THE BLOG

Debrett's Divorce

03/06/2012 12:20 pm ET | Updated May 06, 2012

Throughout the western world, divorce has become a fact of modern life, and Debrett's -- social commentators since 1769 -- felt that it was time to address it. In conjunction with Mishcon de Reya, the London law firm that negotiated Princess Diana's divorce, Debrett's recently published a book that covers not only the legal process, but the behavior around divorce: "The Debrett's Guide to Civilised Separation."

As a writer and editor, I was commissioned to put the book together, working with both Debrett's and Mishcon de Reya to interweave and interpret advice on legal matters and modern manners.

For many people, the idea of divorcing with decorum is preposterous -- this is a time when emotions are running high, when divorcing couples are forced to confront toxic feelings of betrayal, resentment and disillusion. But Debrett's argues that maintaining the civilized high ground and arming yourself with good manners are effective ways of retaining feelings of self-respect and reducing unnecessary animosity and distress. Good manners are all about communicating effectively: keeping correspondence temperate, remaining calm during encounters with your ex, ensuring that everyone is kept informed and that major decisions are matters of consultation.

A divorce, especially if you have children, is for a lifetime; it is not merely a legal process. If you are civilized at the outset, you will be able to negotiate the years ahead with dignity; if not, rage and vindictiveness may come back to haunt you.

Divorce was once freighted with stigma, sleaze and social scandal, and this is fortunately no longer the case. But, despite our more relaxed social mores, a divorce will inevitably have an impact on family and friends, who must be kept informed from the outset. Otherwise, your marriage breakdown will become the talk of your social circle, and you will become gossip fodder. Your in-laws, especially if you have children, must be prioritized to ensure that they continue to play a role in the life of your family.

Remain open and communicative throughout the entire process and you will mitigate some of the negative fallout. Write letters to your ex-partner, communicate with him/her about your children, keep in touch with in-laws. Make sure that everyone is kept informed, including schools, family doctors and so on.

Here Are Debrett's Top Tips:

  • Don't use your lawyer as a counselor: It's tempting to confide in a sympathetic lawyer, but it is foolish to do so while the meter is ticking away. Seek counseling from professionals, or confide in close and trusted friends.
  • Don't waste your lawyer's time: Arguing about which party should have the cream sofa or the best dinnerware is not a good use of your lawyer's time or fees. Try to resolve these issues with your ex-spouse, using a mediator if necessary.


  • Try to convey the news in person, whenever possible: If this is not feasible, consider writing a handwritten letter. You will want to explain your decision, but avoid vitriol and accusations -- intemperate remarks, in writing, will cause unnecessary distress. As with all bad news, text messages are inappropriate.
  • Don't be vindictive: Throwing your husband's vintage wine collection down the toilet or cutting his suits to shreds may 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. Judges will frown upon vindictive behavior, so hold your head high and retain the civilized high ground.
  • Keep communications open: If phone and face-to-face conversations with your ex-partner are quick to ignite into rage and recrimination, email or write regularly, and keep the correspondence focused and businesslike.
  • Defuse fallout amongst family and friends by being relentlessly polite and civilized: Send Christmas cards and birthday cards to in-laws, keep them informed of your children's progress. No one will be able to fault your good manners.
  • Don't try to curry favor with your children: Showering your kids with material goods and lavish birthday presents will antagonize your ex-partner and unsettle your children, making them dissatisfied with their old home.
  • Don't cross-examine your children about your ex: They have to redefine their relationship with both parents and will resent your attempts to invade that territory.


  • Protect your children: Recriminations should never be aired in front of them and you should never confide in them. They lack the maturity and objectivity to understand and will find your distress frightening.
  • Conduct handovers with dignity: Find a quiet place and avoid noisy cafés, shopping malls and gas stations. Hand over your children in person -- never drop them at the gate or the front door.
  • Don't be a divorce bore: Long tales about legal battles, dastardly financial dealings and flaming arguments will soon have you struck off the dinner-party guest list unless told with humor and self-deprecation.
  • Don't be a dating bore: Resist the temptation to relive the low points of your marriage with a sympathetic new partner. Remember, detailed tales of communication breakdown, neglect, abuse and infidelity may set alarm bells ringing...
  • It's fine to say no: If you are invited to family occasions (e.g. your ex-partner's remarriage or the christening of a child with a new partner), remember you are under no social imperative to attend and should only do so after forensically examining your own feelings. Only go if you think you can cope without lapsing into animosity and bitterness, but ensure that you have a friend who can monitor your behavior, alcohol intake and emotions.