The etiquette of divorceFebruary 14, 2012: 9:08 AM ET
A new how-to book offers legal advice on how to get through your divorce with maximum dispatch and minimal damage to children.
By Roger Parloff, senior editor
FORTUNE -- Since 1789 the Debrett's publishing house, which describes itself as "Britain's leading experts on manners and behaviour," has been offering authoritative guides on how to handle life's social curveballs with tact, breeding, and aplomb.
Now it has addressed one of life's high, inside fastballs: divorce.
Its volume on this unusually bellicose subject was authored by the family law department of Mishcon de Reya, a London-based, transatlantic law firm. The resulting collaboration, Debrett's Guide to Civilised Separation, debuts February 29. (Though the book is never so indiscreet as to say so, Mishcon represented Diana, Princess of Wales, in connection with her divorce.)
In this handsome, 61-page paperback—the cover shows a poker-faced lovebird taking flight from its poker-faced ex-mate—the Mishcon lawyers provide compassionate but clear-eyed advice about the emotional process they've observed so many times from a healthy distance. Though Americans may bridle at the notion of being taught manners, the book really just aims to give sound advice for getting through the ordeal with maximum dispatch and minimum damage to children. Following its advice could save you some billable hours, too, the solicitors point out, since, as Robert Louis Stevenson once observed, "Compromise is the best and cheapest lawyer."
The book's advice is, of course, "aspirational," says Sandra Davis, the head of Mishcon's divorce unit, in an interview, "because inevitably divorce is a very destructive event and people don't always feel at their best nor can they react positively to every situation with a great degree of control. But certainly when there are children involved it's important to be able to maintain a co-parenting relationship."
While safeguarding the children's emotional health is its own reward, it happens to be sound financial policy, too, notes Mishcon's New York-based family law partner, Michael Stutman, in an interview. Cooperation can save expenses on "all the collaterals" of "unwinding the mess that you've made," he explains, like when "you start trotting the children off to therapists and tutors because they're not paying attention, because they're distracted, because they're anxious."
The book's advice is wide-ranging and practical, including suggestions about how to tell the children; how to dress and behave in court; how and where to conduct visitational handovers; how to deal with post-divorce bar mitzvahs, weddings, and funerals; getting back on your feet romantically, and more.
The recommendations seem sensible. On retribution: "Throwing your husband's vintage wine collection down the loo . . . might seem like a therapeutic gesture when you're in the throes of rage and despair, but . . . judges will take a dim view of vindictive behaviour, so it's far better to hold your head up high and retain the civilized high ground."
On being served with papers: "Legal letters are designed to be threatening, so don't get into a panic if letters from your spouse's lawyers seem overbearing. . . . Leave [your own lawyers] to deal with the legal jargon. That's what you're paying for."
On keeping children clear of the battle zone: "Never use children as go-betweens. Children are not effective messengers and misunderstandings will ensue. You may also be revealing a range of anarchic emotions to your children which they are unable to assimilate."
On divvying up personal property: "The engagement ring is an outright gift given to the woman on the condition of marriage, and having met that condition, she is entitled to keep it even after the marriage's dissolution. If the ring is a precious heirloom, handed down on the paternal side, returning it is entirely at the woman's discretion."
On parental responsibilities: "Don't allow roles to become polarised. If one parent is entirely responsible for the mundanities of everyday life (laundry, shopping, school, homework) and the other sweeps the children off their feet every weekend for a round of treats, outings and parental indulgence . . . the children will alternate between dissatisfaction and overstimulation, and eventually will become very unhappy . . . . The downtrodden parent will be understandably resentful. . . . Remember, your new life as divorced parents is really not about scoring points off each other, but ensuring that your children's life is stable, secure, and contented."
Though the book is primarily directed to the British reader, and the specific legal process described is the English one, the advice usually transcends jurisdiction.
The book's British tone and tilt might make American readers most uncomfortable when it gets down to the hard-core etiquette stuff—like how to word the children's wedding invitations when the parents have remarried. ("Mr. John Robinson and Mrs. Edgar Forsythe request the pleasure of your company at the marriage of their daughter Caroline.") Some Americans will roll their eyes at such formalities while others will memorize them religiously, and many will do both. Most will be simply bewildered by passages like this one: "When a peeress (i.e. a duchess, marchioness, countess, viscountess or baroness) obtains a divorce, the general rule is that she places her forename before her title, for example, Mary, Duchess of Hampshire."
I wouldn't recommend this book to Ron Perelman, but for pragmatic decouplers navigating divorce for the first time and trying to keep the interests of their children paramount, it could prove useful, comforting, and even wise.