A great fable has swept across this land in recent years. It builds in volume and conviction the more it is told, but the gist is always the same: that we should pity, yes pity, the divorced man.
As two in five marriages end in divorce, the storytellers boast a pattern. After barely a decade in wedlock, through little or no fault of his own, the married man - most usually in his late thirties at the time - will find himself ejected from the bosom of his family by the ingrate he married.
She who instigates the parting (and it probably will be she; 75 per cent of divorces are moved by women) will then proceed to strip him limb from asset. Even his precious pension, if it is larger than hers, is soon to be added up from the date of marriage to the date of divorce - and half of it handed to her greedy grasp. In the meantime, she will make sure that the Child Support Agency harasses our gentleman for child support payments that equal most of his salary, and should he be bold enough to marry again such payments shall not be decreased to account for his commitments to his new family.
In especially exciting cases, divorced man will then be hounded unto penury or suicide or, if we really want the juices flowing at the Daily Mail, both.
The only problem with this salutary, sign-of-the-times fable is that, according to a new study by the Institute of Social and Economic Research, it is all just so much bollocks.
Taking a huge sample of 10,000 people, and monitoring them over a period of ten years, the study found that men benefit tremendously from divorce: on average, their disposable income will increase by 15 per cent - while the women left behind, and most usually the children, too, will see theirs decline by a discomfiting 28 per cent.
Far from being impoverished by their familial responsibilities, less than half of the men will regularly cough up the full child support that they should, and nearly a third of them will somehow manage to pay absolutely nothing at all.
Meanwhile, unfettered by a structured schedule - even those men who never did lift a finger about the home were nevertheless governed by the insistent rhythm of family life and its mealtimes - our man in his late-thirties prime is now able to walk the extra economic mile; for some the extra shift on double time, for others the promotion-winning late hours at the office desk.
In other words, they are freed to do what so many discover they do so very well: to channel their energies into looking after Number One.
Not much of the above will come as a surprise to the divorced woman, who will now join that group known as "lone parents" (three in five lone parents were, in fact, once married). For the first time in her life, she might well find herself grappling with the intricacies of income support or the working families tax credit, with government agencies lurking all the while to penalise her should she seek honest labour for more than a meagre handful of hours in a week.
Her erstwhile husband, in between gadding about in the car and on the holidays he can now afford, will drop by with such support - moral or otherwise - as and only if he chooses. It is nonsense to state baldly, as one newspaper did this week, that "courts compel the man to support his children until they have finished full-time education". So they do. But what happens if he still doesn't pay? When is a woman to find time or money to go back, and back again, to those courts?
After all, it's not as if she has time on her hands for a fight. Another survey published last week estimated that, if the work that went into caring for a family were costed as paid work, it would be valued at around £25,000 a year. So if only one person is doing the caring, that's £25,000-worth of time when she cannot be earning elsewhere - and £25,000-worth of time when he can. And we are to pity him?
The stark figures speak for themselves: 91 per cent of lone parents are women, most of them divorced. And lone parents have now officially overtaken pensioners as the poorest group of people in this country.
But if those are the facts, we might consider why they stand so at odds with the might of the "poor-bloke" fable. Perhaps part of the answer is that the facts are too redolent of the gloomy, high-rise tower block for our average newspaperman to become involved; the first rule for a proper underclass, as we know, is that it stays under - well under- eye level.
Alongside that, and not at all mutually exclusive, is the feeling that the realities of the situation are parked on the back of what sounds too old-fashioned to be worthy of comment. We have been mostly speaking, it is true, of a declining family unit, one where wife stays home, undereducated and undertrained, thus incapable of earning much in the first place, while husband trots off to slay the family bacon.
The commentating world, fancying itself, probably correctly, to exist at the other end of the social spectrum, is peppered with women who think that their credentials and qualifications will conspire to protect them from falling into a post-divorce poverty trap. Well, they wish.
Granted, this is a straw poll, but allow it if you will. There are three women in my social circle alone who have stumbled badly in the dissolution of thoroughly modern marriages. Their details vary so little, we could treat them as one. Each marriage brought forth two children, and in each marriage the wife and mother was also the breadwinner, thanks to her studies and subsequent professional standing - oh yes, and to his unemployment.
The reasons for his circumstances varied, though not much, between sloth and vanity; he either could not greatly be bothered and/or would be happy to work when the right job "came along". In the meantime, in the first flush of romance, may God forgive them, each of the women allowed that the family home be placed in joint names, before going out to earn the mortgage payments.
You have probably already guessed that when they re-turned home from their toils there was the dinner to prepare and the children to bathe - but let us not digress too far, save to say that the devil doth indeed make work for idle hands, and in each case the man's empty days were soon to be filled with illicit affairs.
In the end, the women recognised that there was nothing in this for them, that they were being taken for the biggest fairground ride in the world, and that the marriage should cease. From which point, they began to suffer financially, as they suffer still.
The house, irrespective of their having paid the mortgage, was to be sold and the proceeds divided. They inherited the children, along with sole concern for childcare and the inflexible demands of their trades. They and their children had to move to whatever could be bought with half of what they once had; in each case, this obviously meant reduced circumstances. And child support? Don't be daft; he's unemployed, isn't he?
But here comes the icing on the cake: each of these women considers herself more or less lucky so far, because each has been warned by her solicitor that, should things turn nasty, he could now apply for her to pay him maintenance.
We asked a solicitor: let's get this right. A man can screw around during his marriage, take half of everything his wife worked for at the end of it, and then claim his bar bills money from her for ever after? "Exactly so," said the solicitor. "Just as has long been the case for men when the position is reversed." Well, yes - but then, when the position is reversed, the man is almost never the one left to raise the children as well, is he? "Exactly so," said the solicitor.
From tower block to trading floor, then, divorce is a better deal for men than it is for women. Yet, still, overwhelmingly most divorces are brought by women. They do it, by and large, because they have had enough of a bad marriage; even in these days of "no fault" divorces, lawyers will tell you that the woman generally makes her move because of ill treatment of herself or her children. And when she does so, she does it in the full knowledge - factually or intuitively - that their financial circumstances will suffer. But she does it anyway. Some of us call that immense courage.
Divorce by numbers
Marriages registered in 1999: 267,300
Divorces granted in 1999: 145,214
granted to husbands: 43,053
granted to wives: 101,795
granted to both: 366
Judicial separations: 2,282
Divorcing couples with children: 70 per cent
with children under 16: 80 per cent
Average age of divorcing couples
Males: 39 years
Females: 37 years
Grounds for divorce
granted to husbands: 13,708
granted to wives: 22,611
granted to husbands: 11,450
granted to wives: 53,807
granted to husbands: 298
granted to wives: 492
Marriage by numbers
The number of married households is projected to reduce by about one million between 1996 and 2021. Cohabiting couple households are projected to increase by more than 1.3 million in the same period.
Average age of first marriage:
Males: 30 years
Females: 28 years
Cost of a prenuptial agreement on the internet: £29.99 (www.desktop-lawyer.co.uk) Prenuptial agreements are not binding in English courts in the event of a divorce.
- More than one million children are listed on the Child Support Agency's computer system
- One in ten UK households is headed by a single parent. The UK percentage of lone-parent families is the highest in Europe
- 32 per cent of non-resident parents receive income support or Job Seekers Allowance
- 16 per cent receive income from other benefits, irregular employment or investments
- Average maintenance assessment is £20.26 per week. For employed non- resident parents, it is £38.28
- One in 16 parents with care is male (the parent in care lives with the children)
- The average age of a parent with care is 35.1 years
- Almost 85 per cent of non-resident parents and parents with care live in the same area, and approximately 76 per cent of them live within 13 miles of each other
- The north-east has the highest proportion of lone-parent families
- Maintenance benefit lasts until the child is 16 or has completed full-time education