Saturday, March 3, 2012

'Let me tell you about divorce …'

She was a wide-eyed romantic. He was a hard-bitten divorce lawyer. But, says Christina Hopkinson, their marriage has been the very definition of happiness

Christina Hopkinson

Despite their differences, Christina Hopkinson and her husband have been happy together for 11 years. Photograph: David Levene for the Guardian

The majority of people, having fallen in love and got engaged, talk about plans for the wedding day, not about the potential for divorce. Unless they've got Paul McCartney's money and marital history, they don't debate the merits of a prenuptial agreement or consider whether it's a good idea to seek legal advice before tying the knot.

But then most people don't spend all day thinking about divorce, child residence and the financial wrangles of the once-in-love. Most people aren't like my husband, Alex, one of the country's leading family lawyers; a man who charges a fairly high hourly rate to listen to very rich people talk about their miserable marriages.

When we met, Alex's parents had been happily married for 40 years, but he had the jaundiced attitude to long-term monogamy that you'd expect from the offspring of Elizabeth Taylor.

I was very different. Despite years of failed relationships, I was still a hopeful believer in the power of true love. As an avid reader and writer of novels, I like happy endings and these often involved soulmates meeting and a good wedding. Alex's world, in contrast, is all about the unhappy ever after. While I was daydreaming through my 20s, wondering when I'd meet the perfect man, he was rising up through the ranks of a profession that was all about the death of romance.

With such different perspectives, we shouldn't have been able to get beyond the first date, let alone to a permanent commitment, but somehow we did. Our positions appeared to be those of the cliched man and woman: him paling at the mention of settling down and me horrifying my feminist self with thoughts of rings and dresses. I'd like to say that love conquers all and, while it's true that we were besotted, what really drove Alex to commit was dogged bullying on my part. I whined and I cajoled. It worked, but not without guilt on my part and resentment on his. I felt sure that what we had was strong enough to combat his view ofmarriage as doomed to end in acrimony, but it didn't stop me spending most of our wedding day whispering apologies in his ear.

And in the 11 years we've been together, his experience at work has taught me some lessons about relationships. I'd never be so hubristic as to say they have inoculated us against marital breakdown, but they may have made it a bit less likely that we'll be needing the services of one of his colleagues.

His first rule on how to avoid the divorce lawyer's offices is to "marry someone sensible", though he uses somewhat pithier and less PC language to express the sentiment. Many of us saw Betty Blue at a formative age and so associate love with derangement and drama. I was previously engaged to a man with whom I'd get very drunk and argumentative, one time smashing a framed photo of his first wedding over a chair. By all means go out with the wild ones, but when it comes to settling down, Alex believes you should remember that marriage isn't a romantic pact. It's a long-term business contract. He's a man who drinks and dances to excess and always bets everything on one card in poker, but there's no room for gambling when partnership is concerned.

He and I could have been set up by matchmaker, our backgrounds and educations are so similar. Forget Romeo and Juliet, our families were divided only by the A428 that cuts across Cambridgeshire. I travelled round the world only to end up with the boy almost next door, as if my horizons were as limited as those of a Jane Austen heroine. Even our teenage rebellions had been identical, leaving us with the exact same opinions on everything from AV to VAT. Boring though this is, it does mean you cut down on the potential for argument.

The next directive he will give our children is "Don't marry an Australian". It's not that he's got anything against Antipodeans – in fact, some of our best friends … and all that – but access to children is much trickier if you're having to negotiate it across 10,000 miles. Or the 1,500 miles to Russia. Or across the Atlantic to the US.

Having married someone not Australian and quite tediously sensible, my husband's next greatest principle is that our lives should remain similar to one another's. The most common problem he sees at the office is when two people change radically over their marriage: the internet geek who becomes surprisingly attractive to women upon making millions; the high-achieving woman who gives up a career to dabble in interior design; the nimble-footed teenage boy who marries his childhood sweetheart before he becomes a world-famous professional footballer.

When we met, our salaries were equal and our lack of interest in our domestic surroundings on a par. Then children came along, my career stalled and I became obsessive about stemming the tide of filth and plastic toys from silting up our house. His salary had risen sharply as the firm he set up became more successful, while what I earned barely covered minimal childcare.

My brain was addled by the lack of sleep and all the love and anxiety that comes of having a newborn in the house. I was tempted to give up the pretence of a career to claim that I was putting my family before myself, especially as his salary could comfortably support us. He was adamant that this should not happen and that I must contribute to the mortgage.

Why? He would be concerned about his position in law, as a middle-class man with a short marriage behind him, one child and a wife who is not working. When couples like that divorce, the law not infrequently applies the paternalistic assumption that she should never work again, and the onus is on the husband to support her for ever, even beyond the child's 18th birthday. (This principle is rarely applied if the roles are reversed.)

So I persevered with working from home during nap times and at nights, though it seemed financially and emotionally unrewarding. He'd ask me what I had achieved each day and sometimes I would fib a little, as I felt like I had nothing to show for my toil.

With hindsight, he was right. I'm lucky to have work that I can fit around my family and which I enjoy, but I wouldn't be in this position had I not got through those difficult early years with small babies. It would have been damaging to both of us if I had not been able to earn money of my own.

So it's not all bad being married to a divorce lawyer. There can't be many other areas of the law as interesting – I can't imagine discussing conveyancing or commercial litigation. His work revolves around money and sex – and for a novelist there are no greater topics. (He never reveals details of individual cases.)

Others are just as interested in his work as I am. Divorce, especially when it involves the wealthy, exerts the same fascination as crime novels – we read about it with the hope that it never happens to us or with theschadenfreude towards rich people squabbling over pennies and pets. As London has become the "divorce capital of Europe", the number of cases involving mind-boggling sums has risen, and even broadsheets fill their pages with detailed reports from the high court.

I'll never be able to avail myself of his professional services and, in the event of a divorce, I'm scuppered, given who I'd be up against. But despite, or even because of, his unromantic talk of contracts, equity and parity, we've both learned that what binds people for the long term is more than just legalities. They may be corny words with no place in a court of law, but respect, gratitude and tenderness play their part too.

Christina Hopkinson's novel The Pile of Stuff at the Bottom of the Stairsis published by Hodder, £7.99. To order a copy for £6.39, with free UK p&p, go to or call 0330 333 6846



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