What one word sums up your year? Mine isn’t ‘COVID’ or ‘coronavirus’, even though those words appeared in half the stories in the New York Times and four-fifths of them in The Economist – by late March.
No, the word that sums up the year for me is ‘divorce’.
There’s an epidemic of it: 40% of marriages in Canada end with the partners breaking apart. In America, it’s 50%, rising to 67% by the couple’s 40th anniversary, and in Britain, it’s 42%, rising to 60% by their 20th anniversary.
But because the divorce rate has been so high for so long, we tend to view it as inevitable and never-changing, the way we used to view smoking or drinking and driving.
It’s getting worse now, of course. After nine months of enforced togetherness, many marriages are stressed to the point of breaking, from lockdowns, financial strains and even political discord. Even by May, just two months into our first lockdown, divorces were up in Canada, and last month one Toronto family lawyer reported a 40% increase in the number of calls asking about a divorce.
My sense is that once the pandemic ends, even more couples will formalize what they determined, alone or together, during it.
This happened 20 years ago when we were running JeansMarines, the women’s marathon group that took midlife women off the couch and trained them to run 42.2 kilometres, crossing the finish line of the Marine Corps Marathon in Washington. A shocking number of these women, with kids gone off to university and not much happening at home, crossed that line and filed for divorce. We even had our own divorce lawyer. Such is the power of external events to undo the glue of habit.
So why am I writing about such a negative thing as divorce in this, the 125th edition of The Plague-Ground, on the eve of a happier, healthier year?
Because I’m a hopeless optimist. I don’t think everything’s always going to work out. But I do think when it doesn’t, there’s got to be a better way of breaking up than what we have now.
Take Brexit. Britain and Europe were married for 47 years. It was a dull, functional marriage, until 2016 when Nigel Farage convinced Britain it could be a lot happier if it started seeing other people. The divorce wasn’t final until this week, but the children, in the form of thousands of lorry drivers, fishers and vaccine-makers, will be the first to suffer, starting tomorrow at 12:01:01 a.m.
Or take the US Presidential Election. Four years ago, our best friends and next-door neighbours decided to marry a billionaire. It didn’t go well, and now he’s threatening not to leave the House. Surely, after 244 years, America can find, if not a kinder gentler way to determine who its President should be, then at least a clearer one.
But countries are not couples.
So what can we do to push the divorce rate down and keep more marriages intact?
Well, we can make our kids more literate on the realities of perhaps the most important thing in their lives. There are all kinds of financial literacy programs brought on by the appalling ignorance many of us have about handling our finances. So if we can do this for money, why not for love?
It seems we can. At least they’re trying to do that in Britain.
Fiona Shackleton is a London lawyer who’s created a ‘happily-ever-after’ app to help you determine if you’re suited for marriage. She is not just any lawyer. Baroness Shackleton of Belgravia is the most famous divorce lawyer on earth. She’s represented the Prince of Wales, the Duke of York and Paul McCartney. In a settlement meeting during the Beatle’s divorce, Heather Mills, McCartney’s soon to be ex-wife, ended it by pouring a jug of water on his lawyer’s head.
Two years ago, Lady Shackleton sponsored a report at Exeter University that concluded there were two frequent causes of relationship failure among younger people: unrealistic expectations and incompatibility. It said those issues “should be discovered before a couple agrees to commit to each other.”
Last week, The Times announced that Lady Shackleton now aims to use the report as the basis for an app and a series of classroom modules. As she said: “‘Of all the people that I have divorced, more than 50 per cent of them have confessed that they had married the wrong people. They knew just before they got married or as they were getting married or immediately afterwards that they were making a hideous mistake.”’.
The app will ask questions like: “Do you want the white wedding? Do you like the sex? Are you keen on an alpha male who you think will be all lovely and sweet in the evenings?” As Shackleton points out: “If they are brilliant at finance they may be on the autistic radar. What would you do if your spouse lost their job?”
So quick was the uptake on her divorce app that The Times then devoted an entire editorial to its suitability.
It strikes me that we Canadians, with our different family laws, should champion our own marriage apps and courses as a way of addressing one of our most tenacious social problems that worsens largely because no one bothers to learn about it when they’re young. And one of our worst public health problems too. A 2018 study entitled “Divorce and Death” shows that broken marriages can kill at the same rate as smoking cigarettes. The risk of dying is a full 23 per cent higher among divorcées than married people.
If the pandemic has taught us one thing, it’s that we can do all kinds of things online we never thought we could do.
And what better time to start fighting this hidden epidemic than now, when old truths are falling fast, when so many of our habits have been yanked from under us, simply by asking: “Why not?”
Happy New Year.