Cake, gifts, T-shirts: it’s a divorce party
A leaflet from a Mexican restaurant dropped through my door the other day, offering — along with tequila slammers and salsa classes — “birthday parties, hen nights, wedding parties, even divorce parties”. The manager told me he had added the divorce line half in jest. “I haven’t had any takers,” he said. “I live in hope . . .”
It may not be long before he finds customers at his door. Divorce has now become so common, affecting almost half of all marriages — and one in five of those break-ups involving people going through the process for a second time — that a subtle shift in attitudes is taking place.
Where once divorce inspired pity, it is increasingly being seen — once the tidal wave of emotion has subsided — as the opening of a new life chapter, if not to be celebrated, at least worth marking in some way.
As a result, a divorce industry is springing up, offering services that mirror the buying bonanza of the cake, shoes and dress that accompanies a wedding. Party planners are waiting online to help put together the perfect “new you” celebration, complete with “Just divorced!” badges and sashes, and T-shirts bearing the legend “Free like a bird”.
At weddingringcoffin.com, you can buy a miniature casket with a little brass RIP on the side so you can “bury the past and move on to a new tomorrow”. After which, your friends might tuck into a divorce cake — possibly even one that mimics a wedding cake, but shows the bride pushing the groom off the top.
That proved the most popular of a run of samples made recently by Fay Millar, who runs Pink Rose Cakes in Brighton, East Sussex. She also included a couple with shotguns pointing towards one another and a bride stabbing the groom in the back.
“I’ve had lots of inquiries,” she says. “I’ve had someone ask for a cake with boxing gloves on it and another, supposedly set in a pub, with the woman behind the bar and the man thrown out with the empties.
“I’d stop short of anything vindictive, it’s all tongue-in-cheek, it’s for people who’ve been through a lot of stress, who want to say ‘enough’, let their hair down and enjoy themselves and start a new chapter.”
A fortnight today, London will play host to the Starting Over Show, a divorce fair for those who have been through or are considering a break-up that was first staged last year in Brighton. The show proved such a success that this year, much enlarged, it is being held in the capital and again on the south coast. As well as inspirational speakers (“No more ‘if onlys’”), family lawyers and estate agents, the exhibitors include life coaches, a cosmetic dentist, a photographer and several dating agencies.
Suzy Miller, the show’s founder, says the idea is to provide a fun day out. “When a marriage finishes, there is a period of shock, anger and venom — the time when you want to hire a hitman — and we all get to that stage and we all go through it,” she says.
She has avoided having DNA testers or private detectives at the show. “That is not what this is all about. We’re about getting people to the other side, where you put all the bitterness behind you and get on with your life.”
Miller’s 10-year relationship broke up in 2003, leaving her alone with three children, Cyd, now 13, Joe, 11, and Henry, 8. “At the time it was the most traumatic experience of my life,” she says. “I learnt that accessing the right information, help and support legally, financially and emotionally was essential.”
That information was not readily available, however. “There is masses for people who are thinking of getting married, but there is — or was — almost nothing for people breaking up,” she says. “People decide to divorce, then go to the first solicitor on the high street, without regard to whether they are a family specialist. It’s like going to a dentist and asking for heart surgery. The next thing you know you’re on the battlefield.”
Miller is a great believer in collaborative law, where each side’s lawyers work together to reach an agreement rather than as adversaries out to get the best deal for their client, and likes to think that everyone involved with the Starting Over Show can reduce the “massive emotional stress” that breaking up involves.
“You can end up on good terms but you both have to be grown up about it and learn how it feels to stand in someone else’s shoes,” she says. Her ex has now married “a lovely girl who the kids love” and lives in the same village in East Sussex. They share time with the children.
“There is a lot of discussion about how to make divorce less fraught but we also need a cultural change,” she says. “At the moment it’s deemed okay to bitch about your other half in the pub, or even in front of the children. I’m struck by the fact that not one but several people have commented that the fact that I have a good working relationship with my ex is ‘weird’.”
Many of the services on offer at the show are things Miller benefited from herself; life coaching, for instance. “I found it better than counselling, which keeps going over and over the past. Life coaching says ‘that’s done, let’s go forward’,” she says.
Scott Collier, a photographer based in Mayfair, central London, has taken pictures at scores of weddings but last year decided to market himself as a “divorce photographer” too. “I recently photographed a couple with their new baby and the husband’s nine-year-old daughter from a previous relationship,” he says. “Seeing yourself as part of a new family is part of the recovery process.”
Similarly, Miller talks of the importance of seeing your new family unit — whether as a single parent or a new, blended family — around you. She remembers vividly the first time she posed with her children without their father. “I was dreading it, feeling someone would be missing but when I looked at the photograph, I thought, ‘Oh, we all look quite happy. We’re going to be all right’.”
Divorce photographers, break-up advisers, post-divorce dating agencies … the industry springing up around divorce is so new nobody has yet quantified it. “We know that in the States divorce is seen as a chance for reinvention and we may be at a tipping point,” says Neil Saunders, consulting director at Verdict Research, the market analysts. “Though I believe we haven’t quite got to the point of celebrating divorce, it is acceptable and common and, logically, if a couple separate and one household splits into two, people need new things.
“If people are further thinking ‘this is a new chapter in my life’ and they want to change the way they live or socialise, that will also boost consumer spending.”
Debenhams has been the first big retailer to capitalise on the trend, with the launch of its divorce gift list — a twist on the traditional wedding list — last month.
The company has been surprised not just by the number of people who have expressed an interest, but by the “big ticket” items such as furniture and TV sets that have been requested.
“I think it’s proving popular because it’s something practical you can do for someone you care about who’s going through a tough time,” says Ruth Attridge, the company’s spokesman. “Family and friends set up a list on someone else’s behalf and I’d certainly rather buy a set of mugs for someone who really needs them than for smug marrieds. We’re still seeing how it goes but, fingers crossed, it’ll come to be seen as a positive thing.”