The surprising new way to save your marriage

Over the next month I will receive a far greater number of calls from women determined to end their marriages than at any other time of the year.

There will be wives looking back on one lonely Christmas too many, with workaholic husbands who spent only the bare minimum amount of time with their families over the festivities. They’ll have decided that this year’s resolution is, finally, to go it alone.

Others will have reached the same conclusion after the opposite experience — a prolonged period in the company of their other half that brought a year’s worth of brooding resentment to the fore.

There might be a heartbreaking call from someone still reeling after learning that their husband has been embroiled for months in an extramarital affair.

And for others it will be the more mundane realisation that they’ve been stuck with the lion’s share of domestic responsibilities for too long. So they decide to use the new year to escape what they reasonably perceive as the drudgery of married life.

Jane Keir has begun offering her clients ‘reconciliation contracts’  to help them save their marriages from divorce (file image)

As a family lawyer with 28 years’ experience helping couples to end their marriages legally, you might expect me to appreciate this windfall of work. But I would much prefer to see couples finding a way to keep families together, even if things aren’t perfect.

I’ve seen enough misery close up to know that divorce ought to be a last resort. Which is why my first question is: ‘Are you absolutely certain that this is what you want?’

If they hint at still loving their husband, or appear to be wavering at all, then this year I will suggest an alternative that could save their marriage instead of breaking it apart.

I have started offering my clients ‘reconciliation contracts’. These are formal, post-nuptial arrangements whereby all the financial terms of a divorce are agreed, but with one crucial addition: they also feature pledges by one, or both, parties to make behavioural changes that could give the marriage a fighting chance of surviving after all.

The caveat being that if those personal promises aren’t delivered, then the divorce will go ahead — with the financial terms already agreed.

I appreciate this might sound clinical and unromantic, but couples can assess their situation, then press pause and take a deep breath, before committing to trying again to make it work.

Research shows children whose parents divorce by the time they reach 16 are more likely to suffer from chronic illnesses as they age (file image)

Research shows children whose parents divorce by the time they reach 16 are more likely to suffer from chronic illnesses as they age (file image)

After all, there are practical reasons to keep trying in a marriage, even when the initial shine has tarnished. According to research by the International Longevity Centre, children whose parents divorce by the time they reach 16 are three times more likely to suffer from chronic illness when they reach their 50s.

Nine thousand people, all born in 1958, took part in the National Child Development Study and were followed throughout their lives to see the long-term effects of traumatic childhood events.

Children of divorced parents were found to be more likely to drop out of school, get pregnant and take drugs.

Research commissioned by Yorkshire Building Society found that more than two years after a divorce, 41 per cent of men were still distressed by the failure of their marriage, with 33 per cent of women feeling the same way.

Of course, I’m not saying that it’s better to soldier on in a marriage that is making the two people deeply unhappy. That’s no good for them or their children. But at least this is a way of all parties involved knowing that you truly tried, while giving the best chance of an amicable break-up if you ultimately part.

British divorce rates are on the increase especially for women in their 30s (file image)

British divorce rates are on the increase especially for women in their 30s (file image)

Reconciliation contracts, while in their infancy in the UK, have grown in popularity in America over the past decade. There’s no reason why they can’t become equally effective here.

And with British divorce rates again on the increase, particularly among women in their 30s and for both sexes over 50, they could play an important part in helping to reverse this trend.

When it comes to marriage, so much of a partner’s behaviour is taken on trust, despite the fact that this arrangement is meant to tie you together for life. When that behaviour turns out to be lacking, people are no longer prepared to put up and shut up as previous generations did.

Having a document that lays out the terms on which you believe you can make your long-term relationship work seems to be striking a chord with the clients who come to me.

For example, the wife of a successful accountant told me in the summer that she was worried they were drifting apart. She had reached the conclusion there was no alternative but to divorce. She admitted that she still loved him, she just hated the way her husband’s long hours in the office or out playing golf with clients made her feel that she and the children were playing second fiddle to his career.

Jane says drawing up a contract helped one woman feel empowered after her husband's infidelity (file image)

Jane says drawing up a contract helped one woman feel empowered after her husband’s infidelity (file image)

When I explained the concept of a reconciliation contract, her eyes lit up. If her husband spent more time with her and the children, she thought they stood a chance. What we worked on was both a financial agreement in case things got worse and commitments to help get the marriage back on track.

The husband pledged to spend more time with the family, taking holidays, setting aside date nights and ring-fencing Sundays as family time.

The last time we spoke, life for them appeared much better. Her husband had received a timely wake-up call, realising that all the professional success in the world wouldn’t mean a thing without his family.

She felt validated by the formal commitment from him. As well as keeping her family together, she is able to continue to enjoy being a stay-at-home mum.

Her determination to divorce was considerably dented when I explained to her the full effect it could have on her way of life.

Today, a judge is as likely to expect a woman to get a job as to insist a man hands over half of everything he makes to someone he’s no longer married to.

It’s on this basis that I drew up a reconciliation contract for another client, who came to me hurt after her husband admitted his affair. It was his first marital indiscretion and he was adamant it would be his last.

Understandably, my client was devastated — struggling to trust him, she felt divorce might be easier. It felt to her the only way she’d regain a sense of control.

But by drawing up a contract that saw them both agree the terms of a divorce should he ever betray her again, she felt incredibly empowered, which in turn helped her to forgive him.

The financial terms were favourable to my client — they’d been worked out between them in a much calmer environment than the confrontational backdrop of the divorce courts.

Another example is a second wife, who each month saw huge sums going to her husband’s first wife and daughter in maintenance payments. She was concerned that, should her marriage end, there might not be anything left for her.

Their contract involved buying a property in her name that would act as an insurance policy, something she’d keep if they divorced.

I also fully expect to have disgruntled husbands knocking on my door, perhaps fed up with their wife overspending, clutching a pile of Christmas-related bills.

But if a marriage can’t be salvaged and divorce does sadly prove the final outcome then the court is likely to uphold the financial elements of the reconciliation contract.

And so, if you’re reading this and feeling dismayed by a partner’s behaviour, instead of asking for a divorce, why not sit down and negotiate new terms instead? 

Jane Keir specialises in family law at Kingsley Napley LLP.