FROM THE ARCHIVE| Specialist lawyers reveal the surprising reasons couples split, and offer tips to ride out the storm

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There’s more to divorce than affairs and money problems – here specialist lawyers reveal the surprising reasons couples split, and offer tips to ride out the storm. (Photo: Getty Images/Gallo Images)
There’s more to divorce than affairs and money problems – here specialist lawyers reveal the surprising reasons couples split, and offer tips to ride out the storm. (Photo: Getty Images/Gallo Images)

Simmering resentment, bickering and mud-slinging – over the years leading British lawyers Janet Clegg and Hilary Browne Wilkinson have seen it all as they’ve refereed countless divorces, including dozens of high-profile splits. This has given them a unique perspective on marriage – often, as they watch warring spouses, they can see exactly where the rot set in.

Surprisingly in most cases it’s not infidelity, sexual problems or some great rift that’s to blame. More often it’s evident that couples have simply lapsed into bad habits – spouses have taken each other for granted and relationships have become stale and boring. Having seen many of the pitfalls, the legal eagles believe they’re perfectly poised to help people avoid them.

In this extract from their new book they identify the small warning signs that might indicate your relationship is in crisis and give helpful tips on what you can do to get it back on track. 


At the start of a romance we may be inclined to excuse poor timekeeping as endearingly ditzy but as a relationship progresses and planes are missed and the beginnings of films and plays are never seen, it can be seen as highly disrespectful and expensive.

TIP: Lateness needn’t be a deal breaker but don’t passively give in to it either. Find practical ways to reduce the irritation. For example, leaving tickets at the box office or travelling separately to the airport can relieve stress for the punctual partner.


To the tidy half of the marriage dirty pots and pans around the kitchen or clothes strewn around the bedroom too often are a visible symbol of contempt and laziness. On the other hand, the tidy partner’s need to keep chaos at bay at all times could stretch the other’s nerves to breaking point. If you’re not careful this argument can become a permanent battleground, with the untidy partner becoming “the naughty child” and the tidy half the “nagging parent”.

TIP: We heard of one couple who drew an invisible line down the middle of the bedroom – one half was perfectly ordered and in the other chaos reigned. Both agreed not to comment on the other’s side nor encroach on it. Extreme, perhaps, but cooperation is key.


A shared love of travel, videogaming, paintballing and so on can strengthen and add joy to any relationship. But what if the hobby isn’t shared and takes hours of a partner’s spare time and/or costs thousands of rands? A willingness to tolerate each other’s traits will help. But be grown-up about it – don’t expect a partner to give up a hobby but do expect them to cut back if it’s getting out of hand.

READ MORE| “He wants me to accept his mistress”


Apart from describing the pitfalls, the lawyers offer advice in their book on positive actions you can take to create a stronger marriage.


In our practice – perhaps counterintuitively – it seemed to us some anger and disagreement between a couple were necessary in order to keep a relationship energised and moving forward partners usually heralded the end of a marriage.

If we saw a client shrug their shoulders, sigh and say, “What can I do? There’s no point in arguing,” it was a sign someone had checked out of the relationship and had no desire to maintain it.

Crucially, however, we also saw that it was how couples dealt with conflict rather than what they argued about that determined whether the relationship would end in divorce. Dysfunctional conflict takes many forms, from screaming and smashing things to refusing to engage, emotional blackmail and childish sulking.

If you can argue without falling prey to any of these bad habits you stand a much better chance of working through problems.

TIP: Conflict isn’t always a bad thing but think about your style of resolving disagreements. Remember, openly humiliating a partner can be as painful and damaging as a physical blow


At our practice we’d marvel at how forgiving people could be. It was rare that one act of infidelity or cruelty would trigger a divorce and it seemed to us most people in love tended to overlook or forgive bad behaviour more than they might in friendships or relationships at work. But most people didn’t forget either, and when the relationship came to an end it was amazing how many clients could recall so much detail of the hurt they’d endured over many years. In our experience three little words – “I am sorry” – can clear away a great deal of resentment and hurt.

TIP: It’s inevitable we’ll hurt our partner at some stage, whether deliberately or through thoughtlessness. Saying sorry can prevent that hurt from becoming corrosive resentment.


A lack of sex might seem to signal the end of a marriage but in our experience it rarely did. Only diminishing intimacy combined with other factors might eventually spell the end of a relationship. We found on many occasions that conflict relating to money, lifestyle or children far outweighed sexual problems.

But what’s going on outside the bedroom has a huge effect on what’s going on inside it. If you aren’t kind to your partner and you don’t respect them it’s more than likely your sex-life will suffer or even be nonexistent.

TIP: There’s nothing like contempt or resentment to kill desire


Surveys have found up to 70 percent of married men and half of married women have had an affair. Infidelity was certainly a common cause of divorce in our practice. The betrayed spouse is often at a loss to explain why his or her partner has been unfaithful and it’s by no means always the case that affairs are all about sex. In fact, we think the reason why people have affairs is in the main irrelevant.

It’s how each individual in the couple views infidelity that will determine whether the relationship will collapse. Some of us may forgive our partner’s infidelity time and again. Others may call an end to the relationship after one incident. None of us really knows what we might do until we’re faced with the situation, but one thing is for sure: on learning that our partner has been unfaithful most of us will question every aspect of our life and trust will be hard to regain.

TIP: Be in no doubt that infidelity will change the nature of most relationships – and is quite likely to cause its complete breakdown


There’s no room for dewy-eyed naivety in this situation. If you’re the one bringing more money into a relationship, you need to address it early on.

TIP: It sounds hardhearted but there’s nothing wrong with asking your new partner to show you bank statements, credit-card bills and relevant financial information. If you’re serious about getting married, seek legal advice about a prenuptial agreement – particularly if you have children. 

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