Here in the UK, Monday January 5, 2015 was branded Black Monday. Various press and media outlets called it Divorce Day.
This was the day when enquiries about divorce were expected to peak across the country.
In recent years, legal firms dealing with divorce have come to expect a record number of enquiries on the first Monday of a full working week in January. Apparently, at this time of year couples who were under strain before Christmas seriously begin to consider a permanent split.
Arguably, assigning tags like ‘Black Monday’ may bring much needed attention to what is a major social problem. However it may also trivialise divorce, encouraging people to look favourably on the opportunity to break with their partners and families.
This year, the Relate marriage guidance service expected a 50 per cent rise in the number of calls to its crisis telephone lines on Black Monday.
According to Ruth Sutherland, the chief executive of Relate, this is partly because Christmas throws people together in a way that can bring simmering marital issues to a head.
She adds: ‘New Year is a time when many of us naturally assess how life is going and this can make people think about their relationships.’
Apparently, this type of post-festive marital review doesn’t end well for a good many people. Forty-two percent of marriages in this country end in divorce.
Four million British children will have spent this Christmas with only one of their parents, according to the Marriage Foundation.
The Relationships Foundation estimates the cost to society of broken relationships to be £46 billion per year. The greater cost, of course, is the untold toll on the psychological, emotional and physical wellbeing of adults and children.
The opportunity to trivialise the problem with tags like ‘Divorce Day’ is exacerbated by the cultural context at this time of year, where all manner of similar tags are used to promote pre- and post-Christmas sales.
In the lead-up to the festive season last year, for example, we heard a great deal about ‘Black Friday’.
Copying their counterparts in the USA, British retailers have started promoting major sales on the Friday following the American Thanksgiving holiday.
On Black Friday 2013, Brits spent record amounts buying from online and in bricks-and-mortar stores. In this season’s pre-Christmas sales hype, retailers looked forward to a windfall as they eagerly promoted one-day-only discounts to focus the public mind on shopping.
There are already signs that this approach may actually be backfiring on store owners.
Heads of major retailers such as John Lewis are suggesting that this concentration on one day is counterproductive, as it places huge burdens on their delivery services and increases customer complaints.
Even now, though, retailers say almost nothing at all about the much greater problem their Black Friday approach will have caused – specifically, the delayed pain still to come for the many individuals who, caught up in the moment, will have overspent.
It’s fine to celebrate the fact that people feel confident enough in the economy to spend. But we shouldn’t do so while largely ignoring the problem of credit card debt.
The challenge of indebtedness continues to grow. This is borne out by statistics, but also by the rapid growth in the number of charities set up to tackle it – and the success of payday loan companies who promise a quick fix solution.
Against this backdrop, creating something called Divorce Day arguably trivialises – and perhaps, albeit indirectly, celebrates – the idea of ‘shopping’ for the break up of one’s family.
Fortunately, if the runes of popular culture are anything to go by, marriage may be under threat but it is far from a moribund institution. Even among celebrities, a class in society not always associated with long-term relationships, marriage has had good press of late.
For example, much was made in 2014 of the wedding involving Goerge Clooney and British lawyer Amal Alamuddin. After declaring himself 'not the marrying kind' for decades, Clooney admitted that he was looking forward to becoming a husband and was 'marrying up'.
Film stars Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt also tied the knot last year.
Though the initial impetus for their decision to marry came from their children, Pitt noted that he was ‘surprised afterwards at the effect that getting married has had on us — it was more than just a ceremony, it meant a real depth of commitment.’
Dame Helen Mirren, one of Britain’s finest actors, agrees: ‘[Marriage] is not a state of bliss and there was a time when I never wanted to be married. Now I love it. I like being part of a team and a partnership.’
She adds, ‘A lot of people get married when they haven’t really thought it through. But I also believe that sometimes people give up on marriage too quickly.’
Even in an age when divorce is – at least in the legal sense – relatively easy, marriage still provides a unique bond.
According to the Office of National Statistics (ONS), the number of unmarried couples living together in Britain has doubled in less than 20 years.
The Centre for Social Justice estimates that unmarried couples now account for 40 percent of births, 59 percent of relationship splits and 59 percent of the consequent costs.
In contrast, married couples account for 54 percent of births, 20 percent of splits and just 14 percent of costs.
These figures show that while marriage may be under threat as the default option for cohabiting couples, it still offers a substantially stronger union than any alternative arrangement. It also provides the type of stability that makes having children more attractive.
Thankfully, the rate of growth in the number of divorces has plateaued in recent times. For example, the ONS says that the incidence of divorce has grown by just 0.5 per cent in the past year.
Yet whilst only a fraction of enquirers on Black Monday will go through with a divorce, more and more people are inquiring about it each year.
Granted, some marriages will almost inevitably end in divorce. More than a few will do so in the wake of unfaithfulness on the part of one party or both; others because of domestic violence and other potentially life-controlling issues.
However, for the sake of the vast majority of marriages that can be saved, perhaps it is time for us to pull away from using tags like Black Monday and Divorce Day, which focus minds on the potential for divorce.
We might instead encourage folks to look beyond short-term, quick fix solutions – which are usually no solutions at all – and explore the opportunities for regenerating relationships.