Marriage and Civil Partnership

Once upon a time there used to be marriage, the relationship until death of a man and a woman. I’ll not trouble you with the legal and social ramifications, they are well known to all. There never was such a thing as Common Law Marriage, which is a myth, I mention that in passing in case anyone out there still isn’t aware of this fact, because a surprising number of people still labour under the illusion it exists.

Then civil partnerships were created so same sex couples could have all the legal rights and responsibilities, protections and tax benefits of marriage – but without being actually married. The government of the day felt marriage for same sex couples was too contentious – it might upset too many people. So we had civil partnerships and marriage.

However, times move on and social attitudes change – and same sex couples were never going to accept being unable to marry – it seemed they were being discriminated against, as they felt they were treated differently from heterosexual couples as they could not ‘marry.’ Some religious groups campaigned against being forced to offer religious marriage to gay couples, as being an infringement of their right to religious freedom and so a breach of their human rights. Meanwhile gay couples campaigned to be able to marry, saying they were being discriminated against.

So, some might say inevitably, the next move was to legislate to permit gay couples to marry and on 13 March 2014 The Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act came into force. Same sex marriage was legalised. Now of course hetero-sexual couples want the right to have civil partnerships – and the government of the day has a problem of its own making on its hands – and may have to legislate basically to allow everyone to do anything they like – which is what we should have done in the first place. We would have done so already if anyone had listened to me at the time they passed the Marriage Act for gay couples.

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We have now with three appeal court judges basically saying the government is breaching heterosexual couples’ human rights not allowing them to have civil partnerships.  

It’s all caused by problems of definition and straight line thinking. Is anyone aware of the difference between a civil partnership and a civil wedding in a Registry Office? No, neither am I. That’s because there isn’t one – the legal effect of these relationships is identical. The problem exists in the words alone. What is so fascinating is the vehemence generated by the use of the words ‘marriage’ or ‘civil partnership’ and the supposed baggage attaching to one and not the other, intrinsically regarded as desirable or not – depending on your point of view.  The fact is the legal consequences for marriage and civil weddings or marriages (whether conducted at Registry Offices or non-religious venues) and civil partnerships are identical – save in one respect and that relates to the grounds for a petition for dissolution in relation to adultery for gay couples, on which I do not propose elaborating. Perhaps I’m missing something, but if the consequences and legal effects of these legal relationships are identical why are we worried about the wording?

So given all the palaver over The Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act – and the current intransigence concerning any possible infringements of any human right, it was predictable there would be similar ructions from heterosexual couples wanting to enter into civil partnerships. I think people will always want what they can’t have – it is part of the human condition. What we could and should have done a few years ago is avoid all this with the simple expedient of the following law:

“In future all couples whether the same or opposite sexes, can marry or enter into civil marriages or civil partnerships and the legal consequences of all these legal partnerships will be the same and the words  marriage, civil partnership and civil marriage can all be used interchangeably.” End of.  

Anyone agree with me?

Walking the tight rope to a divorce

Walking the tight rope to a divorce – the unreasonable behaviour has to be bad enough or a judge must ‘nod it through’ – some divorces fail!

Tinie Owens 65 was refused a divorce last week after 39 years of marriage, when her husband convinced the judge her claims of being stuck in a loveless marriage were insufficient to justify a divorce. Mr Owens, a 78-year-old farmer, argued that his behaviour, which his wife had described as being unreasonable, was nothing of the sort, it was part of normal married life.  The judge agreed with him and refused to grant the divorce.

A small number of divorces are defended each year most of them not with the aim of staying married – they are combined with a cross petition, as the respondent does not want to be technically to blame for the divorce and so seeks to get a divorce based on their spouse’s behavior, not theirs. These defended cross petitions often end with a Decree Nisi of divorce being granted on the petition and the cross petition, so both parties are technically to blame. Blame does still feel very important to many people – understandably so as we have an antiquated fault-based divorce system unless you are happy to wait two years to divorce with consent or five years with no consent. We have over the years mediated the grounds for divorce petitions and how people divorce many times.

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Very occasionally someone defends their divorce on the basis they want to stay married.This happened to a husband I represented when I was in family law practice. The wife’s petition followed the Resolution Code of Practice and enumerated the bare minimum her adviser considered to be necessary to secure a divorce. So far so normal. However, the judge disagreed the behaviour was enough for a divorce, saying that whilst this wife might have been disappointed in her marriage, there was nothing adequate to justify a divorce.

I’m surprised to see the Owens case proceeding via the appeal system – as there is a much simpler if rather less dramatic way of dealing with these cases. In the case in which I was involved, the wife amended her petition to expand the allegations of unreasonable behaviour, so they gave more detailed accounts of unhappy incidents in the marriage and she could be divorced. Even if Mr Owens does not like this or agree to it, it remains an option – then there is no possibility of the particulars of unreasonable behaviour being found to be insufficient, assuming they are true. It is simply a question of how intrusive the judge sees fit to be – as in any marriage if one spouse wants a divorce, they will get it one way or another.  However, the whole palaver is ridiculous – the Owens case demonstrates beautifully why our out-moded fault-based divorce laws need to be reformed. The current divorce law causes unnecessary pain, costs and delays and exacerbates the difficulties of couples whose relationships are over.

A picture speaks louder than a thousand words. Reflections of a family mediator.

Browsing Facebook I saw a photo of 4 siblings. The children were smiling, but the smile didn’t quite meet the eyes of the eldest child. I didn’t recognise the children, (the author was a friend of a friend), but the photo intrigued me. The author who had posted the photo said he hadn’t seen his children for 6 months and this photo had been sent to him by a friend. He said his ex-wife, (believe me that’s a much friendlier description than he used), hadn’t let him see them. He said he was missing so many milestones and felt like giving up on life! There was a lot of support for him. However, one woman defended his ex-wife and said he had “torn her world apart”, by leaving her for another woman. He said she had been an awful wife and he left ‘her’ and not the children. He said she had no right to stop him seeing his children.

The children were caught in the cross fire. The split was clearly very bitter and they must be suffering. I wondered if the elder children had access to Facebook and had seen their Father’s post. Had their mum confided in them? Did they feel that their childhood had ended in a flash and was the eldest forced to grow up and become the man of the house? How must it feel to live with your father all your life and then not see him for 6 months? Did they feel like their world had crumbled around them? Did they feel abandoned? Did mum reinforce that belief as she was grieving for the relationship and her lost future? Did dad feel a mixture of anger, guilt and loss? Did the children want to see him? Were they worried they would hurt their mother if they did? Did they have someone they could talk to about their feelings?

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Life is usually not black and white; with one good parent and one bad parent. Decent people can make bad decisions. However, children really need their parents to put their needs first when they are separating – and that’s not easy when a parent may feel like their world is falling apart. Initially, children may feel they don’t want to see a parent who has left, especially if it is due to an affair – this arouses highly complex emotions for all sorts of reasons, not just the anger of the left-behind parent, though it can be that. The leaver wants to move forward and may want to return to a sense of normality and introduce the children to their new partner. It’s often hard for the person who has been left to agree to that – and very often the children may also be adamant they don’t want to see the other parent and especially meet their new partner, as they may have feelings of rejection and abandonment. They are quite likely to be grieving for the loss of the family they had – and in that state feel unable to move on and cope with new relationships, it may just too soon for that.

Parents have to find a way to discuss these and other parentings issues and protect their children from acrimony and avoidable hurt and loss. Mediation creates a safe and neutral place for these conversations to take place. Furthermore, the mediator is highly trained and experienced in facilitating their much needed conversations and can help with formulating new  boundaries and ways of communicating and planning that work.  This helps parents to focus on their children’s future and what’s best for them. Children of an appropriate age and understanding (roughly over age 10, sometimes younger with older siblings) can also speak confidentially to a mediator in a child inclusive mediation – something many children really appreciate. They don’t make decisions; but their feelings are taken into account and can be respected. This is empowering for children. Studies show adults whose parents split up when they were children often look back and say that they felt unheard when their parents separated, that no one asked them how they felt or what they wanted and it made them feel they were not  important and didn’t matter.

To return to the Facebook photograph and my so-typical story of a separating family in terrible pain – the father’s frustration and grief was palpable and the mother’s friend described a woman who was also in a great deal of pain. The photograph of their oldest child’s face spoke of his suffering and tension – and it is very unlikely the others were unaffected by the situation, however bright their smiles. Parents will sadly continue to separate – but the ways and means they do this can make things infinitely worse – or easier. I hope they find their way to mediation; it could save them and their children from a great deal of further heart-ache.

A positive message for children during a breakup

Driving to work on my way to mediate with a separating couple, I heard a song playing on the radio by James TW called, ‘When you love someone’. https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=0Bf3CJZ4hvg. The song is about a child’s parents splitting up. The video is cinematic and well worth a watch (please follow the link). The parents talk to their son and tell him everything will be ok. James says he wrote the song after a young drummer he was teaching told him his parents were getting divorced. He said in a statement to Huffpost, “The first thing I thought was how are they going to explain it to him in a positive way and one where he would understand. I wanted there to be a song that he could listen to which would make him feel better about everything that was going on.”

The Lyrics;

Come home early after class

Don’t be hanging ’round the back of the schoolyard I’ve been called up by a teacher. She says she can’t even reach you ’cause you’re so far. You’ve been talking with your fist. We didn’t raise you up like this, now did we? There have been changes in this house. Things that you don’t know about in this family. It don’t make sense, but nevertheless. You gotta believe us, it’s all for the best It don’t make sense The way things go Son you should know

Chorus

Sometimes moms and dads fall out of love. Sometimes two homes are better than one. Some things you can’t tell your sister ’cause she’s still too young. Yeah you’ll understand When you love someone

There ain’t no one here to blame

Nothing’s going to change with your old friends. Your room will stay the same ‘Cause you’ll only be away on the weekends. It don’t make sense but nevertheless You gotta believe us, it’s all for the best It don’t make sense It don’t add up. We’ll always love you no matter what

Come home early after class

Don’t be hanging ’round the back of the schoolyard And if we’re crying on the couch Don’t let it freak you out. This has been so hard

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The video depicts a teenage boy’s parents having a number of heated arguments at the end of their marriage whilst he watches the marriage unravel. The boy doesn’t know how to handle his emotions and gets into trouble at school. Eventually he breaks down and cries and his mother comforts him. She then drives him to see his father and watches as his father hugs him and reassures him. The message is a positive one. The reality is that 1 in 2 marriages fail and inevitably many children will experience their parents breaking up. Sometimes it is better for parents to live in separate households, as they can then be happier individuals and better parents.

It’s vital that children aren’t drawn into any arguments, confided in or asked to take sides. They need to be shielded from any hostility. The best way parents can help children to feel safe and secure is to continue co-parenting their children. That’s not easy when parents may be feeling hurt, angry and scared. Mediation can help parents improve their communication, plan their futures and find some peace. Children need their parents to do this as soon as possible so they know that they will be ok and that both their parents will still be there for them.

At Focus Mediation, we have specially trained mediators who can talk directly with children so they can have a voice and this helps them to feel heard and understood. Call us today to take the first step towards a more settled future for your family.

Some useful resources for helping children during separation:

http://voicesinthemiddle.org.uk – a website for children whose parents are separating/ divorcing

http://www.resolution.org.uk/site_content_files/files/separation_and_divorce_helping_parents_to_help_children_2.pdf

http://www.partnershipforchildren.org.uk/resources/my-child-is-worried-about/divorce-separation/how-to-help-children-adapt.html

Miscuing one another – what’s that?

People miscue one another every-day; mediators are no exception. I did it this morning with my 8 years’ old son. He really didn’t want to go to school. I think I displayed super human levels of patience and understanding for about 2 hours! Then my patience ran dry as we were late and I was seriously frustrated. My tone changed and I got angry.

I told him to hurry up and that his behaviour was terrible. It escalated and he was crying and refusing to move and I was now shouting. If I had hoped that this would be more successful than my previous cajoling then I was very much mistaken. He was more adamant than ever that he wasn’t going to school and I couldn’t make him. I was determined he was!  We were in deadlock. As he’s eight I was able to frog march him to the car, but felt awful as he was sobbing.  I couldn’t calm him down and he went into school upset. Strong arm tactics won’t work at all between adults and weren’t very effective for me with my son either.

My cajoling didn’t work with my son, but losing my temper made the situation a million times worse. What did I expect? My son could not see I was upset or angry and stop and rationalise his fears about school, he was far too agitated himself. So sadly I triggered the wrong response and set myself up for failure: this is what miscuing really is.

I have another personal example I sometimes give clients. My husband used to ‘forget’ to take the bins out every week- a job I struggled with as they are really heavy.  For months I’d nag him to do it and he’d invariably forget and I’d be angry. Nothing changed. I decided to take my own advice and improve our communication. Using sentences starting with “I feel” rather than “you… never take the bins out…” I told him how I felt. I told him the bins were too heavy for me to carry, I invariably dropped rubbish out of them and made a mess and I was often running late as our youngest is struggling with school etc.

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He nodded and said ok. The next day he did it. I acknowledged his effort and thanked him when I got home. He then apologised and said he genuinely used to forget to take the bins out as he leaves very early and didn’t realise how much it would help me if he did it. He’s never forgotten them since. I thought he had heard all the reasons I needed his help and just didn’t care. However, the way I had asked him meant he just couldn’t hear me properly; he just heard my criticism and anger.  So, the saying, “it’s not what you ask, but how you ask”, really resonates with me.

I often hear clients miscuing one another in mediation, especially when the topics they are discussing are very emotive and important to them. And it’s proven that when people separate their emotions can be as powerful as those experienced during a bereavement.  It’s so hard to remain calm and logical; especially if you feel your ex is standing in the way of you seeing your children, or is hurting them or preventing you from moving on.  Miscuing can make you feel you can’t win whatever you say your ex will always hear it wrongly.

However, you can control how you communicate with your ex, and you can also control your response. You can also phrase things in such a way that your ex is more likely to find them acceptable. Always be polite and avoid personal attacks. Try smiling. No, I’m not kidding! One couple told me how awful hand over was at contact time. The wife said the husband scowled and tried to intimidate her.

The husband said the wife hated him so much she wouldn’t look at him and treated him with contempt. I broke the encounters down. I asked what was the first thing they each saw? The wife said she didn’t even look – she knew her ex would be staring at her and trying to make her feel bad. The husband said he saw her looking the other way and it made him angry she didn’t even think he was worth looking at. They were both miscuing one another.

I suggested next time they made eye contact and said ‘Hello’. They needed to let their son know they could be civil. That genuinely was the start of them understanding each other better and being able to co-parent their son. They needed to put themselves in the other person’s shoes and they both persevered because they loved their son. He was so much happier and felt more secure when they were getting along. They realised they each loved their son far more than they disliked one another.

Mediation is not an easy option. It can feel uncomfortable. However, mediation helps improve communication and reduces the frequency of ex-partners misunderstanding one another. It gives children what they need and want the most; parents who can and do put them first.

 

This blogpost explains why mediation is often the quickest and cheapest route to resolve your divorce dispute and to go back to ‘life as usual’ fast.

I was interested to read this article in The Guardian by Emine Saner (23.08.16)*:

“The end of the summer holiday is a peak period for break ups. But now couples are looking for fast and amicable ways to avoid being mired in the blame game, will the law finally catch up?”

There is a private members’ bill to introduce a “no fault” divorce, and Baroness Hale, deputy president of the Supreme Court, called for it to be introduced.

Football presenter Gary Lineker, whose marriage to his second wife has recently ended, took issue with divorce lawyers. “It’s very easy to get married and very difficult to get divorced,” he said. “And we know that lawyers try to manipulate it to make you spend more money and basically end up hating each other.”

More and more people are choosing to represent themselves. According to a recent survey, around 40% of people no longer use lawyers in their divorces. For all Lineker’s talk of greedy lawyers, this isn’t to be considered a positive development, as it mostly comes on the back of legal aid cuts.

People who represent themselves in divorce cases may not “get the outcomes they might expect or deserve,” says Emma Pearmaine, director of family services at Simpson Millar. It can also slow proceedings down. “[Divorce] is a horrid thing to be experiencing and we need to come to a conclusion as quickly as we can to the benefit of the whole family,” she says.

The consequence of legal aid cuts and people representing themselves is, she says, “affecting a whole generation of children. Previously a parent on a low income might have been eligible to go to court so they can see their child. Now if they’re not eligible, they might have to make an application themselves or they don’t make an application at all. That suggests to me that we have a whole generation of children who are not having the right relationship with both parents.”

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What is the solution?

We at Focus Family Mediation would urge all divorcing and separating couples to look to mediation first.

Proven to be much faster and much more cost-effective, mediation is a collaborative process that keeps couples talking through the difficult stuff – because when you’re talking about separating a family, don’t you want to find the least adversarial, quickest and most affordable way? Unlike court proceedings legal aid is available to those whose means meet the financial criteria making mediation free for them.

At Focus we are all accredited by the Family Mediation Council to conduct property, financial, and child arrangement mediations. Most of us are also authorised to consult directly with children so giving children a voice in what happens to them and enabling them to inform their parents’ decisions.

Mediation is what we do. It’s all we do. Please call us. You and your family will be glad you did.

*To read the full article go to : https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2016/aug/23/divorce-new-rules-splitting-up-amicable-marriage-breakup

MIAMs and Mediation

Having worked as a family mediator for a good few years now I’m used to asking clients whether they have any knowledge or past experience of mediation.  Most clients don’t have any and don’t know what to expect.

It’s like anything. If you want to buy a car you want to know what you’re buying. A top of the range sports car or a car that gets you safely round town. How do you know what’s going to be the right car for you? You probably need to test drive them.

That is why in family mediation we have an introductory meeting with clients where we explain what mediation involves. The meeting is about an hour-long – called a MIAM which simply means Mediation Intake Assessment Meeting – an opportunity for you to ask us any questions you like. If you are unsure about what to expect from mediation we will talk to you about how mediation works so by the end of the meeting you have a clearer picture. We will also ask you questions – because we want to know what’s going on for you and the issues you face, so we know how best to help you.

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So is it like going to Court?

No, it isn’t like going to Court. There’s no judgment, no evaluation. It’s a meeting usually just with you, to talk through the issues that are affecting you and your family.

The mediator is there to listen to you and may ask you questions about your situation.

The meeting takes much the same format for every client, so you can feel secure in the knowledge that your ex is not being treated differently from you.

Is it like going to a solicitor’s office?

No it’s not. The meeting is at an office but the mediator is there to listen to you and to explain how mediation works. The mediator will consider all the issues you are worried about, and will start to build up a picture of what’s going on between you and your ex.

The mediator’s understanding of your situation and concerns will be crucial if you go on to mediate, enabling them to help you both work through your impasse in a collaborative and practical way, without going to Court.

How much will it cost?

At Focus we have a sliding scale of costs depending on your finances, your income and capital and we offer legal aid at some of our branches.  This can mean mediation is free for you, but in any event it is usually much more affordable than fighting it out in court.

Will someone listen? Yes they will.

We are specialist mediators – it’s all we do. We know what’s important to you and we have the skills and expertise to help. We are all accredited with the Family Mediation Council.

With court costing over £400 just to issue an application, you should ask yourself if you want the stress of going in front of a judge with the added costs of a solicitor and perhaps even a barrister too.  Alternatively do you want to represent yourself?

You might choose either – because there are some cases that are not suitable for mediation. However if you don’t come to the MIAM you won’t know.

No one wants to buy the wrong car – why don’t you give us a call and see if mediation is the right vehicle for you?

Archer v Titchener

The nation has been gripped by the Rob & Helen’s saga in the Archers!

One interesting aspect which did not grab the headlines was baby Jack’s name. Rob wishes to call him “Gideon Titchener”. Theoretically there is nothing stopping Rob calling the baby “Gideon”.  However a court may well find it emotionally harmful to the child to have different names.

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Rob could make an application to the court for permission to change the child’s name formally to “Gideon”. The court would consider all relevant factors such as his name which appears on his birth certificate as “Jack Archer”, the circumstances surrounding his conception and the fact his half-brother is called Archer. Whether the parties are married is relevant, but divorce must be on the agenda.

It is rare that you can say decisively what you think a court would do but it seems highly unlikely in these circumstances that a court would give Rob permission to change “Jack’s” name.

It seems there is a lot in a name.

No one listening? Then stop shouting, you might get heard

Communication is complex. It is much more than words. Communication comprises a range of related activities, including, speech, facial expression, body language and most importantly of all, the subtext of the total communication package and critically what you do, as actions speak louder than a thousand words.

An example will help. If someone is shouting aggressively and waving their arms, this is likely to induce a panic reaction in the listener. In that state that they experience a rush of adrenaline which suspends their ability to process information and programmes them to fight, flee or freeze, the classic survival response.

 The person shouting has generated the opposite response from that intended. If they had spoken quietly without aggression, the panic response would not have overwhelmed their listener and the meaning of the words could have been satisfactorily conveyed. Literally, you might say ‘If you shout I can’t hear you!’

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‘Gorilla Family Moment’, photo taken by Pascal Walschots

Couples who are separating frequently say they cannot talk, can only communicate by email or text and seem inevitably to fight. Their conflict is so high it breaks out over anything and everything. One of the mediator’s tasks is to break this habit, if only for long enough to help the couple agree their settlement or what to do about their children.

So if you want to be heard and understood, talk quietly and not aggressively, listen thoughtfully to any response – and respond to it respectfully in a co-operative spirit and you might be heard and you might even start to communicate. True, exerting self-control is out of fashion, sometimes it’s even perceived as a weakness by a society which sees ‘chest thumping’ responses as a strength. But such an approach should be rediscovered – as it might be the only way to solve some problems which have remained painfully unresolved. Then you can both move on in a constructive way.

Mary will Feature on Radio 5 Live – Sunday 14th August 2016 at 11am

Mary will guest feature talking about divorce on BBC Radio 5 Live show “Raising the Bar with Rob Rinder” on Sunday 14th August at 11am.

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The previous shows in the series may be listened to Here.