Menopause and Divorce
For World Menopause Month and Menopause Awareness Day (18 October 2023) we have put some questions to one of our Divorce Consultants and Individual & Relationship Therapists and author of Five Arguments All Couples (Need To) Have Jo Harrison and one of our Associate Solicitors Vanessa Sampaio to explore the interaction of menopause and divorce.
First we turn to Joanna Harrison:
How do you think the subject of menopause is relevant to divorce?
Well, I think if it is relevant to someone who is going through a divorce then it is relevant to us and if someone is perimenopausal and that is affecting them, which it is likely to, then we would want to understand more about how that was impacting their life and how we might support that both directly and how it would need to be tended to and thought about in relation to the divorce (and I’m sure Vanessa will have more to say about that on the legal side of things).
Do you find that it comes up often as a topic in your work with individuals and couples?
I think that there is so much more information about it now than ever before and people are making more links with their own perimenopausal symptoms and their feelings in their life in general. But it isn’t spoken about perhaps as much as it could be.
One way in which it comes up is if I am working with a couple and hear about one of them going through the menopause. This might be in a sympathetic way; sometimes though I hear it weaponised and held up as being the reason for the divorce.
Do you think menopause does cause relationship breakdown?
I think it would be very one dimensional to hold menopause as responsible for relationship breakdown. However, we do know that the time couples are most likely to divorce is in their late 40s which often coincides with this time of life. I think what is much more fruitful to reflect on is how a couple has made a transition to this period of life which can throw up so many issues. Different feelings about ageing, about children getting older, perhaps empty nests, and perhaps different ambitions. When couples can’t communicate well about changes happening to them this can cause a lot of turbulence. There are a lot of sad feelings to process at this time of life and if relationships can be supported to do that then I think this can help them into the next phase of life. Lorraine Candy in her brilliant book “What’s wrong with Me – 101 Things Midlife Women Need to Know” says that ‘perhaps you can seek help with managing your love life, or the love of your life, at this time, rather than being swept along in any kind of crisis that may occur’ which I would completely agree with.
Is going through a divorce particularly difficult when going through the menopause?
I don’t think there is ever an easy time to get divorced. One of the difficult things about divorce is the loss of identity that comes with it and the need to rebuild a new identity though for some this will feel liberating and exciting. This stage of life is perhaps similar in that menopause may bring a change of identity, which is both a loss and a new opportunity. It may be a time that extra support is needed.
Where do you think men are in all this? Do they need extra support at this time if they have a female partner who is going through the menopause?
I think it is important to think about men here and how they can be helped to help the women in their life. Sometimes it can be a really uncomfortable topic and there may be conflict about whether or not to bring it up as a conversation with their partner but again, where couples can be helped to have a compassionate conversation with their partners about what they are both facing then this can bring intimacy and understanding. Education is helpful and there are so many good books about menopause; I don’t think that they are only helpful for women to read!
This doesn’t need to be complicated. It is actually more simple than people often think. It is so often simply about making more space to listen to each other, to validate how they are each feeling, and that is what enables couples to keep connected. If that’s hard to do then that would be a good reason to get some help in therapy to have some more space to think about what’s changed between them.
Now turning to Vanessa Sampaio, an expert in all aspects of family law including the division of finances on the breakdown of marriage/civil partnerships.
Bringing in the legal perspective, here Vanessa, how might you take into account the menopause in relation to divorce?
I think we take it really seriously to be curious with our clients about any matters of physical, emotional or psychological wellbeing that may be affecting them. That said, quite often some of the symptoms women display could be put down to the stress of divorce and they may not even realise that they are experiencing perimenopause or menopause. Worse still, when reporting symptoms to their GP the link is not always made and their situation can sometimes be misdiagnosed as depression or anxiety.
Wherever our clients are displaying difficulties it is particularly important to take an interest in this. It may affect how we manage their case directly with them going forward, from looking at how we relay information to them, looking at alternate processes and signposting them for relevant support to help ease the pressure they are facing.
The second aspect of which family lawyers are starting to engage in greater discussion about is whether there are circumstances in which women suffering from perimenopause or menopause are able to have this taken into account within proceedings such as to affect the outcome of the finances on divorce, most notably in relation to maintenance.
What do you mean by choosing an appropriate process – do you think there are some processes that would work better here?
Some processes such as mediation and private FDRs as opposed to court FDRs (hearings where you try to resolve things with the input of a judge) in which the parties have the benefit of setting their own pace may be helpful, particularly where one party is generally facing difficulties that may affect their concentration, ability to process information and provide instructions. A court-imposed timetable can lack the flexibility required for a client in this position.
Does it affect things legally?
The concern, particularly for women with debilitating symptoms of perimenopause or menopause is that their symptoms become too challenging to manage and they are either unable to work at the same level at which they did before, or at all. This therefore affects their ability to maintain or increase their earning capacity. It has recently been found that 1 in 10 women, leave the workforce due to the effects of the menopause, which is not an insignificant number.
When determining cases, the court take into account a set of statutory factors as set out in s25 Matrimonial Causes Act 1973. One of these factors is ‘any physical or mental disability of either of the parties to the marriage.’ It is though unclear as to whether the family court would interpret menopause as a disability.
The difficulty for these women is that the courts a) may attribute to them an earning capacity that is in fact unrealistic to achieve and b) the court aspire to achieve a clean break and end any maintenance payments at the earliest opportunity, provided it does not cause undue hardship. Some degree of hardship is to be expected. The trend in the family courts over the last decades has been towards shorter terms of maintenance.
This set of circumstances makes it difficult to argue for maintenance at a level and at a term for which reflects the realities of menopause, which can last several years, and at present, there has been no case law in which the court have taken this into account when determining the financial division.
Could there be change ahead in the future?
The more that menopause is discussed and put on the agenda, the more attention and thought it is likely to receive from the court and feed into how cases might be conducted.
If for example a client is suffering from debilitating symptoms that mean she will not be able to continue work or will need to reduce her work, then it could be possible to seek a report into the wife’s earning capacity to support this. The instruction of such an expert would require careful thought and consideration in order to ensure that the right questions are asked. That said, in order to get to the stage of obtaining a report, the court must see this as ‘necessary’ to determine the issues in the case and therefore it may take a bit of work to persuade judges that the issues are pertinent and should be dealt with in a way that traditionally they have not before. Further discussion can only assist in placing this important women’s issue on the agenda.
Clearly in both the legal domain and the personal and psychological domain there is much to think about when it comes to an informed and sensitive approach to divorce at this time of life.
Jo is very experienced in working as a therapist with individuals and couples who are separating. A former family lawyer, Jo has a depth of experience in being able to understand the legal process. She can work with clients, either individually or as a couple, to support them through the process. Clients can meet with Jo for an initial consultation at our offices in Central London to think about what help is required. This can be at any stage before, during, or after a divorce or separation.
Vanessa advises on all aspects of family law including the division of finances on the breakdown of marriage/civil partnerships, and the preparation of pre and post nuptial agreements. She also advises in respect of matters under TOLATA 1996 and under Schedule 1 of the Children Act. Vanessa prioritises her clients’ objectives whilst providing them with pragmatic advice to assist them in achieving the best outcome for themselves and their children. Vanessa offers a considered approach to resolving her cases as constructively as possible, but nonetheless takes a strategic view when it comes to litigation. Vanessa is ranked as a Recommended Lawyer by Legal 500 2023.
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