In April 2022 divorce law is changing in England and Wales. From 6 April 2022 onwards, divorce can be granted before two years pass without one of the parties being ‘at fault’. Which is why it’s been labelled ‘no fault’ divorce. But what about the reality? On the ground, for women like you who are going through the divorce process? Can there really be no fault divorce? In this blog we’ll explore the question: can you really divorce without blame?
Divorce: the reality
The legal system is supposed to be calm, impartial, fair. Of course, sometimes it is none of these things. The courts don’t always make the right rulings. Judgements are flawed. Nevertheless, the court system is there to uphold the law and, as far as possible, to keep emotions out of it.
Outside of the legal system, it’s a different matter entirely. It would be absolutely wonderful if every divorcing couple reached the decision to separate mutually. If they had complementary visions for their futures. If they held peaceful, smooth, conversations about assets and parenting, and both moved on with their lives with each other’s blessing and no recrimination.
In my decade of divorce coaching, I’ve never seen that happen. There is always recrimination at some point. There is always hurt and grief. This is because we’re human. It doesn’t mean either or both of you are terrible people. It just means you’re people.
This means, somewhere along the line, in your lived reality of divorce, it’s likely there will be blame. Even if it’s fleeting. Even if, for the most part, your divorce is a fairly smooth, uncomplicated process. Chances are at some point you’ll think something along the lines of:
Why did they give up on our marriage?
Why didn’t they invest more time in us?
What was it that made them have that affair?
Why did they convince me to move away?
What made them always so argumentative?
Why were they never excited to do anything together?
Or any of a million other questions about why your marriage stopped working. If you’re not asking them about your spouse you’re asking them about yourself.
It’s natural. No-one goes into a marriage wanting it to end. And when things go wrong we look for what, and who, to blame. But just because it’s natural doesn’t mean it’s healthy.
When you hold onto blame you hurt yourself.
There’s a world of difference between these two scenarios:
Scenario 1: You and your husband are splitting up. You’ve realised that you’ve grown apart. He’s still interested in the sports, holidays and hobbies he was interested in 20 years ago. You’re not. You keep going over and over it in your head. Why won’t he spend more time doing more of the things you enjoy? He’s so selfish for not being prepared to go to Copenhagen on holiday rather than France for the tenth time. And you start to blame yourself too: why can’t you be satisfied with what you’ve always had?
Scenario 2: Same scene. He’s still interested in the things he was 20 years ago, you’ve moved on. But in this scenario your internal monologue is different. ‘I’ve tried to compromise on my interests, but I can’t keep doing that to myself.’ ‘I wish he was into different things, but I know I can’t change him.’ ‘We’ve discussed it and we’ve both realised we want different things out of life.’
The first scenario contains a lot more bitterness. And is likely to use a lot more of your emotional energy. It’s helpful to question your actions and intentions with curiosity. It can bring acceptance to notice where things went wrong in your marriage. Sometimes it can help you find a way through. It can help to recognise that one person had more of a part to play than the other.
But it becomes poisonous when you get stuck in the blame game. Understanding how you got here is a healthy step to moving forward. But when you stay fixated on it being your spouse’s fault you get stuck in the past. In re-living old hurts. And that doesn’t help anyone.
What if they really are to blame?
One of the most common questions I get is how to move forward when your soon-to-be-ex really was the stuff of nightmares. Perhaps they were abusive. Maybe they were dishonest, or selfish. Maybe they were a terrible parent to your children.
You don’t need to ignore any of these things. It’s important to acknowledge them, and deal with them as best you can. That might look like:
- Working with a mediator to come up with a parenting plan
- Setting very clear boundaries around contact and communication
- Seeing a therapist to process the damage caused by your spouse’s behaviour
- Letting your soon-to-be-ex know how hurt you are
- Getting professional services, such as CAFCASS, involved if needed.
Your hurt is real and their behaviour was unacceptable. But the truth is that the divorce court is not about retribution. It’s there to help people move forward, not to punish. There are other criminal or civil courts for that if needed.
And, ultimately, the longer you stay fixated on their poor behaviour, the longer you stay trapped. Moving forward doesn’t always need to mean forgiving and forgetting. It is possible to call someone out. But, when it comes down to it, the most important thing now is making the most of the rest of your life. And that means learning the lessons of the past and moving forward, with self-compassion.
Are you blaming yourself?
You might have decided you’re to blame for the end of the marriage. Whatever’s happened, you are still worthy of self-compassion. It’s still possible, and necessary for you to move forward. Own your mistakes, yes. But don’t be buried under them.
The divorce process itself offers you plenty of time to feel guilty. Let’s remember, divorce can be a full-on, full-time job. It drains your time, your energy, and can drain your bank balance too. You’re going to be distracted. You’re going to have off days where you snap at the children. It’s likely you’re going to drop the ball at work, or miss a dentist appointment, or whatever.
Don’t let yourself be flooded with guilt. Divorce is one of the most stressful experiences you’ll ever encounter. Give yourself some grace. Lower your standards a little. It’s fine for the children to watch more TV than usual. Talk to your boss if things are getting on top of you: people value honesty and integrity. Ask your friends for support, whether it’s in the form of a home-delivered chilli or a shoulder to cry on.
Be seen and heard
If you need a place to let it all out and be heard, I’m here. Quite often we can’t move forward until we’ve really been heard. Not by your mum, or your best friend, who have their own agenda (however well intentioned). By someone who gets it. Who won’t be shocked by your marriage’s innermost workings. Who will be there for you – even if you see that you had a part to play in your marriage ending too.
Divorce without blame isn’t always a reality when you’re in the thick of it. But you don’t need to stay in the thick of it. Acknowledging where you are right now is the first, most vital, step to moving forward. I can help you work through the emotions as well as make a viable plan for your divorce and future life.
Emma Heptonstall, the Divorce Alchemist is the author of the Amazon best-selling book How to be a Lady Who Leaves, the Ultimate Guide to Getting Divorce Ready. A former lawyer, Emma is a family mediator and founder of Get Divorce Ready the online self-study and group programmes. Emma has been featured on BBC Radio, The Telegraph, the iPaper and in Marie Claire Magazine. Emma is also the host of The Six Minute Divorce Podcast. To find out more visit www.emmaheptonstall.com