How a divorce can be made amicable
The end of a marriage doesn't always have to mean financial ruin and long-term hostility, writes Gemma Champ
When the musician Jack White and his wife Karen Elson had their sixth wedding anniversary earlier this summer, they celebrated with a party: a divorce party. The couple met on the set of a music video for the White Stripes, White's band with his other ex-wife, Meg White (they divorced in 2000). Meg and Jack remained such good friends, she acted as the maid of honour at his wedding to Elson.
It is all very mature, the original Whites having conducted a glittering music career together post-divorce and White and Elson remaining, as they put it in a press release announcing their split, "dear and trusted friends and co-parents to our wonderful children".
Marking divorce with some sort of formal ritual is not just a celebrity trend: heading to Las Vegas not to get married, but celebrate a divorce, is an increasingly popular practice, as are ceremonies in Japan that see couples take part in symbolic actions together, such as smashing their wedding rings with hammers in front of friends and family. This is used as both emotional closure and a public statement of intent - a rejection of the stigma that divorce can hold in the still-traditional country.
As for post-divorce friendships, the world of celebrity makes its own rules: the hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons and his ex-wife Kimora Lee Simmons divorced in 2008, but they are still close enough to have hosted together a gala dinner for inner city children, Art for Life, last month. Meanwhile, the producer, writer and actress Fran Drescher and her ex-husband Peter Marc Jacobson, who divorced in 1999, are still such great friends that they not only created together the hit series The Nanny, for the American cable network TV Land, but have just written and produced Happily Divorced, a sitcom based on their own continuing friendship after separation. The show finished its first run last week and has been commissioned for a second season.
And could a break-up be less typical than that of Bruce Willis and Demi Moore, with Willis apparently delighted to go on holiday with Moore and her husband Ashton Kutcher? Moore told Harper's Bazaar: "I'm the product of divorced parents, and my brother and I were the pawns in my parents' game. I never wanted that for my kids," while Willis told The Sun: "I just saw that there's no point to living with regret or antagonism, or having any pent-up anger."
It sounds simple - so why aren't all divorces such a walk in the park?
Linda Sakr, a counselling psychologist at the Dubai Community Health Centre (dubaicommunityhealthcentre.org), explains that during a divorce you experience an emotional 180-degree turn. "Part of getting married to someone is believing you will only be happy if you are committed to that person, believing your personal growth and fulfilment is intricately linked to them," she says.
"When we get divorced, we do so because we believe we can only be happy and achieve true contentment if we are independent of and separate from that person. When you look at the range of emotions we go through - experiencing a marriage, a marital breakdown and a divorce - it's a wonder anyone makes it out the other end." A "happy divorce", she says, is rare, but not impossible.
For Alexandra Tribe, who as head of Expatriate Law (www.expatriatelaw.com), a division of the Dubai lawyers Rowaad Advocates, deals with divorce cases for British expats living in Dubai, the legal process can make or break post-divorce relationships. Mediation, cooling-off periods and ethical legal advice not only occasionally reverse people's decisions but also allow more constructive negotiation.
Tribe is accredited by the British organisation Resolution.org.uk, which advocates "non-confrontational" family law, and she says that mediation is built into the process in the UAE and abroad. In Dubai, the first stage of divorce proceedings is to attend a reconciliation committee. "There's a family guidance counsellor who discusses the reasons for the breakdown of the marriage, makes suggestions for what could be done, if necessary sends people away to have a think and try another solution."
As part of the Resolution guidelines, too, the possibility of reconciliation and counselling must be discussed at the first meeting. "It can stop people from thinking divorce is their only option."
For those who remain adamant, says Tribe, it is important to resist the temptation to throw around accusations. "I try to keep things as amicable as possible. I will always advise not to cite adultery. [In English courts] it doesn't give any benefit to the financial proceedings. [In Dubai] if there's a divorce petition citing adultery, your husband is highly unlikely to cooperate because of the potential criminal implications, so that leads to added legal expense trying to prove the adultery, and added hostility."
Sakr also believes in reining in your anger. "Anger and bitterness can consume people's lives and won't make you feel better," she says. "Get it out of your system, but then tell yourself that it's time to grieve your loss."
This is someone you have loved enough to marry in the first place, after all: there is probably common ground there, hidden beneath the fury.
Tribe says: "If you receive a mild divorce petition, it renews your faith in that person, I think; it makes you feel, 'if she's making those concessions on the divorce, then OK, let me make concessions in relation to the children or in relation to finances'."
Equally, she tries to encourage her clients not to respond in kind to hostile letters sent by less ethical lawyers.
"Whatever they write in correspondence is irrelevant [to the court]. Let them waste their money writing these ridiculous letters," she says. "It's guaranteed to inflame a situation; I just have to say don't rise to it."
Of course, the biggest incentive to remain friends is the welfare of the children, says Tribe. Even Brooke Mueller and Charlie Sheen - with a high-profile marital split that involved police and custody disputes - seem intent on putting their rocky past behind them, and just for that reason. Of the pair's recent trip to Mexico together, Sheen told the US gossip site TMZ they are "just good friends trying to be great parents... The goal is harmony".
Tribe notes that this parental consideration has recently met a credit-crunch mindset.
"I have a lot more people who come to me now and say, well, we're adamant we're not going to waste half our money on legal fees. People are thinking, 'OK, I hate his guts, and he hates my guts, but we're going to do what's best and preserve the assets for our children by agreeing things amicably'."
That may not be BFF territory, but it could be the foundation for a lasting relationship.
Published: August 23, 2011 04:00 AM