For better or worse: The good divorce guide
We may get hitched with the best intentions, but it doesn't always turn out happily ever after. As Sir Paul McCartney and Heather Mills finally call time on married life, Virginia Ironside explains how to get split without losing your sanity – or £24m
Despite clearly desperate attempts on Paul McCartney's side to ensure that everyone kept their gloves on during his acrimonious divorce from Heather Mills, inevitably each ended up trying to portray the other in as dark a colour as possible. But now the whole thing seems finally to be crawling to a close, with vast sums of money changing hands – and, almost certainly, vast sums being passed on to the lawyers as well.
No, it hasn't been a "good divorce". But is there really such a thing as a "good divorce"? Surely that would be an oxymoron – the term has always sounded to me as weird as having a "good murder", or even a "good death".
Obviously, there are some couples who sail through divorce. They both agree that the marriage isn't working out, they divide the goods and chattels without acrimony, and when they're all done and dusted they go out for a blissfully unromantic dinner.
But, for most couples, it's a painful business – and the agony starts long before the proceedings are even instigated. Indeed, divorce can be rather like a bad cold; however horrible the snuffling and coughing, it's nothing to the days of fatigue and the feelings of ickiness that one has to endure before it.
So there's a moment at the start of the process when the moving out of one partner or the other is usually met with relief. At least the bickering is over – the tension, the agony, the whispered arguments so as not to wake the children.
But, after the brief moment of elation that comes with initial separation (the "Free at last! The world's my oyster," feeling), most people find that the world isn't actually their oyster. It's a bleak and often unfriendly place. Suddenly, they are faced with comparative poverty – compared with before, at least – screaming loneliness, unhappy and resentful kids, the prospect of having to make new friends, and, worst of all, very real hatred and recrimination from someone they once truly loved.
The big problem with divorce is that it's not something that happens to us very often. We are not used to it. We've rarely had any experience of it. As mere juveniles at the game, we fall into every pitfall going.
The other problem is that, in order to reach the goal of divorce, you need co-operation from the one person who probably wishes you as much harm as possible. It's like trying to get a prize for the joint conquering of a mountain peak with someone who's not only falling down as many potholes and breaking their ankles as much as you are, but who is also bent on trying to cut your ropes and blunt your crampons at every opportunity – just as you are hellbent on doing to them.
The first hurdle to getting divorced is agreeing to the whole process to start with. Inevitably, one person will always want to split more than the other, but in order to start on the rocky path to a successful divorce, you have both got to agree to make that trip. If the other person can't face up to the idea, you can either wait a couple of years, after which it will be easier, or find another partner – or pretend to – so that your spouse, hurt as they may be, has absolutely no option but to agree that divorce is the only way forward.
In order to try to avoid too much anger and upset, you might agree to try couples counselling on the way – but these days, professional counsellors no longer necessarily aim to glue you both back together like a broken vase. They want what is best for both of you, and they may help both of you to deal with the divorce in a more rational and civilised way.
On the whole, our feelings of rage and loathing are absolutely natural. You'd be inhuman if you didn't feel angry. You're facing so much loss. You're not just losing a partner, however hopeless or evil they appear now; you're also losing the idea of a lifetime's future together. You're losing not just mutual possessions, but sometimes mutual friends and a mutual social life. You're not losing just one person; you're losing the whole idea of "being married".
This feeling of conflict and rage isn't entirely negative, as long as it's not excessive and destructive. It does help to break any final bonds of attachment, and to break the old patterns. It is a wake-up call to the idea that, now, one is alone.
It's important, however, not to let conflict get out of hand. Apparently, lawyers often say to each other that Snow White never married Hitler, nor did St Anthony ever marry Medusa. And it's true – the husband or wife that one is now painting in the darkest colours imaginable was, one has to remember, once someone you truly loved, someone with whom you shared your private thoughts and dreams, someone who loved you. And it's worth trying to realise that, however appalling your partner's demands seem to be to you, in their heads they feel just as righteous as you do. And, a few years on, nothing will matter very much. Those CDs that you think you can't bear to part with – you're only holding on to them because they symbolise happiness and union, not because you actually care about them as objects.
Then, how do you go about divorce itself? Lawyers are the obvious option. But divorce through lawyers who believe in confrontation is, these days, frankly for ninnies. Much more sensible is to go to lawyers who see the whole picture, and nowadays there are many family and conciliation lawyers around who, in that bland phrase, "sit you all down and sort everything out calmly over a cup of tea". Unless you are mega-rich and full of hate, it's really not worth trying to sort things out in a combative way.
When I got divorced, I got into a pickle. Just as, I imagine, my then husband did. I went to one fiercely feminist solicitor who insisted that I split everything with my husband, notwithstanding the fact that I had put more of my money into our house and that I had a small son to support. Leaving her, I found myself with another, who was determined to screw my husband into the ground. When he sent a letter to my husband demanding £400 a month as maintenance, I pointed out to him that he'd added a nought to the demand; I only wanted £40 a month. With an evil chuckle he said: "Well, let's just see if we can get away with it."
Naturally, I left him. I eventually ended up with an old family solicitor completely unversed in divorce law, but who had done the conveyancing on the house very efficiently. It was only through him and his kindly words – when I was being too greedy he restrained me, and when I was being too generous he restrained me as well – that we sorted everything out. I think in the end I probably got 25 per cent less than I should have, and my husband probably thought he'd been screwed by 25 per cent more than he should have – and that way we reached what was probably a perfectly fair agreement.
I have to say that I would warn against trying to get mutual friends on your side. They tend to feel extremely uncomfortable about taking sides – particularly if they can see the other's point of view – and in my experience they tend to side, eventually, with the one who doesn't force them to choose. Talking to mutual friends is risky, too. We all talk. And you don't want your cruel recriminations to be fed back to your spouse to inflame the fires even further. Criticisms aired to mutual friends, particularly cruel ones, like "he was hopeless in bed," can never be forgiven.
After the split and during the divorce, encourage friends to ask you both to parties rather than take sides. Then, you can either arrange to go to the party early (and your ex can go later), or the other way around. Of course, remember that it is also possible to be at a big party and to remain on separate sides of the room without anyone getting worked up.
It's a cliché, but divorce is always worst for the children. So it is best always, if possible, to tell them about it together with your soon-to-be ex, as a way of showing them that you will both be involved in mutual parenting, however you now feel about each other. Reassure each of them that it wasn't their fault – this is the accusation that children hurl at themselves when their parents divorce – and say that each of you loves them just as much and that you will try to organise things so that they see just as much of each parent as they always did.
And, once you've told them, try not to denigrate the other parent too much. It's impossible not to sigh and say: "Oh God, she's hopeless!" occasionally, or even "Christ, talk about Mr Mean!" but that's enough. Don't rant on about it. Don't get upset if, occasionally, a child living with you says they want to live with the other parent. It's usually a heat-of-the-moment thing and only needs addressing seriously if the request is persistent. Never, ever, use children as postmen even for the simplest of messages. And try to remember the other parent's birthday and help the child to buy a present or make a card. If your ex has a new baby, send a present and get your child to give the baby something to say a friendly hello, however you feel about it all. It just makes life easier.
Never move away too far from the other parent, however brilliant the job offers are, because it is, simply, cruel to your children. And keep up friendly visits and relations with the opposite grandparents, if possible. Usually they are so keen to see their grandchildren that the last thing they want to do is to take sides.
It can't be emphasised too much how important it is that children feel that their parents are working as a team, at least as far as parenting is concerned, because children can be destroyed by fighting between their parents. And children must be free of the feeling that loving one parent is a betrayal of the other, or that they are the cause, in any way, of the divorce.
Once you're divorced, what then? If you have children, there will never, not until your dying day, be something called a "clean break". Your ex is ever-present, during discussions about schools and whether he can take them out this weekend, or she can have them for the summer holidays, or how you're going to organise Christmas. He or she will be around later, for marriages, christenings and so on.
And your ex is ever-present in your own children. His genes are swishing around in the little people you kiss and cuddle and put to bed each night, and her genes are bursting out the little bodies you teach to swim, introduce to their first aeroplane trips, or whatever. They can't be sucked out and thrown away.
And, in some cases, divorce can bring rewards. Divorce has given me, for instance, an entirely new family. All my son's half-brothers and sisters have stayed in my house for periods of time, and they see me, I hope, as a weird kind of auntie who loves them very much. My husband and his wife have also stayed occasionally and, for me at least, it's always been the greatest of fun.
After you're divorced, you discover that divorce isn't an ending at all. It's a process. It's the beginning of an entirely new relationship, which requires, in its own way, almost as much work as the marriage you've so successfully dissolved.
Charles & Diana
It's never easy to keep a sense of proportion about divorce. But when the chosen medium for announcing your separation is an announcement by the prime minister to the House of Commons, it is almost impossible. Charles and Diana's marital troubles inspired the greatest tabloid feeding-frenzy of modern times – with tragic results.
Billie Piper & Chris Evans
When Evans split from the former teenage pop star Piper, the red-tops prepared for an explosive public showdown. Instead, the couple became the very model of amicable divorcees – even inviting each other to their respective remarriages.
Bruce Willis & Demi Moore
Divorce doesn't get better than this. After 13 years of marriage, they split in 2000, sharing custody of three daughters. Willis is so chummy with his ex that he attended her wedding to Ashton Kutcher. "Demi is the mother of my children and Ashton is the stepfather of my children. I'm thrilled that [he] turned out to be such a great guy," he gushed.
Richard Burton & Elizabeth Taylor
If Taylor made a habit of nasty divorces, her life would hardly have been worth living: the actress has married no fewer than eight times, to seven different husbands. Most of her marriages ended (relatively) amicably. Richard Burton enjoyed divorcing her in 1974 so much that he remarried her in 1975, then divorced her again in 1976.
Sarko & Cecilia
The true cost of Nicolas Sarkozy's split from wife Cécilia and remarriage to the (occasional) nude model Carla Bruni can be counted in two ways: first, in the unpleasant headlines surrounding the manner in which Cécilia was treated; and second, in the French opinion polls, which show Sarko as the most unpopular president in living memory.
Tom & Nicole
It took some time, but when the biggest Hollywood divorce of the 1990s was finally concluded, Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman allowed themselves a brief, celebratory punch of the air before getting on with life. They happily share custody of two adopted children, and both maintain (in public, at least) that they have "no regrets" about their relationship.
Mick & Jerry
They "married" in 1990 in Bali but by 1999, when a model revealed she was carrying his child, it was over. Although the marriage was never legal, Jagger and Hall still had to share parenting, so he moved in next door. Last month the pair were spotted at Nobu. "I still love him, but it's a different kind of love now," says Hall.
Brad & Jennifer
First, Jennifer Aniston had to cope with reports that her husband, Brad Pitt, was playing away with Angelina Jolie on the set of Mr & Mrs Smith. Then, she suffered the indignity, amid rumours about her alleged refusal to have children, of seeing T-shirts bearing the slogan, "I'll have your baby, Brad" become a must-have fashion accessory.
Ivana & Donald Trump
Perhaps the messiest divorce to have jollified modern gossip-columns, Ivana's split from the adulterous, Brillo-haired tycoon she called "The Donald" took more than a year to conclude, and cost tens of millions of dollars in legal fees. Ivana walked away with more money (roughly $50m), but a great deal less dignity than she started out with.
David & Liza
This one was ugly. David Gest alleged she gave him herpes and threw a lamp at him. Liza Minnelli said that he was a drug addict and that he had tried to poison her. After an 18-month marriage, the pair wound up in the US Supreme Court in 2003. Despite a prenup, it took almost three years for both parties to agree to a no-fault divorce. Perhaps Michael Jackson (bridesmaid at the wedding) was not a lucky charm, after all.
Britney & K-Fed
The nadir of Britney's troubles has been the fallout from her split with Kevin Federline. Although the pop princess had protected her £65m fortune with a cast-iron prenup, her meltdown led to the loss of her custody of their two young sons. Relations between the pair remain testy.
Protect your assets
When splitting your financial assets, the first step is to compile a comprehensive list of what you and your partner actually possess. It's a good idea to then get an independent financial adviser to talk you through the dos and don'ts of your new financial status.
"Everyone can guess about their assets, like what their house or pension is worth, but the specifics can make a lot of difference," says Eileen Race, a financial planner at Helm Godfrey Partners. "Does your partner have a state pension? Will your life insurance become null and void after a divorce? Would you have to pay much capital gains tax in the event of the sale of certain investments, such as those locked up in unit trusts?"
Experts warn against giving up long-term stability in favour of short-term gain. If an individual feels especially wronged in a split, and wants to keep up appearances, they should avoid letting this influence what they plump for during negotiations.
"Many people, often women, want to keep their house and will fight to the death to get that, at the expense of ensuring that they have some future income," adds Race. "They will even trade off future maintenance or a lump sum in order to get it. But many who aren't working won't be able to keep the property."
What about the kids?
There is no easy way to help children cope with a divorce, but experts agree that separating parents ought to consider the following points:
Be honest and clear. "The three things that children worry about is whether they will see the non-custodial parent; where they will live; and that they are to blame for the split," says psychologist Dr Richard Woolfson. "Give them plenty of reassurance about all these things."
Don't drop the news of the divorce on them like a bomb, says Karen Woodall, co-author of Putting Children First. "Make sure you're available for a couple of hours after they've had the news so that they can ask questions."
Don't badmouth the other parent. "It's the children who suffer."
Children will try to spare their parents' feelings. "Don't underestimate how much it has and will affect them, no matter how calm you think they might be being about it," says Woodall.
Work out a way to hand the children over to each other face-to-face. "The children will recover more quickly if they see that their parents are able to be civilised."
Try not to introduce new partners to the children too soon. "As a mark of respect to your children, you shouldn't expect them to negotiate a relationship with a new person for at least two years."
Finally, don't worry too much. "I have seen very bitter divorces where both parents have behaved very well in front of the children," Woolfson says. "If you can do that, the children will get over it and move on. It can be done."
Call the lawyer
The process has three legal elements: the dissolution of the marriage; the division of finances; and arrangements for any children. The form of the dissolution is rarely contested and can be resolved very quickly. Money and children, however, frequently become the subject of dispute.
If uncontested, the whole thing can be completed in about four months and neither party has to attend court. The first stage is the decree nisi. This is followed by a six-week statutory waiting period before the couple can apply for the final decree absolute.
Dividing cash is rarely straightforward, especially where large sums are involved. "Often a wife will say her husband is window-dressing his assets to massage them down," says Julian Lipson, a family law specialist at Withers. "Resolving what money there is to share out can take anything up to a year. Deciding on how that money should be divided could take another year." The system makes it simple for a couple each to take away 50 per cent of their assets, but there can be arguments against this, such as a brief marriage, or if one party entered the marriage with much more money than the other.
Before the relevant law was abolished in 1989, one parent was always given official custody of the children. Nowadays, "custody" has been renamed "residence", and it is presumed that each parent has equal rights. Courts will not intervene unless a dispute cannot be resolved. "In practice," Lipson says, "more women are homemakers than men, so in most cases the children end up living with the mother more than the father."
Theoretically, a divorce can be achieved without the help of lawyers, but there are many pitfalls. "Even if a couple have agreed a deal between them, it is sensible for them to have legal advice about the documentation," Lipson says.