Twenty-five years ago, the first divorces were granted in Ireland.
Sixty-two per cent turned out to vote on a day that was wet and miserable along the west coast, and it passed by a whisker, with 51 per cent in favour.
The Family Law (Divorce) Act 1996 was due to come into force on February 27th, 1997. In reality, the first divorce was granted a few weeks earlier to a man who wanted to marry his new partner, and only had a few weeks left to live.
A quarter of a century after those first divorces, what have we learned? How many of the dire predictions of the anti-divorce campaigners came to pass? What is it like to divorce in 2022?
The campaign that preceded legalisation had been deeply acrimonious. The angry shout of No campaigner Úna Bean Mhic Mhathúna at the RDS count centre seemed to many to sum up the rancour of the previous six weeks. “G’way ye wife-swapping sodomites,” she roared.
“If only we had that much fun in the campaign!” quipped an activist for the other side, a moment immortalised in Donald Taylor Black’s 1995 documentary.
It is true that not much fun was had in the run up to the referendum, which began with an overwhelming majority in favour, and saw support rapidly dwindle. The No Divorce campaign slogan, “Hello Divorce…Bye Bye Daddy,” captured the fears of a society that was just emerging from the shadows of its repressive, Catholic past in a sentence, as an ebullient Peter Scully, the campaign’s manager, observes in the film.
“Mammy sees Daddy running off, kids see Daddy running off, Daddy sees Mammy running off. Bye bye him, he can take a hike…You can’t get simpler than that,” he bragged.
Jean Murray had separated from the father of her child in 1975, divorced in England in the 1980s, and returned to live in Ireland. “I just tried to block it out,” she recalls of the toxic atmosphere surrounding the referendum. “I was so engrossed in trying to keep my head above water financially as the lone parent of a child.”
Murray was lucky to have very supportive family and friends. Even so, “there was lot of stigma attached to being separated. You just felt that you had done something wrong. Especially because there was no guiding laws, there was no family protection, no barring orders. I didn’t know anybody else who was separated at that stage.” Her feeling when divorce was legalised was one of immense relief.
The dire warnings of the No side about a stampede to the divorce courts in the aftermath of legalisation did not materialise. Just 95 divorces were granted in 1997. The rate rose gradually, hitting 3,684 in 2007. Legislation in 2019, which cut the time required for a separation from four years to two, saw a late surge. In 2020, 5,266 applications were made, compared to 4,073 in 2019.
“The number of people divorcing has increased by over 30 per cent in the past two years,” says Mel Murphy, a divorce coach. This is also partly attributable to increased pressures of lockdown, she thinks. “If there were cracks in the relationship before, those issues got bigger. There’s a lot more anger, there’s a lot more worry.”
Many of those who spoke to the Irish Times about their experience of divorce describe what remains for many a costly, traumatic and isolating experience. Some have experienced lingering stigma. Others have been left in a perilous financial position, not helped by the eye-watering costs involved.
Aoife, who was separated for five years by the time of her uncontested divorce, which came through this month, says it cost her €3,500 in total. She represented herself during maintenance hearings, but had a solicitor for the actual divorce hearing. “You end up getting quite savvy even though it is immensely stressful. Every time you have a solicitor in court, it can cost €1,000 for the day.”
‘It’s really important that both parents sit down with the children and explain to them at a level they can understand what’s happening’
Murphy puts the average cost at “€10,000 if it’s amicable. €25,000 if it’s high conflict.” Keith, who tells his story below, puts the total cost to him and his ex-wife at €60,000 to €70,000.
Then there is the emotional toll. Some men feel that the system is stacked against them, leaving them vulnerable to wrongful accusations of coercive control or abuse. For others, the family circuit court can feel like a cold environment in which to experience something so emotionally bruising. “There’s zero dignity in the court. I found my experience of being in court, and the operation of it, nearly harder than any judgment on the day,” says Aoife.
Orla McBride, whose own divorce was finalised just before Christmas in 2021 after a two-year separation, describes how there are “quite limited resources about what to expect when you’re divorcing. I found it difficult even to understand some of the things that my solicitor was telling me. I don’t blame her, she did a good job. But I just think it’s very foreign.
“One of the things that I learned is you never know how you’re going to feel. That moment of walking into the courtroom, not having been in a courtroom before, I found it very overwhelming, and I don’t know if anyone could really prepare you for that.”
For many, the pain involved is immense and frequently underestimated even by their friends and wider family. Some are left distraught and unmoored at the ending of a relationship that they expected would be for life.
“There are times when you do feel it’s never going to get better. There are a lot of hard, difficult, lonely, isolating days when you are in that period of waiting on a divorce,” says McBride.
Children’s lives are impacted too, even though they frequently prove more resilient than their parents fear. But in the short term, “no matter how well we manage”, they are affected by the “change in family structure”, says Dr Vincent McDarby, president of the Psychological Society of Ireland.
“It’s really important that both parents sit down with the children and explain to them at a level they can understand what’s happening. Once we can give them consistency and structure back, children can bounce back really well,” he says, especially once they understand what it means for them and are protected from conflict.
McBride’s own children are managing very well, but one of the things she found difficult was how many people she told would immediately focus on the impact on them. “The first thing they say is how are the kids managing, you know? That’s a very hard question to be faced with. You feel guilt anyway” and these mostly well-meaning enquiries serve to intensify it, reinforcing “the idea that as long as the kids are okay, then you haven’t completely messed up”.
In reality, as she rightly points out, “many children do fare better when they can be cared for amicably by two [separated] parents who want the best for them”.
There are other challenges. “Even people who are going through it don’t realise the impact it is going to have on every part of their life. Even their friendships – people either take sides or they don’t want to take any sides, and just back away from the couple altogether. The [wider] family will have their own say and beliefs,” says Murphy, who describes the role of a divorce coach as “helping couples to look to the future and move through the divorce as quickly and painlessly as possible”.
Work is often affected, she adds. She cites studies which show that “people’s productivity can drop as much as 40 per cent” when they’re navigating a divorce.
The double whammy of the housing crisis and Covid has forced some to stay together for far longer than anyone wanted. This can be difficult for children, says McDarby. “If you have two parents [who are living together] that just ignore each other, it’s the elephant in the room. The children find themselves torn between the parents” or end up as the conduit for communication between them.
For those in abusive relationships, the situation is particularly dire. “If you combine the housing crisis with legal costs, you’re in a bind, and so many people are very unsafe relationships. It’s a very dangerous situation,” says Ber, who is still living under the same roof as the husband from whom she has been effectively separated for around 10 years because he refuses to move out, and she can’t afford to.
During their marriage, there were instances of violence. Since the first lockdown, “it’s been horrific”. She is “walking on eggshells all the time”.
“We effectively separated 10 or 11 years ago, but we never actually said anything [publicly]. Because we were sort of still okay, and there was no need to move on. The kids were young. So I just moved up to the attic.”
In mediation, it emerged that he didn’t intend to move out until their youngest child, then 15, was 23. Ber became redundant from work during Covid, and had to appeal to the bank for a mortgage break, even though he continues to be a very high earner. “As far as he’s concerned, I’m a flatmate and I have to cover all my own costs,” she says. “I’m in the attic all the time. I’m okay being on my own. But it’s very difficult. I can’t go down and watch TV. It’s his house as far as he’s concerned.”
The observation that there is still stigma surrounding divorce is one that came up again and again in interviews, especially among those in rural areas. Aoife hasn’t told a lot of people about her divorce. “I do feel there’s a stigma. I’m a teacher, and you hear things all the time from other teachers. People are very quick to point out that somebody is separated or divorced.”
“A lot of people try to keep things private, and they don’t have anyone that can really talk to about it, because they feel ashamed,” says Murphy.
People say things like “it’s very easy to walk away”, says McBride. There’s a very common view, she believes, “that it’s harder to stay”. But even though she was relatively fortunate in that she wasn’t dependent on her ex-husband for financial stability, ending the marriage “was a very, very difficult decision to make”.
‘It took me a long time to accept that people would believe my version of events, particularly when accusations were being made about coercive control’
Stigma is relative, says McDarby. “Compared to 20 or 30 years ago, it is completely different. But to walk away from any marriage is a very difficult thing to do.”
Despite all this, the experience of divorce is ultimately positive for many. Even a difficult and protracted divorce can bring resolution, independence and a fresh start. Murphy has observed a rise in what she calls “grey divorce”. Sometimes, this is due to women going through menopause “when you move from being someone whose hormones are focused on caring for the family unit, to someone who becomes more focused on what they want out of life”.
“I voted for divorce. And I never thought in a million years I would need it. But relationships do get more challenging in middle age,” says Keith, a senior manager in his 50s and father of three teenage children, who went through a very adversarial divorce last year.
Up to five years ago, he had what she calls “a very happy marriage. Everything was going great.”
But his wife began to suffer from mental-health issues, which went untreated for several years. Her illness coincided with the deterioration of their marriage, and eventually they got to the point where they were leading separate lives. “She kept saying it was all my fault, and she’s not medically depressed, she’s only depressed because of me.”
After she was admitted to hospital for treatment, Keith’s wife told him she wanted a divorce and asked him to leave the house. He consulted a solicitor with expertise in family law, something he strongly recommends. The solicitor was able to predict exactly how things would go between them: “She said, ‘Your wife is going to want you out of the house. She’s going to want the kids. She’s going to call the guards on you and say that you’ve been abusive. She’s going to seek a safety order to get you out of the house.’ I said, ‘No, no, you don’t know my wife. She won’t don’t do any of that.’ But she did all of that.”
The advice he got suggested he should remain in the family home until things were finalised. If the husband leaves, he says, he “can be then painted as having left the family home and abandoned the kids, and he can lose out as a result”.
Another of the issues on which they did not agree was access to their three children. “They’re all old enough to speak for themselves. They all said they wanted half the time with me and half the time with her. But she refused that.”
The dissolution of their marriage was prolonged and acrimonious, taking five years with delays caused by Covid. They eventually thrashed out a deal before it went in front of a judge. Keith estimates that the total legal costs between them came to €60,000 to €70,000, including the cost of a child psychologist to make a Section 32 or Section 47 assessment.
This is where the court requests that a psychologist or another professional “would go and meet the parents, meet the kids, may meet relevant third parties, like teachers or counsellors. And they’ll then write up a report for the judge saying, basically, this is this is what’s going on, and this is what my recommendations will be,” explains Dr McDarby.
In Keith’s case, the psychologist recommended the children share their time equally between both parents. Both he and his ex-wife are high earners, but he wonders how couples who don’t have that kind of financial security afford to divorce. “We both had access to money, so we could sort it out in a way that other people couldn’t.”
He adds: “One challenge I had was that it took me a long time to accept that people would believe my version of events, particularly when accusations were being made about coercive control – and especially when my ex-wife had gone to court to get a safety order.”
‘My son, who was 17 at the time, said our separation is the best thing that ever happened to him. My daughter, not so much’
But once he opened up to friends and family, “there was zero stigma. What’s key for people is that they lean on friends and family as much as possible, and talk to them and be open about it.”
The role of mediation, says Murphy, “is to try to get at least 80 per cent agreed so that it’s only 20 per cent that you can’t agree on. If you can get most of it agreed that can help things move faster. Or else there is what’s called collaborative divorce, where each person will get a collaborative lawyer, and the lawyers will sit down together with [the couple] in the room and work things out. They’ll avoid having to dispute issues in court in front of judges. That’s the other less expensive and faster rate.”
Handled well, there is such thing as a “good divorce,” says Abbie, whose ex-husband, Al, is now her best friend.
The break-up of their marriage was very difficult, but “despite the challenges we’ve managed to make it into a happy divorce”. They now live 30 seconds apart from each other, and on the day their divorce was granted, she went back to his house and they drank a bottle of Champagne together.
How did they get to that point? One of the things that helped, she says, was that once they accepted the marriage was over, they moved into pragmatic mode. They had a “good goodbye session with a mediator. You kind of level with one another and say, Look, I really love this about you. I’m going to miss this. I’m not going to miss this. This is what I want for you. This is what you want from me, and we wish each other the best. So it’s quite emotional. But it’s closure.”
From there, “once we knew the process of how mediation worked, over a bottle of wine in the pub, we wrote our own mediation agreement, and brought it back into the mediator. The children were 15 and 17 at the time, and they told us how they wanted the custody arrangements to go.
“So we did 50-50, which took that issue off the table. And we were lucky in that there was there was enough money in the house that would allow us not to haggle over money. So there was only small things to iron out.”
The key, she says, “was to keep the emotion out of it … And to keep the solicitors out of it. Because on each side, the solicitors would say, ‘You can get more, or have you thought about this?’ And I was like, ‘No, this is what we’ve agreed.’ Rising above was the only way to go. And when both of us were marginally unhappy with the situation, we figured it was fair.”
She doesn’t want to paint an artificially rose-tinted view, and adds that “we would not have made it through lockdown together”. But as they were already living in separate houses, “our lockdown experience was amazing. We were neighbours and we weren’t seeing anybody else, so we considered ourselves a bubble. We went for walks every day, the four of us.
“My son, who was 17 at the time, said our separation is the best thing that ever happened to him. My daughter, not so much. She’d be more sensitive and she would still say she’s a product of a broken home, regardless of how well we’ve managed it. So, you know, there were obviously some negatives.”
But she adds, “I would never say it was a failed marriage. It just evolved in a different way.”
In terms of how family and friends can support those going through a divorce, McBride offers this advice. “Just don’t make any assumptions that someone’s relieved it’s over or they’re happy it’s over. Don’t make assumptions about how the kids are doing. Just let them know you’re here to listen or support as much as you can. Be mindful that it’s not a short-term thing. It really is a long, drawn-out process.”
A few months on, Keith’s view is that “divorce is the best thing that our country ever brought in, in my view. To be able to walk away from a disastrous situation is amazing. If I’d been in this situation pre-25 years ago, I would be stuck. I’m not planning to get married again, for now, but that doesn’t matter. I’m now divorced. We’ve got our kids and we’re co-parenting. Divorce, to me, is the best thing since sliced bread.”
Some names and identifying details have been changed at the request of interviewees.