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Page last updated at 11:28 GMT, Wednesday, 24 December 2008

Season of ill will?

Couple arguing

Festive fallouts are as much a part of Christmas as turkey and tinsel, so we're led to believe, making it a busy time of year for divorce lawyers. But is this really the case, asks Chris Bowlby.

If you feel in danger of becoming too misty eyed over all those Christmas messages of peace and goodwill, you can always revive more Scrooge-like feelings with a dose of seasonal statistics put out by the divorce industry.

Every year brings new surveys and stories suggesting Christmas is a time when many couples decide they can't stand each other and head in their thousands to divorce lawyers come the new year.

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But do these claims actually stand up, or are they more to do with the divorce and marriage guidance industry trying to drum up business.

Last year some of the most striking claims were made in two widely reported surveys. These were carried out by a marketing company and commissioned by Insidedivorce.com and the government-funded Family Mediation Helpline.

"More than 1.8 million couples will have contemplated divorcing their partner during the Christmas period," said the Family Mediation Helpline press release. The Times suggested one of the surveys had concluded that "up to one in five couples inquire about divorce after the strains of Christmas".

As official statistics suggest there are more than 14 million couples in the UK, this would translate to some very long queues outside the offices of divorce lawyers in January. And it is also an intriguingly high figure given the annual divorce rate is heading downwards currently towards 140,000 a year.

Some divorce lawyers and mediation experts undoubtedly do experience increase in demand after Christmas, though for its survey Insidedivorce.com only used lawyers on its books. And some other lawyers don't recognise this pattern at all.

'Dangerous time'

"I've been in practice for going on 30 years," says Marilyn Stowe, a leading family lawyer based in Yorkshire but with a national and international practice.

EastEnders
Ok, family strife at Christmas can be guaranteed for some, at least

"It's certainly not my experience that straight after the Christmas holidays people rush to get divorced, it just doesn't happen."

In Ms Stowe's experience, there are seasonal variations in divorce - but the blips tend to come in the spring and early summer - when school exams are over and term is coming to an end. It allows for a good run up before school term starts again.

Christmas in the credit crunch may add to family tensions, and another survey, published on Wednesday, found relationship counselling had risen as the downturn has started to bite. But these same hard times make the cost of divorce much higher. If the value of the family home has decreased there is less to share out, for example. So even if couples consider divorce, they may go no further once they realise the consequences.

For some families and couples Christmas can, by contrast, be a bonding experience. This, however, is not something PR companies and the media find very compelling as they search for eye-catching stories when genuine news is thin.

So why had Insidedivorce.com issued statements suggesting that "the statistics make grim reading for anyone believing Christmas is a period of harmony and goodwill"?

"I think that's possibly overstating the case" concedes Derek Bedlow, editor of the website. "But for those whose relationships are in trouble it is a dangerous time."

So is there any measurable relationship between Christmas and divorce? The UK Statistics Authority - the official statistics gatherer - doesn't record seasonally when divorce happens. So the idea that the festive season does more harm to marriage than good does not seem proven.

Perhaps there should be new categories for these Christmas survey statistics. Scroogeistics for those who can't stand all the harmony and goodwill stuff. And optimistics for the romantics who believe Christmas solves everything.


Below is a selection of your comments.

A lawyer acquaintance of mine said that if he got a divorce petition early in January, whereas when he first qualified he would start work on them straight away, he now sits on them because in a significant number of cases the woman who filed for divorce (as it usually was the woman that filed) phoned him up during the third week in January and asked for the petition to be cancelled. He attributed this to the fact that "he" was now back at work and out from under her feet. However, this does not bode well for when he retires!
Adrian Cross, Brentwood, Essex

That is somewhat assuming that all the couples who fall out are married though. Surely one of the factors contributing to the falling divorce numbers is that fewer people are getting married in the first place? I take the point that there are some lawyers there saying they've seen no seasonal variation for years, but the season for arguments doesn't just centre on married couples. It would probably be more telling to question the police on the number of domestic incidents they're called out to. That said, Merry Christmas everyone!
Alex, London, UK

I run the Divorce-Online website and unlike the ONS we can measure interest in the subject very accurately and it is true that in January traffic for divorce related keywords surges. However the same can be said for September when the kids return from the long summer break.
Mark Keenan, Swindon

I think that this oversimplifies things. In actual fact couples contemplating separation either consciously decide together to wait until Xmas is out of the way, or take that decision subconsciously themselves. Perhaps they wish to give the kids one last family xmas together? This then leads to a spike after Xmas which is nothing to do with the holiday period.
Johnno, Birmingham

I feel sure that SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder) must have something to do with the statistics, and probably has done for millennia before it had a name. It is a pretty gloomy time of year all round (Hence the need for a winter festival, regardless of your religious beliefs).
Chris, O!

I think most people will suffer the strains of a bad marriage even MORE during the holidays, especially if you have children. Can you really let everyone down? You "keep up with appearances" so work, friends and families, who are all also busy trying to get through the holiday, don't have to deal with the unpleasantness of your divorce. When the holidays are over, and you deal with the issues that are in the marriage, the divorce decision may become a reality. The timing in summer only means you don't have to vacation with them(even better). Christmas is the season of good will(and martyrs).
Maureen, Florida,USA

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