Divorce, the dos and don'ts from the Succession Set's go-to lawyer

The Queenager: Eleanor's Letter (23rd July 2023)

Sandra Davis of Mishcon de Reya joins the Noon Advisory Board and comes to our Noon Circle

Dear Queenagers

Hope you’ve had a good week!

First a correction: having chatted to the lifeguards at the Ladies’s pond and to my sister, I reckon the snake I swam with was a grass snake, not an adder! Turns out Hampstead Heath has quite the grass snake population, they love swimming, living on compost heaps and eat baby ducks (reckon that was why it was in the water). So don’t be put off wild swimming!

Last Tuesday Diane and I hosted the Noon Circle in the Soho Flat. It was great to see lots of you and a particular shout out to Gillian Shearn one of our earliest Noon enthusiasts who came all the way from Cornwall to join the Circle! Chapeau Gillian.

We had a very special guest on Tuesday at the Noon Circle talking about divorce, Sandra Davis, partner at Mishcon de Reya, Diana Princess of Wales’s lawyer back in the day, as well as the expert Jerry Hall turned to when she separated from Mick. Yup, we might even dub her the Succession set’s favourite divorce lawyer. But she took time out from her holiday to join us because she has joined the Noon Advisory Board because she thinks that the best cure for Queenager divorcees is community – and that is what we are all about at Noon. But before we did the Circle I went to meet her in the bouji offices of her company in Holborn

“More midlife women than men initiate divorce proceedings,” she tells me looking tanned. The décor is straight out of Succession, sleek modern furniture and 50 shades of greige. “But although the women initiate the proceedings they are usually not the motivators; they are coming in to see me because their husband has had an affair. Or because of a controlling behaviour or psychological abuse. It’s rarely physical abuse. For the most part women are far more tolerant of abusive behaviour than you might expect.”

Davis deals primarily with high net worth, and ultra-high net worth separations, where the rules can be a bit a different – but her thirty years of negotiating the messy fall out of marriages has given her insights that are valuable for the rest of us too.

Perhaps surprisingly for a divorce lawyer, Sandra says her top tip is to avoid getting divorced if possible. “A divorce upends all relationships, not just the one with the spouse,” she warns. “It affects family, friends, colleagues it will alter forever your relationship with your children’s grandparents. Too often women are angry and they don’t think through the social, psychological consequences with enough care. Dissolving a marriage, particularly a long-term one is a painful process which is NOT to be underestimated. Don’t do it lightly!”

She says that the first thing she says to a prospective client is always, “You need to look yourself in the mirror and know that you’ve tried, really tried to make the marriage work to resolve any issues. Believe me it’s generally a lot easier to manage problems in a practical way, and in a consensual way, than to go through a divorce. Divorce is like a train crash. SMASH. I feel that people, clients, the other side, don’t put enough effort into thinking through the consequences of that change, both socially psychologically, and in relation to everyone it will affect. If you’re entirely selfish about it, if you operate on the one life theory, you know, ‘I’m not happy… I’ll just throw away this tissue, chuck it out and have another one…’ it doesn’t work like that. Occasionally it works like that for men but it isn’t like that for women. Particularly for Queenagers.”

So what should Queenagers know before they take this step?  “Women have to be really content to be on their own with their support network of friends because their chance of finding another mate are much lower. The statistics show they are much more likely to be on their own.”

But isn’t that often because a lot of men just want to be with somebody, they leap into their next relationship, whereas women are more choosy, would rather be on their own that with someone for the sake of it?

Sandra isn’t convinced. “If we’re talking about the 50 plus year old man, with the clients I deal with he can often choose to be with a woman half his age, start again, have more kids and never be judged for it. It’s the age-old tradeoff money, status, power and a younger female. It’s getting slightly easier for women to be with younger men but it’s still not as common.”

Could that be because the kind of women who are coming to her are the ones who have got into relationships in the first place because of that kind of dynamic? That they were always trophy wives and so get traded in for a younger model?

Sandra shakes her head. “I don’t” she says and there is a pause. I get a hint of the kind of steel that has made her such a fearsome advocate for her clients. “Often the women who I see have been in the marriage a long time. They’ve started out in a relatively equal deal and money has been made during their partnership. With the Queenagers I see often the wife has not worked, even if she had a successful career beforehand, she’s looked after the family, so she’s become de skilled in the workplace, and therefore lost confidence become more dependent. And so it’s much harder for her to re establish herself as a middle aged woman going back into the work place after say a 25 year break.”

I ask her for her key tips, what a woman should think about before she starts this process..

1)      Get your house in order. Understand your finances, work out what you spend, what you need, how much things cost, what will the future look like

2)     What will the future look like? Your husband’s not there. You lose everything that goes with being a couple. What will you do? Don’t be naïve about what it will mean to be ‘free’ remember divorce is a bit like indigestion, you don’t get rid of your spouse, they keep revisiting you like acid reflux

3)     This is particularly true if you have kids – if you have children try and keep things as amicable as possible right from the beginning. Behave with dignity, take the moral highground. You are going to have to go on co-parenting, so the less bitterness there is the better. Be kind. When you are tempted to go nuclear, or be unreasonable, look long and hard at a picture of your children. Ask yourself: what will happen to the kids, where will they live, who will have custody how will it work for them? Your ex will be there at every parents evening, or wedding.. forever

4)     Remember it may not be better on the other side – the divorce rate for second marriages is even higher than for first because of the added burden of blended families. And you take yourself and all your baggage into the next one

5)     Why are you contemplating divorce? Have you tried counselling, couples therapy, solution-focussed mediation which might enable you to think about this in a different way. Could you renegotiate your relationship in a way that might work for you?

6)     Are you putting too much weight on this relationship, have you tried other way to make yourself happier such as a new interest or career? A new tribe inside the marriage?

7)     The grass isn’t greener, one in four people who separate wish they had never divorced and over half regret it

Davis concedes that her high-net worth clients are not exactly going to have to get a job to pay the bills but they are going to need something to do. Often their kids are at university, or coming up to it, so they are no longer being a full time parent.

“It’s hard, it’s hard to start again at 50, putting a foot back into society on your own. I try and help my women as much as I can with financial advisors, people who can help them get into philanthropy if they are interested. I feel that having had a long and intense relationship with a woman through the divorce I really try and help them relaunch themselves. We have lunch, we stay in touch. I recommend therapists, property experts, life coaches… it’s a hard road. They need support.”

I say that a Queenager friend of mine had described her own divorce as “like a depth charge it just goes on blowing things up, down and down, triggering every sadness and every insecurity, blowing up every part of your life”. Davis nods.

“Many of the women I see say their friends just expect them to get over it and move on, negating the wound they have from the breakdown of what has been decades of their life. They expect the wound to close over, for it to get better but I see that they can get re-triggered at any point.” She sighs. I get the sense that she has see so much suffering, so much pain. “I want to get my knowledge out there to help people,” she says. “I want to write a book to share some of what I know.”

There is still such a lack of understanding in the culture more broadly about the issues facing women at this point, I say. She agrees.

“I think what’s really absent for this set of divorcees is connectivity, meeting other women like them who are in the same boat. The most important think is being with other women who understand, who can shed some light, share some knowledge.”

At the Noon Circle we saw that in action. About half the women had been divorced the others were trying to support friends through it. Everyone found Sandra’s insights, particularly about money (know your position before you start and your needs) and the fact that the courts often proved a blunt and unproductive instrument. We heard from several women how court orders around money and access were routinely ignored by vindictive spouses and there seemed to be no sanction. Sally Jackson, a divorce coach, who helps women through the process and was also at the Circle, explained that it is better to avoid court if at all possible. She also talked about how adult children can be sucked into the divorce negotiations with often bad consequences.

The overall take out was that divorce was to be avoided if possible. But if you have to do it, try and keep things as amicable as possible and strap yourself in for a bumpy ride. Sally, however, was a wonderful exemplar of what we see with all these Queenager transitions – after the darkness the light. It feels like a death, but afterwards the sun will shine – you can become as one of our women in the Noon group put it “delightedly divorced” and enter a new era.

Have a wonderful day – I am off to the beach in Devon – Surf’s Up! And the rain is threatening.

See you next week


By Eleanor Mills

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