Baroness Shackleton, widely regarded as Britain’s leading divorce lawyer (previous clients: Prince Charles and Sir Paul McCartney), thinks divorce laws need major reform to prevent women like Tini Owens, a woman who lost her Supreme Court appeal last week in her fight to divorce her husband, from being trapped in loveless marriages. But, she revealed this week, legislation alone isn’t enough. She believes children should learn at school the careful art of choosing the right spouse. She claims 10 questions, such as “Are we friends?” and “Do we want the same things?”, are critical, and yet routinely overlooked by young couples signing a legal contract of marriage. She says they should be more "aware of some of the traits that you can't change in people”, and if young couples thought less about the frock and escaping from home and more about the practicality of marriage, she would cheerfully find herself out of a job. Having been married twice and divorced once, I think I can do better. Just these nine specific questions, asked seriously and frankly before you put a ring on it, should pay dividends and keep you out of the courts.
1 How much money do you have?
Hear me out. This is not about being minted. It’s about whether you measure your answer according to the black balance on your current account, or by the limit figure on your credit card. This is the fundamental divider of people (well, that and “cheese or chocolate”, “Madonna or Kylie”. The former in both cases, obviously). If you are debt averse while your partner is a buy now, pay later type, or vice versa, then you have a potentially big source of future conflict on your hands. Couples argue about money more than anything else and, however eye-rollingly quirky, inconsequential and even romantic their excessive spending habits seem in the beginning, I guarantee that when the scales fall away, they will make you feel nervous, financially insecure and resentful.
2 What are your energy levels?
There’s a great deal to be said for one of you having the impetus and motivation to wrench you both off the sofa and into the weekend, but a dramatic mismatch – in which they need a packed schedule of activities and you need to alternate Queer Eye and Drag Race with a Toblerone balanced on your boobs – will cause rot to set in, unless you’re both happy to spend lots of your free time apart.
3 What does paradise look like?
You need someone you can travel with, and the honeymoon is too late to discover you can’t. Long car journeys bring out the very best (games of “would you rather”, alternating driving/snoozing shifts) or absolute worst (flaming rows about forgotten luggage and wilfully ignored Sat Nav directions) in any couple. Holiday compatibility is extremely important (be suspicious of any man who forces you to ski, is my own advice), because there are few things more annoying than someone pestering you to visit monuments, memorials and water parks when your ideal state is burning through a Jacqueline Susann, half cut on rum. Tiresome for you, dejecting and frustrating for any partner paying out for the privilege of twitching their knees and twiddling their thumbs for a precious fortnight off work. The same goes for destinations. If someone likes alpine hiking while another likes frying on a beach, then you’re either going to have to make huge compromises (alternate years with good grace) or holiday separately with friends.
4 How much sex is enough?
The legendary scene in Annie Hall where a couple sits in separate analysts’ offices, on a split screen, discussing how often they have sex, best sums up the corrosive issue of mismatched libido. “Hardly ever – maybe three times a week,” he complains. “Constantly. I’d say three times a week,” she groans. At the risk of damning myself publicly, three times a week is neither typical nor realistic in the long term. Sex ebbs and flows. In all likelihood, there will be the joy of an unexplained purple patch where sex happens daily for a few weeks, drought periods where one or both partners are too knackered, stressed or physically inhibited to initiate it, bookended by long spells of “we can’t live without it so really must make time for it” relative harmony. But if one person’s default is banging while anothers is a boxset, then that disparity is likely to widen over time, and that’s not fair on either party. Choosing someone with a libido in the same neighbourhood as yours is setting yourself up for success.
Do you have bigger ambitions for your partner than they have for themselves, and will you be embarrassed and frustrated if they’re purely content with a middling career and a nice sit down?
5 What time is bedtime?
Are you up and showered when clubbers are finally falling into their pits? Or are you watching films until all hours and sleeping it off the next day? Whether you’re a morning or night person, choosing a diametrically opposed partner can be problematic. If you’re content to share a bed for only a few hours a night, then great. But if you’ll be intolerant of his barely staying awake through Eastenders or furiously opening curtains at 10am like the mother of a teenager, then ask yourself if your body clocks are actually a ticking time bomb.
6 Does “family” mean you or everyone?
A great deal of importance is placed on agreeing plans for future children before committing to marriage (and it’s certainly vital), but people rarely stop to think about the wider family and whether people want to marry them, too. One man I know comes home most days from work to find his very nice mother-in-law’s car parked in the drive and her seated at the kitchen table, drinking his tea and chatting to his wife. This drives him almost as mad as it would me, while she’s never known anything else. Trust me, these things can become huge. Ditto holidaying with your in-laws, visiting for every Sunday lunch, handing over front-door keys to extended family, having them proffer an opinion on everything from where you should bank to what you should call your firstborn. What’s normal, happy and healthy for one person can be an intolerable invasion of privacy for another. There’s no right or wrong, no legislating for background and family. But it can be very hard to undo, even unfair to try to tinker with, an intensely close relationship between someone and their parents. Make it crystal clear what you can and can’t handle before marrying into the mob.
People who believe your interests must be the same are plain greedy – it’s hard enough finding a good mate without making their acceptance conditional on a love of Philip Pullman and salsa. All that really matters is whether you’re OK with how important those interests are to your partner. If football means he’s gone every Saturday for a match and every Sunday for training, and he has no intention of scaling back, then that’s hardly a straight swap for your thrice yearly attendance at comedy gigs. On the other hand, their occasional weekend spent orienteering while you batch-cook a freezer full of curry is a gift from the relationship gods.
It takes if not a village to build a career, then at least a couple. It is completely manageable, occasionally even preferable, if one partner is way more ambitious than the other. Someone invariably needs to be able to take their foot off the gas and put on a whites wash, while the other is focused on world domination. But, the true and critical question, as I’ve learned to my cost, is are you OK with your partner’s level of aspiration? If their ambition results in success, will you be proud, or might you be jealous? Will you resent the time they spend on their career when you’d like to clock off at 5pm and talk about the state of your basil plant? Or do you have bigger ambitions for your partner than they have for themselves, and will you be embarrassed and frustrated if they’re purely content with a middling career and a nice sit down? These questions are pivotal to the success of both your marriage and your respective careers. Don’t just wait to see how it goes.
I am convinced someone’s relationship with silence can be a success or failure indicator in their relationship with you. If you feel sitting in silence signals a problem that needs to be talked through, or suggests that a human connection is faulty, then finding someone who feels similarly can save everyone’s time and feelings. Likewise, if sitting in companionable silence is a state of grace for you, then you’d do well to choose someone who doesn’t need the affirmation of constant human contact and conversation. That said, for much of my non-working life I am essentially mute, while my husband is the noisiest person I’ve ever met – singing, relentlessly talking to himself, the dog, the radio and me, but the crucial point here is that he doesn’t mind in the slightest that I simply ignore him for at least 90% of the time. If he took it personally or I didn’t tolerate it, we’d have a big problem. The key question, as ever, is not “are we the same?”, but “Can I spend the rest of my life contractually bound to our differences?”