Empty Nest, Empty Marriage

Collaborative Divorce, Family break up

As an individual whose next ‘big birthday’ is 60, I have become more aware of how ordinary life events can suddenly feel extra-ordinarily scary and unsettling.

Until my son went off to uni I had no idea how hard-hitting that feeling of an empty nest can be. Combine that with one of life’s unexpected curve balls such as the death of a friend your own age, a redundancy, a major accident, caring for an elderly parent, or suffering a life-threatening condition, any of these can place huge pressures on your marital relationship. As a family solicitor specialising in the legal consequences of relationship breakdown (usually, divorce), frequently it is one of these curve balls that precipitates a partnership falling apart.

Is one partner more to blame than the other? Or have both individuals been doing
their own thing within the marriage e.g. one works long hours, the other keeps the
show on the road (by this I mean more than just keeping food in the house and getting the kids to school), that communicating with each other, spending time together, understanding what the other does to support this partnership, is a long forgotten art?

Sadly, I see this all too often in my legal practice. The majority of my clients are in
their 50s or early 60s. They have come to see me because they believe their marriage is over or they are on the receiving end of hearing that from their spouse. Either way, it’s frightening. Most will have seen a friend or family member or both having gone through a messy break-up. The last thing (or perhaps the first thing) someone in this situation might think they need is a divorce lawyer. The fear comes from coping alone, telling the children, who gets what, maintaining mutual friendships and more. Being informed of likely legal outcomes is a vital part of decision making. Having the right support in place to achieve something which is fair is key. Dispensing with the blame game makes difficult decisions easier to navigate.

To resolve relationship breakdown disputes, many assume court is the only option, some will have heard of mediation but few are aware of the Collaborative family law process. Collaboration is a buzz word in business and politics and for my parents’ generation it has a more sinister ring to it. What does it mean in a divorce scenario?

The Collaborative process involves meetings between the couple and their collaboratively appointed lawyers which explores, discusses and resolves the issues openly and cooperatively. Everyone signs a Participation Agreement which rules out court battles. ‘Four-way meetings’ are used to sort things out; the process is transparent and open and can include family consultants and financial ‘neutrals’ e.g. an IFA if needed. The Court’s involvement is limited to a paper application seeking approval of the agreement reached. The whole process is respectful and focuses upon what is best for the family/separating couple rather than achieving a self interested outcome. It is not about court battles, getting revenge, taking the upper hand or crushing your spouse’s self-esteem.

Behaving respectfully when you are deeply hurt, emotionally vulnerable, scared, angry, bereft, shocked, or feeling unable to trust can be harder than being nasty, mean, calculating, vindictive, abusive or financially manipulative. It takes more self-control, an ability to admit culpability and a desire to maintain a respectful, friendly dialogue with your former spouse; how much better to look back in years to come and be able to say to yourself, ‘we separated well’. If you have children, be they still in education, grown up or with children of their own, they will thank you for separating respectfully.

If you want to learn more about the collaborative way of dealing with a family
relationship breakdown then please contact me, or another member of the Family Law team here at Hart Brown.


Vanessa McMurtrie

Partner, Family

Vanessa trained and then qualified as a solicitor in 1991 with Hart Brown working in the Cobham office's family department for a decade. She then...

Partner, Family

Vanessa McMurtrie

Vanessa trained and then qualified as a solicitor in 1991 with Hart Brown working in the Cobham office's family department for a decade. She then worked for us on a part time consultancy basis while devoting more time to her family. During this period she was instrumental in implementing Hart Brown’s family department’s case management system and later, the quality system that led to the firm’s ISO 9001 accreditation.

In 2005 Vanessa returned to client work and joined Mackrell Turner Garrett where she stayed for ten years, before re-joining Hart Brown in 2015. Vanessa knows Woking and the surrounding area well and enhances the work covered at our Woking office as part of the family team.

Vanessa has been a Resolution member since 1991, committed to resolving disputes in a non-confrontational and constructive way. She has served on the Surrey Resolution committee since 2008. She is a Resolution accredited collaboratively trained lawyer and welcomes the opportunity to help separating couples adopt this process as an alternative to the more traditional options available.

Over the years, Vanessa has gained a wealth of experience in dealing with the legal aspects of personal relationships, not just those coming to an end, but new relationships, too, where a pre-nuptial or cohabitation agreement is required. She prides herself on being approachable and understanding as she helps her clients go through the legal process.