I’m very happy with my partner, but why won’t he divorce his wife? | Relationships

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I’m in a relationship with a man who is separated from his wife but not divorced. He left her five years ago and says their marriage had been over long before that, but he decided to stay until his children left home. We are both in our 50s and his children are now young adults. I was divorced in my 40s and have no children.

We live separately. We’ve had a very happy relationship for several years, but there has always been the elephant in the room of his marriage and the block it presents to our planning a future together.

He has made some moves towards a divorce – contacting a solicitor and gathering information about his finances – but as far as I know, has done nothing beyond that.

It’s difficult for me to understand: my own divorce was done, start to finish, in six months. Of course his circumstances are more complicated, but he seems unable to face the emotional and financial consequences – particularly as his wife has never worked much, which was a source of conflict. I know this will be hard but procrastination will make it worse as they both get closer to retirement age, with fewer opportunities for him to rebuild his finances.

I hate the prospect of losing what has been the best relationship of my life but I can’t play second fiddle to his wife, legally if in no other way, indefinitely. Do I have to walk away?

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You don’t have to walk away from “the best relationship in your life” without a great deal of thought. But it’s important to be honest with yourself: what is it you want and what are you afraid of? Sometimes in relationships the obvious problems – the “headlines” – are red herrings, and even if they are removed, the niggling feeling that things aren’t right remains.

So is him not getting divorced (which, don’t get me wrong, is a biggie!) a symptom of something else about him – his inability to put you first, perhaps – that you don’t like, or does it stand alone? I wonder what he, too, is afraid of?

I hear from divorce lawyers that it’s often men who separate but don’t get divorced, and it may be for myriad reasons – among them a sense of shame, which may come from childhood experiences. Maybe your partner promised never to “leave” his wife and, as long as he doesn’t sign those papers, in a way he won’t. He may fear abandoning her financially. It does sound, from what you say, that this is a sticking point. Or he could just be lazy; divorce can be a lot of paperwork. The situation may suit his ex, too.

I spoke to solicitor Gary Rycroft from Joseph A Jones & Co. He pointed out that from 6 April the law on divorce will change, with the abolishment of the need for blame to be apportioned to one party. Could this be a catalyst for your partner?

If that still doesn’t work, Rycroft suggested your partner and his ex could “tidy up” the legal side of their marriage by getting a “deed of separation”. This can be “totally bespoke” so they can put in it what they feel comfortable with. So they could say neither will make any claims against the other at this time, or they could start to outline a division of assets. I wonder if this might be a good dress rehearsal for him.

Consider going to couples counselling, too (psychotherapy.org.uk; cosrt.org.uk; bacp.co.uk). Some interesting things may come out with the safety net of a third person, and these may propel you both forward.

Every week Annalisa Barbieri addresses a family-related problem sent in by a reader. If you would like advice from Annalisa on a family matter, please send your problem to ask.annalisa@theguardian.com. Annalisa regrets she cannot enter into personal correspondence. Submissions are subject to our terms and conditions.

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Conversations With Annalisa Barbieri, series 2, is available here.



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