Comforted by long arm of the law

Divorcing Responsibility
February 13, 2004

For the first time ever, this book tells us, it is possible to divorce responsibly. The ill-fated Family Law Act of 1996 signalled a new era in which liberal premises of duty and obligation gave way to post-liberal promises that what counts is not what we do but the way that we do it.

This book walks us through the moral maze of responsibility and is a quest to get to the bottom of the bewildering rhetoric of divorce reform. We discover that, post-liberally, autonomy - considered by liberals as a given for the free and rational individual - is illusory; that the moral philosophy behind the statute includes assumptions about what constitutes the good life, the nature of subjectivity, and so on.

Post-liberalism shuns making moral judgements - no longer is divorce "bad" and marriage "good". How we make choices and carry them through is what counts. It is possible now to have a good divorce, provided we do it in the post-liberal way - with deep reflection, a civilised approach and an amicable agreement reached with the help of neutral experts.

But lest we are seduced into thinking that real progress has been made, it is worth calling to mind the results of the government's own pilot studies that showed that people involved in a divorce want a solicitor, not a nanny with a sticking plaster.

Helen Reece's book suggests that divorce law is not just a way of reordering relationships and proprietary interests, but a way of providing and policing our moral education. She shows how post-liberal assumptions about the "good" divorce, couched in unashamedly politically correct terms, lead naturally to the moral improvement of the nation. It all has a distinctly Victorian ring. No matter that the government decided to scrap a large part of the statute. Citizens can still be morally improved, almost certainly without their consent, possibly against their will, therapeutically if not coercively, since the dominant discourses of the post-liberal Zeitgeist stretch way beyond the confines of family law.

This book is informative, thoughtful and well researched. It is passionate without being partisan, which pulls the reader through what can be a dense and difficult text. Lawyers will like it because it argues for their centrality in divorce, without actually saying so. Welfare professionals should read it. Psychologists will enjoy picking holes in the erroneous assumptions that the law continues to make about human beings. Others interested in the triumph of the therapeutic will find plenty to chew on.

This is a book for anyone who has ever wondered what divorce law is for. I just hope that by taking this therapeutic turn, divorce law has not shot itself in the foot. I do not want my divorce to be an exercise in moral education. I might not want therapy or, worse, "support". I want my autonomy to be more real than illusory. Three cheers for those responsible citizens in the pilot studies who hoisted the statute with its own petard.

They walked in droves, not down the therapeutic path, but to the lawyer's office, in search of the kind of help that really makes a difference when a marriage goes wrong.

Shelley Day Sclater is reader in psychosocial studies, University of East London.

Divorcing Responsibility

Author - Helen Reece
Publisher - Hart
Pages - 264
Price - £32.50
ISBN - 1 84113 215 2

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