06th Dec 2023

The Language of Divorce Really Matters

By Nicole Phillips

The Language of Divorce Really Matters


Senior Associate Nicole Phillips has recently written for Tatler’s Experts’ Corner on the topic of the language of divorce and why the language you choose really matters. The article, which can be found here, was first published on Tatler’s Address Book, Experts’ Corner on 8th November 2023. 

The Times recently reported that Kevin Costner and Christine Baumgartner had reached a divorce settlement bringing to an end, in the words of The Times, ‘one of the most acrimonious’ Hollywood splits of recent years’ during which the couple had ‘fought a legal battle‘ over their finances. These words are, of course, carefully chosen by the Press to describe what was no doubt a profoundly difficult and painful time for the couple and their children.

You have to wonder what impact words like these have on a separating couple – how does language affect how we think, how we feel and how we behave? What is the consequence of the language we use to talk about divorce on the children of separating parents? What impact does it have on an ex-couple’s ability to co-parent after their separation?

At the end of last year, the Language Matters campaign was launched by the Family Solutions Language Group, and it addressed exactly this issue. It looked at the language used around divorce – ‘Mr X vs Mrs Y, ‘opponent‘, ‘the other side‘ are all words commonly used by family lawyers. Lawyers and judges use these words with their clients and in court proceedings, as well as with other family law professionals. The Group consulted with a range of professionals who work with separating couples and what was clear from the feedback received is that a fresh look at the way divorce and separation is framed, both inside and outside of the law, is urgently needed.

The Group suggested 5 core principles ‘for language change, to shift mindsets away from adversity and battles, towards safety, wellbeing and child welfare‘:

  • Plain English – Avoid legal jargon and instead use words which can easily be understood by everyone, particularly the separating couple.
  • Personal – It is common for separating couples to be referred to as ‘husband’ and ‘wife’, or ‘applicant’ and ‘respondent’ in legal cases and documents. Instead, use family names rather than legal labels. You may be thinking ‘surely, that’s obvious?’ but to some family law professionals (including judges) this is a radical suggestion.
  • Proportionate – We should all aspire to use language which is proportionate to the family issues being considered. Effective legal representation does not involve using pejorative or disrespectful language towards the other person.
  • Problem-solving – Our language should promote problem-solving mindsets, rather than fuel adversity with the language of war. Battle language leads to aggression and defensiveness, a natural and instinctive form of protection. Battle lines are set, sides are taken, splitting and projecting into good and bad may follow, and so the focus on the children (if there are any) is lost and opportunities for problem-solving diminish.
  • Positive futures – Our language should point forwards towards a positive future in which the separating couple and their children can thrive.

Appropriate language is needed through every part of a family’s separation: at the school gates, with family and friends, in the Press, within Government, by support services and throughout any legal process.

Re-evaluating and disarming our vocabulary may be uncomfortable but it is long overdue. A shift in language has got to be positive for separating couples and their children, and is needed to promote long lasting solutions which bring with them safety, wellbeing and child welfare.  It is going to take time for everyone involved in the world of family law to ‘mind their language’.

But let’s hope that in time, the press reports of celebrity couples begin to dial down the language of divorce, and words like ‘versus‘, and ‘battle’ are consigned to the terminology dustbin as far as family separation is concerned.

To learn more about the Family Solutions Group Language Matters campaign click here.

Nicole Phillips is a Senior Associate solicitor and mediator at Family Law in Partnership. She handles all aspects of private family law, assisting and supporting clients who are navigating divorce or separation to resolve any financial or children issues that may arise. Nicole combines a warm, sympathetic manner with tactical nous and incisive judgment.