Divorce - Do women win too much?

For divorcing wives, England is now seen as by far the most generous country in Europe, with some la

The unique sympathy bestowed by English judges on women in the throes of marriage breakdown has led to thousands of wives from other countries flocking to London to have their divorce cases heard here. While other European countries expect women to return to work and support themselves after the breakdown of a marriage, England has experienced a counter-feminist revolution in recent years. It has become normal here for women to lay claim to all the assets their husbands have brought to the marriage, and even future earnings, as well as being supported by them for the rest of their lives

The situation has spawned a vast legal industry. We have no fewer than 11,000 solicitors specialising in marital disputes, and of the annual 150,000 divorces that go through English courts, 24,000 - or one in six - now involve couples from other countries where the disgruntled partner, usually the wife, has managed to spring the petition here in order to get the best deal.

Now all that is set to change with a massive upheaval being proposed from Brussels and due to come into force next year. The European Commission has put forward a controversial new legal framework to streamline attitudes to adultery and maintenance across Europe. It wants to end divorce "tourism" and prevent disgruntled spouses shopping for a court hearing in England. Although Britain is still calling for amendments to the proposals, the Brussels timescale decrees that the changes should come into force at the beginning of 2008.

Specialist lawyers predict that the new regulation, known as Rome III, will highlight the gulf between how divorce is dealt with in England compared with everywhere else. The regulation introduces the concept of "applicable law", mean ing that many people born and married elsewhere would not have access to an English-style divorce. The intention is to introduce greater consistency in the treatment of divorcees through out the European Union. English divorce court judges will thus be compelled to abandon any misty-eyed compassion for women and fall into step with other countries in order to stamp out the pressure from divorce shoppers.

In recent years, a number of lurid public div orce cases have attracted the headlines. The wife of the celebrity golfer Colin Montgomerie received a £15m divorce settlement, and a court ruled that the wife of the Middlesbrough soccer star Ray Parlour was entitled to a one-third share of his future earnings to reflect her early role in promoting his talents. Last year, the House of Lords ruled that financier's wife Melissa Miller was entitled to £5m - a quarter of her husband's fortune - in compensation for a failed marriage lasting under three years, and despite the fact she had a career of her own. At the same time, Julia McFarlane was awarded annual payments for life of £250,000 from her ex-husband to compensate her for the successful legal career she would have had, had she not got married and raised a family.

But it is not just the wives of very rich men who do well. A survey published last year by the accountants Grant Thornton revealed that the average "pot of wealth" to be divided on divorce stood at £1m in 2005. Non-working wives generally got 53 per cent of it. "England is seen as the most 'divorce friendly' jurisdiction for women," said Andrea McLaren, the firm's senior specialist in marital settlements. "There are increasing numbers of people who have holiday homes and other assets abroad. The situation is complex and we would welcome EU-wide divorce rules."

The rest of Europe has got on with implementing the principles of feminism and equality, for which generations of women have fought long and hard. When couples split up, the general view is that pay-offs to wives, entirely separate from maintenance for children, should be along the lines of redundancy - a bit of a cushion to help with adapting to a new lifestyle. Laws are generally fairly tightly drawn, reducing the scope for argument. In England, however, the discretion allowed to judges means that case law comes to reflect the prevailing opinion.

It was the White v White ruling in 2000 which is deemed to have established new rules giving women a 50:50 entitlement to marital property. Pamela and Martin White, who had run a farm together, had been married for 33 years. Mrs White was offered £800,000 when the marriage ended, but the law lords decreed the sum should be increased to £1.5m.

Since then, the notion of equality seems to have been subsumed in the drive for women to present themselves as victims. When it comes to divorce, they are being seen here as largely incapable of supporting themselves, and are laying claim to inherited wealth, and the fruits of any previous career success their husband has brought to the marriage, in a way that would be unlawful in neighbouring European member states.

"You just have to look at who judges are," said William Longrigg, a solicitor who has regularly acted in cases where couples are fighting over assets worth millions. "They are part of the establishment, largely male, and drawn from a narrow social class. They still hold the view that women need to be protected. Other people may consider that paternalistic or patronising, but old habits die hard. Because they are allowed to operate so much discretion in divorce cases, we get all sorts of strange decisions." Like many of his legal colleagues, Longrigg believes an overhaul of the divorce laws is long overdue.

The latest high-profile case to make waves was the break-up of the television personality Chris Tarrant and his wife Ingrid. Their divorce last week followed revelations that Tarrant, 60, had a protracted affair. Tarrant is understood to be handing over half of his £10m property portfolio, plus £5m in lieu of maintenance payments, to compensate his wife for the failure of their 15-year marriage."I am deeply sorry for the hurt I have caused my loyal wife and wonderful children," Tarrant said in a statement issued last year. "I have only myself to blame for the breakdown of my marriage."

He may well have been happy to take the responsibility, but such a generous settlement would be unlikely even in countries such as Greece and Italy where gender roles would appear to be more traditional than ours. Their legal systems assume maintenance for ex-wives will be short-term. Most other regimes also assume women are capable of working once a toddler reaches three, while in countries such as Sweden, it is only available during a "transition period" to find work or undertake training. In Denmark, maintenance payments for ex-wives are a rarity. Other countries, including Belgium, Germany and France, also take the view that any assets acquired by the man before the beginning of the marriage remain his when the marriage ends. Prenuptial agreements decreeing the division of assets should the couple split up are still not recognised in England, but are binding in countries across Europe from France and Spain to Poland and the Czech Republic.

Of the 2.2 million marriages taking place an nually across the European Union, almost a fifth involve partners from different countries. The international divorce rate is not far behind, with 16 per cent of the 875,000 failed marriages involving couples from different countries.

Last month, the constitutional affairs minister Harriet Harman gave a speech in Brussels pointing out the urgent need for the European Commission to come up with new workable rules that could be applied despite differences in countries' legal codes. "It is important that family justice works across different European countries," she declared. "It is essential the commission brings forward proposals on which we can all agree."

If the changes are to work, however, English divorce legislation - or its interpretation - will have to change to bring us into line with Europe. Otherwise, lawyers say there will merely be fresh rounds of legal battles by wives arguing for the right of access to London's gilded divorce courts. Unhappy corporate wives have been known to confide how they deliberately lured their husbands to jobs in London, in the knowledge that after six months' residence they will qualify to present a divorce petition here. "We call it the race to court," said Anna Worwood of the law firm Manches. "It is well known that our system is favourable. The idea is you get your petition in first and claim a lot of maintenance from the courts here, before the husband launches proceedings in a less favourable jurisdiction."

Yet for many divorcees, the implication that they are seeking to "fine" ex-husbands is deeply offensive. A 43-year-old former solicitor and mother-of-two, who has just emerged from a protracted court battle with her ex-husband, said: "I do feel bitter. He was the one having an affair. I tried to save the marriage, I gave up my career to give him an easier life. If things had gone his way, I would have been left with almost nothing. I don't think it has anything to do with notions of feminism. It is fairness. It would be more to the point to bring European systems in line with ours."

Cate Briddick, a barrister from the pressure group Rights of Women, said the recent high-profile divorce decisions merely recognised the principles of equality between the partners in a marriage. "Until now, married women have suffered a huge disadvantage," she said. "The partners should come to a marriage as equals and should be treated as equals when they leave it. If you don't want that kind of relationship, you don't marry."

A spokesman for the Department for Constitutional Affairs said last week that Harriet Harman is due to attend a series of further meetings in Brussels to search for common ground in the divorce minefield. Although there is certainty that change will come, he acknowledged that, like divorce itself, the negotiations are likely to involve a bitter battle.

Tour divorce: how Europeans do it
Research by Lucy Knight

Maintenance is not common in Denmark, and when granted it does not normally last more than ten years. In England, chances of gaining maintenance for life increased after the 2006 McFarlane case, in which the wife received £250,000 for life.

Maintenance for the wife can be claimed if she conceived during the marriage; it is paid until the child turns three. But all maintenance depends on the obligated spouse's financial ability to pay. Pre-marital assets and inherited wealth are excluded.

Most of Spain splits assets acquired during marriage equally. In Catalonia, however, these do not have to be shared. Maintenance depends upon factors including length of marriage, health, employment prospects and the parties' skills.

In principle, all marital property is to be divided equally between the husband and wife. Anything acquired before marriage is subject to any pre-nuptial agreement. Ex-spouses are expected to support themselves, though maintenance may be awarded for a transitional period.

Often seen as "mean" for its 50:50 division of matrimonial property, regardless of the length of the marriage. Still, inherited assets and assets acquired prior to marriage are excluded. Also, maintenance is usually paid for only three years from divorce unless there are exceptional circumstances.

This article first appeared in the 19 February 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Iran - Ready to attack

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The age of loneliness

Profound changes in technology, work and community are transforming our ultrasocial species into a population of loners.

Our dominant ideology is based on a lie. A series of lies, in fact, but I’ll focus on just one. This is the claim that we are, above all else, self-interested – that we seek to enhance our own wealth and power with little regard for the impact on others.

Some economists use a term to describe this presumed state of being – Homo economicus, or self-maximising man. The concept was formulated, by J S Mill and others, as a thought experiment. Soon it became a modelling tool. Then it became an ideal. Then it evolved into a description of who we really are.

It could not be further from the truth. To study human behaviour is to become aware of how weird we are. Many species will go to great lengths to help and protect their close kin. One or two will show occasional altruism towards unrelated members of their kind. But no species possesses a capacity for general altruism that is anywhere close to our own.

With the possible exception of naked mole-rats, we have the most social minds of all mammals. These minds evolved as an essential means of survival. Slow, weak, armed with rounded teeth and flimsy nails in a world of fangs and claws and horns and tusks, we survived through co-operation, reciprocity and mutual defence, all of which developed to a remarkable degree.

A review paper in the journal Frontiers in Psychology observes that Homo economicus  might be a reasonable description of chimpanzees. “Outsiders . . . would not expect to receive offers of food or solicitude; rather, they would be fiercely attacked . . . food is shared only under harassment; even mothers will not voluntarily offer novel foods to their own infants unless the infants beg for them.” But it is an unreasonable description of human beings.

How many of your friends, colleagues and neighbours behave like chimpanzees? A few, perhaps. If so, are they respected or reviled? Some people do appear to act as if they have no interests but their own – Philip Green and Mike Ashley strike me as possible examples – but their behaviour ­attracts general revulsion. The news is filled with spectacular instances of human viciousness: although psychopaths are rare, their deeds fill the papers. Daily acts of kindness are seldom reported, because they are everywhere.

Every day, I see people helping others with luggage, offering to cede their place in a queue, giving money to the homeless, setting aside time for others, volunteering for causes that offer no material reward. Alongside these quotidian instances are extreme and stunning cases. I think of my Dutch mother-in-law, whose family took in a six-year-old Jewish boy – a stranger – and hid him in their house for two years during the German occupation of the Netherlands. Had he been discovered, they would all have been sent to a concentration camp.

Studies suggest that altruistic tendencies are innate: from the age of 14 months, children try to help each other, attempting to hand over objects another child can’t reach. At the age of two, they start to share valued possessions. By the time they are three, they begin to protest against other people’s violation of moral norms.

Perhaps because we are told by the media, think tanks and politicians that competition and self-interest are the defining norms of human life, we disastrously mischaracterise the way in which other people behave. A survey commissioned by the Common Cause Foundation reported that 78 per cent of respondents believe others to be more selfish than they really are.

I do not wish to suggest that this mythology of selfishness is the sole or even principal cause of the epidemic of loneliness now sweeping the world. But it is likely to contribute to the plague by breeding suspicion and a sense of threat. It also appears to provide a doctrine of justification for those afflicted by isolation, a doctrine that sees individualism as a higher state of existence than community. Perhaps it is hardly surprising that Britain, the European nation in which neoliberalism is most advanced, is, according to government figures, the loneliness capital of Europe.

There are several possible reasons for the atomisation now suffered by the supremely social mammal. Work, which used to bring us together, now disperses us: many people have neither fixed workplaces nor regular colleagues and regular hours. Our leisure time has undergone a similar transformation: cinema replaced by television, sport by computer games, time with friends by time on Facebook.

Social media seems to cut both ways: it brings us together and sets us apart. It helps us to stay in touch, but also cultivates a tendency that surely enhances other people’s sense of isolation: a determination to persuade your followers that you’re having a great time. FOMO – fear of missing out – seems, at least in my mind, to be closely ­associated with loneliness.

Children’s lives in particular have been transformed: since the 1970s, their unaccompanied home range (in other words, the area they roam without adult supervision) has declined in Britain by almost 90 per cent. Not only does this remove them from contact with the natural world, but it limits their contact with other children. When kids played out on the street or in the woods, they quickly formed their own tribes, learning the social skills that would see them through life.

An ageing population, family and community breakdown, the decline of institutions such as churches and trade unions, the switch from public transport to private, inequality, an alienating ethic of consumerism, the loss of common purpose: all these are likely to contribute to one of the most dangerous epidemics of our time.

Yes, I do mean dangerous. The stress response triggered by loneliness raises blood pressure and impairs the immune system. Loneliness enhances the risk of depression, paranoia, addiction, cognitive decline, dem­entia, heart disease, stroke, viral infection, accidents and suicide. It is as potent a cause of early death as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and can be twice as deadly as obesity.

Perhaps because we are in thrall to the ideology that helps to cause the problem, we turn to the market to try to solve it. Over the past few weeks, the discovery of a new American profession, the people-walker (taking human beings for walks), has caused a small sensation in the media. In Japan there is a fully fledged market for friendship: you can hire friends by the hour with whom to chat and eat and watch TV; or, more disturbingly, to pose for pictures that you can post on social media. They are rented as mourners at funerals and guests at weddings. A recent article describes how a fake friend was used to replace a sister with whom the bride had fallen out. What would the bride’s mother make of it? No problem: she had been rented, too. In September we learned that similar customs have been followed in Britain for some time: an early foray into business for the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, involved offering to lease her posh friends to underpopulated weddings.



My own experience fits the current pattern: the high incidence of loneliness suffered by people between the ages of 18 and 34. I have sometimes been lonely before and after that period, but it was during those years that I was most afflicted. The worst episode struck when I returned to Britain after six years working in West Papua, Brazil and East Africa. In those parts I sometimes felt like a ghost, drifting through societies to which I did not belong. I was often socially isolated, but I seldom felt lonely, perhaps because the issues I was investigating were so absorbing and the work so frightening that I was swept along by adrenalin and a sense of purpose.

When I came home, however, I fell into a mineshaft. My university friends, with their proper jobs, expensive mortgages and settled, prematurely aged lives, had become incomprehensible to me, and the life I had been leading seemed incomprehensible to everyone. Though feeling like a ghost abroad was in some ways liberating – a psychic decluttering that permitted an intense process of discovery – feeling like a ghost at home was terrifying. I existed, people acknowledged me, greeted me cordially, but I just could not connect. Wherever I went, I heard my own voice bouncing back at me.

Eventually I made new friends. But I still feel scarred by that time, and fearful that such desolation may recur, particularly in old age. These days, my loneliest moments come immediately after I’ve given a talk, when I’m surrounded by people congratulating me or asking questions. I often experience a falling sensation: their voices seem to recede above my head. I think it arises from the nature of the contact: because I can’t speak to anyone for more than a few seconds, it feels like social media brought to life.

The word “sullen” evolved from the Old French solain, which means “lonely”. Loneliness is associated with an enhanced perception of social threat, so one of its paradoxical consequences is a tendency to shut yourself off from strangers. When I was lonely, I felt like lashing out at the society from which I perceived myself excluded, as if the problem lay with other people. To read any comment thread is, I feel, to witness this tendency: you find people who are plainly making efforts to connect, but who do so by insulting and abusing, alienating the rest of the thread with their evident misanthropy. Perhaps some people really are rugged individualists. But others – especially online – appear to use that persona as a rationale for involuntary isolation.

Whatever the reasons might be, it is as if a spell had been cast on us, transforming this ultrasocial species into a population of loners. Like a parasite enhancing the conditions for its own survival, loneliness impedes its own cure by breeding shame and shyness. The work of groups such as Age UK, Mind, Positive Ageing and the Campaign to End Loneliness is life-saving.

When I first wrote about this subject, and the article went viral, several publishers urged me to write a book on the theme. Three years sitting at my desk, studying isolation: what’s the second prize? But I found another way of working on the issue, a way that engages me with others, rather than removing me. With the brilliant musician Ewan McLennan, I have written a concept album (I wrote the first draft of the lyrics; he refined them and wrote the music). Our aim is to use it to help break the spell, with performances of both music and the spoken word designed to bring people together –which, we hope, will end with a party at the nearest pub.

By itself, our work can make only a tiny contribution to addressing the epidemic. But I hope that, both by helping people to acknowledge it and by using the power of music to create common sentiment, we can at least begin to identify the barriers that separate us from others, and to remember that we are not the selfish, ruthless beings we are told we are.

“Breaking the Spell of Loneliness” by Ewan McLennan and George Monbiot is out now. For a full list of forthcoming gigs visit: monbiot.com/music/

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood