Debrett’s – that bastion of all things posh and well-mannered – is bringing out its Guide to Civilised Separation. Which raises the question: is it possible to have a ‘civilised’ divorce, and what does that mean?
To most people, a civilised divorce may mean buttoned-up emotions, courteous conversations with the ex, and as amicable a compromise on assets and children as it is humanly possible to achieve.
Most people are incredibly hurt and shocked by their partners’ decision to leave. It takes a tremendous amount of self-restraint not to hurl abuse
How is this done? For some couples, separation is a relief and, having arrived at a mutual decision to go their own ways, it is possible to make a supreme effort to be non-contentious and polite. In such cases, a road map of how to do so in a civilised manner is not likely to be needed.
In contrast, and according to the many divorced people I meet, most of them are incredibly hurt and shocked by their partners’ decision to leave. It then takes a tremendous amount of willpower and self-restraint not to hurl verbal abuse or engage in petty warfare involving paint and perhaps scissors.
For some, it is just too hard to compromise or let the ex off lightly. The principle of litigating and arguing is just what is needed to communicate the enormity of the hurt. The expense of such principles is not sufficient to deter a person whose pain and sense of abandonment almost defy description.
An Entente Cordiale?
But can people who are in that bad a state change what seems like natural reactive behaviour into something more reasonable? Can the Debrett’s Guide turn the Hundred Years’ War into an Entente Cordiale?
The book certainly makes easy and pleasant reading. It is useful in helping people to prepare for the rigours of the court process (what they should wear; how they should address the judge). It is also helpful in telling people not to waste money once a lawyer has been instructed, by answering questions and paying attention to what is needed.
However, I am not sure how relevant the chapter on Correct Forms of Address will be to the majority of the population. This takes the reader through an assortment of wordings for invitations where, for example, a divorced mother of the bride is the hostess. Considering that few women would now refer to themselves as Mrs Jane Smith, in preference to plain Jane Smith, it is a bit of a throwback; like expecting a woman to greet her husband on his return home from work with a gin and tonic and his pipe.
Cooperation and collaboration
But the guide is not really about such arcane topics. It only contains one chapter on Cooperating with Courtesy – which has useful tips on how to behave with dignity – but otherwise, it is simply a manual on the consequences of divorce and what to expect.
Who could disagree that litigating instead of collaborating is very damaging? Likewise shouting abuse while bundling clothes into bin bags instead of arranging a mutually convenient time for them to be collected? Not only is it damaging to the ex (as is obviously intended), it is damaging to the person doing it.
It is exhausting to carry out vindictive reprisals. Ironically, instead of making people feel better, it can have the reverse effect, with an added sense of isolation.
Most importantly, that level of retribution has long-lasting and damaging effects on a couple’s children. They already must cope with living under the same roof as only one parent. The last thing they need is to watch and take part in a war between the two people who are their carers and on whom they are entirely dependent.
The words ‘Debrett’s’ and ‘civilised’ go hand in hand, and the guide is an easy flick-through read with nice pictures. There is, of course, complete merit in the civilised way of separating. But this is incredibly hard to achieve. I believe that if there is a place where people feel supported in their distress, and can be heard and understood, it is then easier not to act out emotions externally and to maintain dignity in the face of adversity.
For example, the ex might be even more bewildered if the person left coping with a torrent of emotions is polite, courteous and in charge. Perhaps that would give the leaving parties even greater food for thought and make them feel guilty, rather than at liberty to tell anyone who will listen that the ex is crazy or nasty or vindictive.
Treating people in a way they don’t expect can achieve the desired effect with much less cost to someone who needs a sense of his or her own voice and influence. After all, feeling civilised rather than out of control can make us feel altogether better about ourselves.
The Guide to Civilised Separation is published by Debrett’s at £12.99
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