It is wrong to dwell on the misfortunes of others, but was there anything in the news more riveting than the Supreme Court hearing which ended with Hugh and Tini Owens, 80 and 68 respectively, being told they were going to stay married after her bid to end her 40 year marriage was thrown out. Naturally, Lady Hale, president of the court said that she was only reluctantly persuaded that the case should be dismissed; the ruling has been met with near-universal calls in the commentariat for the introduction of no-fault divorce.
There were details that would probably strike a chord with lots of married people, chiefly the fact that the things that drove Mrs Owens nearly insane were mostly the small stuff. So, a row about recycling cardboard that Mr Owens prefaced with the remark, “can I say something without you flying off the handle?” was up there among the casus belli. It was right in “Calm down, dear” territory. There is nothing better calculated to drive you insane than someone asking you not to get worked up. One of the worst arguments between the couple was when she suggested going to the pub for something to eat instead of making it at home, and he said he’d rather not; presumably, she was the one doing the cooking. As for the row about him reprimanding her for talking to the waiter when they were out to dinner – thereby humiliating her in front of their friend – it could have ended in violence, not divorce. By comparison, Mrs Owens’ affair six years earlier – when she was a sprightly 62 – seems to have been pretty small beer.
But the law says that you cannot divorce your spouse against his will unless you have been separated for five years; the Owenses have been contesting their divorce for just two, so she is, as the papers say reprovingly today, locked in a loveless marriage for another couple of years. And I think that’s right. I would have some sympathy with Mrs Owens had she murdered her husband; I can’t say I sympathise with her bid to upend the divorce laws. No fault divorce, with little or no cooling off period, pretty well negates the whole idea of marriage as a binding commitment; you might as well cohabit. If the bar is set so low for ending a marriage that you don’t have to show serious grounds for dissolving it in law, or demonstrate that the relationship is at an end through prolonged separation, then marriage ceases to have much meaning at all.
There is, obviously, nothing to prevent Mrs Owens living apart from her husband as she is doing – and mercifully they have a couple of homes for them to sulk separately. But you know, marriage is all about living with irritations and differences; when I was growing up in Ireland prior to the legalisation of divorce, women would respond to the aggravations of their spouse with vivid and colourful sarcasm; men with elaborate resignation and recourse to the pub. Jokes about marriage, which were ubiquitous, were ways of dealing with the trials of living in it.
Even now, in its debased state, we all have a stake in the institution of marriage; it remains, I am afraid, the best context for bringing up children stably. So if maintaining it means that the Owens (whose children are, I may say, grown up) are obliged to stay married for a couple of years more, that’s just tough.