle’s graduation liturgy together. Last-place summer, her mother died of cancer, and she says it was a great comfort that her father was a huge promotion.” He has been amazing. When she arrived here the hospice, he pedaled her around the garden-varieties to see the flowers, and formed sure she was settled in. After that, she was too inadequately to go outside, so I will always be grateful to him for that .”

He sounds like a very emotionally intelligent man, I say, and she agrees. This seems a significant culture shifting. As the decades since the divorce routine have delivered, we have become more cozy discussing our feelings; more open to families in all their incarnations.


In the mid-1 990 s, the Family Law Bill proposed the removal of all residues of matrimonial fault from legislation in England and Wales, but became mired in dispute. Baroness Young argued that” by removing[ mistake ], the state is actively discouraging any conception of lifelong commitment in union, to terms and conditions of behaviour, to self-sacrifice, to any anticipate for members of the family “. In the end, this portion of the bill was never enacted. Had it been, I was no question that many people’s divorces would have been far less conflict-ridden.

By the start of the new millennium, infants were considered beings in their own, whose cares and needs began to take on more importance. Attitudes to relationships were liberalising, and sociologists argued that divorce campaigns extremely limited juveniles digesting problems. Other points, such as poor parental mental health, financial adversity, recurred disturbance and high levels of conflict during break-up were recognised as having a more significant impact on a child’s wellbeing.

Bethan Tolley, 25, from the West Midlands, was eight when her parents divorced in 2002.” I’ve got to give it to them- they covered the picture really well ,” she says of the moment she learned they were splitting up.” They said,’ You’re going to have two Christmases, you’re going to have two birthdays .’ I cherished the idea of having two bedrooms .”

Tolley’s mothers abode on good terms. When her father started dating girls, eventually marrying her stepmum, dealing with the homophobia was more difficult than anything to do with the divorce. Her father has remarried, more, meaning that Tolley now has two stepmums. Both primeds of grandparents were also a big presence in her childhood.

Having so many supportive adults around must have helped, I say.” Life is more full because of all the people in it ,” Tolley concurs. Being a child of divorce hasn’t introduced her off matrimony, and she is now participated.” If anything, my mothers’ divorce did me even more serious about wedding ,” she says.” This is the structure and the stability I have always wanted. I love the idea of that person you spend the rest of your life with, and having a family .” Though she hopes she would never divorce, she is glad the alternative is there. “There is no point wasting each other’s lives and time,” she says.” I think sometimes the quarrelling can have a much worse wallop than precisely burning the missile and moving on .”


Maz Halima:’ I haven’t seen a health version of wedding, so I’m not in a rush to do it .’ Photograph: Fabio De Paola/ The Guardian

Maz Halima is a 30 -year-old writer and kindnes craftsman from Croydon. When her mothers divorced, in 2002, she was 14 and so relieved. Halima remembers the environment at home was toxic, with lots of statements. Her mother came to the UK from Pakistan as a young child, and her parent when he was 27. They had been divorced from one another once before, in the 1980 s, before Halima was born. It was, she says, a” can’t live with each other, can’t live without one another” tie-in, and where reference is dissolved her mother registered a downward coiling that included alcohol abuse.

The divorce, Halima says, has an impact on her approach to relationships.” I’ve unfortunately become the person who feels more worthy in a relationship that has drama, because I find drama as meaning that the other person upkeeps .” She came close to marriage formerly, before ceasing the relationship.” I haven’t seen a healthy version of wedlock, so I’m not in a rush to go and do it. I’m scared of owned. I too want to do what I require, when I want, and I think it’s hard to find someone who is OK with that .”

Halima with her father, parent and older sister in 1992. Photograph: courtesy of Maz Halima

Choosing her paroles carefully, she was of the view that the style in which marriage can be perceived within Pakistani culture, and the route her father provide answers to her mom objective the relationship, has shaped her feminist politics.” You’ buy’ a woman in a sense. So the fact that they got divorced and my mum said, I’m done- I think that was kind of outrageous to him .”

Despite this, their relationship improved after they separated.” The whole of their matrimony, they were never friends. They were only friends when they are got divorced ,” she says.” When my dad’s been ill, my mum’s cooked for him, she’s cleaned his home. I’ll got to go and she’ll exactly be there having a cup of tea. But then they bickered last week .” She smiles as if to say: that’s the way it get.” I am trying to unlearn it, but I romanticise the insecurity I knowledge. Your parents are the firstly precedent of enjoy that you’re picture .”


Matthew Betts was in his 20 s when his parents divide, in 2013. Photograph: Fabio De Paola/ The Guardian

As we near the end of the 2010 s, there has been significant progress in attitudes towards divorce. Gay marriage has been legalised, and blended , non-traditional kinfolks are increasingly the norm. Even Prince Harry married a divorcee. In April, both governments announced fresh plans to introduce no-fault divorce– though it is hard to know if and when this will happen. The reforms will include a minimum timeframe of six months from petition stagecoach to a wedlock being intention, designed to enable couples to reflect on their decision. They will also prevent people from refusing a divorce if their marriage hankers one.

Matthew Betts’ parents divorced in 2013. He is now 30, and grew up in Derby. He is disarmingly open about his family background, but his floor demonstrates that progress doesn’t ever move in a straight line. Betts’ baby didn’t tell him, or other family and friends, until three months after the union resolved. Before that, his father would come home and give the impression he was living in the marital dwelling whenever their sons were seeing. Until his mother broke down and told him what had happened, he had never seen her cry.” My mum was a bearer of stigma. She thought it was a failure. She was concerned about us having a fractured residence. It was because she made a vow, for better or worse … while my dad had reached the point where it was unsound .”

Betts describes his upbringing as” utterly heteronormative- a mum who was a cook and a clean, and a daddy who was the worker. I felt a considerable amount of guilt that they remained together to the purposes of me and my brothers, and the outmoded thought of a’ traditional dwelling ‘.”

Matthew Betts with his mother. Photograph: courtesy of Matthew Betts

After deciding to retrain as a doctor, Betts moved back in with his mother, and was there while she was treated for feeling. He likewise became closer to his two brothers.” It was like the skies cleared after a tempest ,” he says.

Divorce can do that, I think, inducing conferences who had allegedly been crushed. You cry in front of each other. People shout. You come to see your mothers as flawed humen, rather than authority figures. If you’re lucky, great distances can sometimes be breached.

Betts says he went through a stage where he was anti-monogamy, but is now in a relationship.” It works for many, many parties – you’ve just got to communicate ,” he says. I question Betts if he reckons parties of our generation will handle divorce better. He frames his response like the doctor he is training to be:” I can’t wait to see what the epidemiology is in 20 times’ occasion, when it’s us who are negotiating these things. I truly hope so .”

That day when I came home clutching my Picasso changed everything. But I recognise now that my mothers’ long-term wellbeing, and therefore my own, was dependent on their wedding not continuing. What it all comes down to, eventually, is language- the path we explain to a child what is happening, or the channel we describe a partner in front of them. It’s about experiencing the words, but also knowing when to say nothing. In trying to make sense of the bow of complex feelings we have around divorce, we’re all still learning the language.

It’s the end of the world as they know it: how to help children cope with divorce

* ” Don’t bad-mouth each other and don’t try to stimulate the children take surfaces, or even worse, alienate a child from a mother. This mode, the likelihood of a child being permanently traumatised is considerably lessened ,” says psychotherapist Philippa Perry.

* Children want to be told what is happening- involve them as much as you can. Some want to be involved in decisions about where they will live. According to study from the Department for Children, Schools and House, how well they cope depends on the timing and pace of change, and the fullest extent to which they are prepared.

* Recognise that a child’s happiness isn’t is highly dependent on a nuclear family structure:” The arrangements can be as conventional or unconventional as you like. Parents can live apart, or together, in a commune or a menage a trois, they can be gay, straight or bisexual- it doesn’t matter ,” says Perry in her bestseller, The Book You Wish Your Parents Had Read. It is the way the family capacities that is more relevant.

* There are a range of services dedicated to assisting parents and children during and after divorce. Counselling may facilitate. Contact your GP, Relate or the Association of Child Psychotherapists.

* If you would like a comment on this article to be considered for inclusion on Weekend magazine’s characters page in publish, please email weekend @theguardian. com, including your name and address( not for booklet ).


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