This is the week thousands of couples head for the lawyers, right?
The first working day of January is even nicknamed D-Day: Divorce Day. The day when couples who fought over where to hang the holly jostle their way to the front of the solicitors queue.
But is there any truth to this? Or is it merely the equivalent of the divorce lawyers January sales, an unseemly hustle to attract business from couples who are particularly vulnerable after a dysfunctional family Christmas?
Before we ask the lawyers, let’s first try and establish whether the idea is as plausible as it sounds and then try and track down some independent facts.
The idea certainly seems plausible. Miserable family Christmas. Desperate couples. First opportunity to throw off the shackles of a stale or unpleasant relationship. Lawyers swamped.
Yet two thirds of couples who split up cite either growing apart, adultery, or bad behaviour as the top three reasons for getting a divorce. None of these seem especially seasonal in nature. Maybe for some couples the pressure to maintain a brave face over the holidays acts as a catalyst that pushes them over the edge. In that case we should see a boom in the summer holidays as well.
Deciding to walk out of the family home – or asking a spouse to leave – is going to be a big deal for anyone. The biggest barrier to splitting up – regardless of whether married or unmarried – is the difficulty of unravelling the sheer complexity of family life, walking away from years of shared history and memories, working out how to tell friends, divide complicated assets and manage children, and what on earth to do next.
There’s an awful lot of inertia to overcome here. Not surprisingly most couples will only make that jump when they have an alternate bolthole. This doesn’t sound especially seasonal either.
At best, some couples will take the plunge as a new year resolution, a new beginning. The same decision-making process that begins a serious commitment is also needed to end it.
“Right, I’ve decided. That’s it. It’s over. I’m going (or you’re going).”
Divorce is a deliberate choice. You can’t just drift into it.
What about some hard numbers? These are remarkably difficult to come by. The Office for National Statistics only report divorces at the end of the process when they have actually happened, rather than at the beginning when applications are originally filed. Nor do they routinely report divorces as monthly data, which would at least give an indication of a seasonal pattern.
The Ministry of Justice have more interesting information on when new court cases begin. This would shed a lot more light on the matter, except that they only produce quarterly data. I’ve collated this into the chart below, with each colour showing the change in new cases each year based on what happened in the first quarter.
If couples are deluging lawyers’ offices in January, we might expect to see a spike in new cases beginning in the first quarter, or second at the latest. All of the lines in the chart should head down from left to right. It’s at all not obvious that they do. If there is any pattern at all here, it’s that more new court cases generally begin in the first and third quarters. But there is no consistency to this and in some years, the reverse is true.
On one side, Sam Hickman of Co-op Legal Services is a firm believer in the January spike. She told the Telegraph that her firm expects to see a tripling of enquiries in January.
On the other, Marilyn Stowe of Stowe Family Law suspects it’s all media hype. Last January for her firm was one of their lowest for new enquiries. She puts it down to the economy emerging from recession. More money means less stress and less divorce.
So different firms appear to have very different experiences. Actually, much as I admire Marilyn as a respected champion of social justice, our own independent research shows that neither economic boom nor bust have any consistent effect on divorce rates overall.
In search of insight, finally I rang a pal of mine who runs a medium sized regional law firm. Papers rustled as he went through his last year’s numbers. I like it when people refer to actual data. The January spike is real, he concluded. Just nowhere near what it used to be. Unusually, last summer was his busiest time for new enquiries. Why was that, I asked? Absolutely no idea, he said.
At last what sounds like a sensible answer that fits both anecdote and data. There is something to this January spike. It’s just overhyped.
If you’re struggling in your marriage, before you get anywhere near picking up the phone for a lawyer or counsellor, may I warmly encourage you to read an article I wrote last year that seems to have touched a nerve. Staying together in a hopelessly unhappy marriage is not about living out a life sentence. It’s about making your marriage work better than you could imagine. There is real hope. How do I know? Because my wife and I have been on the brink ourselves and now have an unrecognisably secure and loving marriage.
Harry Benson is Research Director for Marriage Foundation, a charity set up by a former high court judge to restore confidence in marriage.