Divorce: The Debrett's Guide to Civilised Separation – a sign of the times?

27 January 2012

The rate of divorce continues to rise. Nowadays, one marriage in every three statistically is destined to end with divorce. It is perhaps unsurprising then that Debrett’s is looking to offer couples advice on how to manage a divorce graciously.

Since the 1760s, Debrett’s have been the authority on all things proper (read “posh”). It was to Debrett’s that people would turn to learn the proper form of address for a Dowager Duchess, or how to manage difficult dinner party guests. Their latest offering, “A Guide to Civilised Separation”, is therefore a pretty radical departure from tradition. The news of the Guide’s publication has generated a mixed response.

The Guide is due to be published on 29 February, the only day every four years when (in polite circles) women are permitted to propose marriage (with a fine levied on any cad ungallant enough to refuse).

Early reviews of the book report that it offers insights such as: "Throwing your husband's vintage wine collection down the loo or cutting his suits to shreds might seem like a therapeutic gesture when you're in the throes of rage and despair, but it can rebound on you and undermine your case,". Quite right, but what if this seemed like a deserved and fitting response to him cancelling your credit card, refusing to pay the mortgage, or failing to turn up to see the children?

Speaking to the Independent on Sunday, Conrad Free, the chairman of Debrett's, said: “We're trying to help people through a step-by-step process in what can be an emotional minefield.” To be fair, practical and sensible advice is offered, for example, on how to tell family, friends and children about the divorce, how to manage family occasions, how to adopt a new name and how to introduce new relationships.

It is churlish to argue against the basic premise that an amicable or “civilised” separation is preferable for all concerned; never more so than where children are involved. This minimises legal costs, reduces stress and enables parents to continue to parent effectively once their marriage is over. But do Debrett’s assume that there will be a shared intention to be civil and reasonable? The advice (which includes sending Christmas cards to in-laws and emphasises the need to remain "relentlessly polite and civilised") is fine if both spouses are on the same page, but is unlikely to help where one is acting unreasonably, angrily or out of spite. But, at least the message from Debrett’s seems positive, in contrast to the The Sun’s offering today, “There is no such thing as a polite divorce.”

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