08.09.2006 Social News

Anatomy of a bitter divorce

Anatomy of a bitter divorce
LISTEN SEP 8, 2006

Lynne and Stephen Jones used to be proud of their middle-class lifestyle.

Lynne, an account manager, and Stephen, a B&Q store manager, had a lovely, three-bedroom, semi-detached home in Kent and two beautiful sons, Oliver, now five, and Harvey, seven.

But beneath the glossy surface, their marriage was falling apart. The couple spoke only to argue over finances and Lynne resented the long hours she spent working away from her children.

In February 2005, after nine years of marriage, she asked for a separation, hoping they could show their sons that mummy and daddy could divorce as friends.

But what started off as an amicable separation quickly descended into bitterness, with accusations of violence, child neglect and even kidnapping.

Indeed, it took 16 months to agree living arrangements for the boys, and, if the couple communicate now it is only by letter.

They are not even divorced yet, for Lynne won't sign papers stating she takes full responsibility for the breakdown of the marriage.

"We are both to blame, so I would rather wait for the two-year separation to come through and we can divorce on mutual terms," she says.

So far, it is, sadly, an all-too-familiar story of our times. But what makes the Jones's break-up so extraordinary is that they allowed it all to be captured by TV cameras.

So, how did a once happy relationship disintegrate into a war of recrimination and accusation, marred by selfishness, thoughtlessness and lack of communication?

When Lynne and Stephen met 12 years ago, they were young and carefree with high hopes for their future together.

Stephen, then 21, was an architecture student at Portsmouth University and came from a middle-class family in Kent. Lynne, originally from Edinburgh, was a 22-year-old sales manager for the computer firm IBM.

"I was out for a drink with a student friend at the university bar and spotted Stephen immediately - you could not miss his mane of long, dark hair," she says.

"We simply got on fantastically, laughing for hours on end. The first years of our relationship were filled with parties and barbecues.

"Stephen was the first boyfriend I'd ever imagined sharing my future.

"In fact, I was the one who proposed to him in 1996 - I called him from work and asked him straight out.

"It was quite a forward thing to do, but I've always been forthright, independent and fiery, and Stephen loved it.

"Even though the proposal was light-hearted, I took marriage seriously. Unlike Stephen, whose parents were still married, my parents had divorced when I was six and my mother went on to marry and divorce twice more.

"As a result, my childhood was unstable. I didn't enter into marriage assuming we could divorce if it got rough. After everything I'd been through, I wanted my marriage to work."

By the time they married, Lynne was working as a business development consultant at Zurich Financial Services and, thanks to her help, Stephen had a part-time job with the firm.

Because of bad health, she says he chose not to continue his architecture studies. When they weren't working, the couple went on trips to Paris, Sweden, Belgium and Africa.

"Looking back, I don't think I realised how resentful Stephen was of my career - I was earning a good salary and probably paying for the majority of our holidays abroad," says Lynne.

"He worked only part-time and was often tired and unwell. But to me, we were in a partnership and it didn't matter who earned the most. Now I realise he probably felt inadequate.

In 1999, Lynne gave birth to Harvey, and for a time all seemed well. Stephen relished his new role as a father and Lynne stepped off the career ladder to be a full-time mother.

"We were happy. I was no longer working and Stephen was the main provider. Money wasn't plentiful, but we gave Harvey a good life," she says.

But when their second son, Oliver, was born in 2001, the marriage was in trouble.

"Stephen just wasn't bringing in enough money to support the entire family, so five weeks after Oliver's birth, I went back to work. I got a job as a sales executive for a software company in London.

"It's depressing to think that decision probably sparked the decline of my marriage - all I wanted to do was help secure my family's future.

"But as we were living in Kent, I was commuting at least two hours a day to work, missing out on my children's development, while Stephen, who was working part-time, got to spend more quality time with them.

"Even though I was quickly promoted to account manager and my salary went up, I was miserable.

"I'd found it traumatic going back to work when Oliver was so young, and hated the number of hours I was away from the house.

"I was also resentful that Stephen was unable to support us on his own. We constantly argued about money.

"We no longer enjoyed each other's company and I became convinced we would be happier living apart.

"The split was my idea. It was scary, horrible and upsetting because I still had strong feelings for Stephen and we'd been together for nearly 11 years.

"But I wanted to go back to Edinburgh, where I had been brought up, start afresh and be happy again.

"While it was upsetting, we were determined to keep it friendly for the sake of the children. I didn't want to put them through what I'd witnessed with my own parents."

It was at this tentative stage that Lynne and Stephen - many would say foolishly - invited in the cameras.

"It was my idea," says Lynne. "I'd seen an advert about the show asking for couples in the middle of a separation who were willing to be filmed.

"At the time, Stephen seemed happy to go ahead. We were still talking on the phone a couple of times a week and we truly thought the separation was progressing well - we thought we could be the advert for a good divorce."

But, as Lynne admits, she'd failed to think about the effect her move back to Edinburgh would have on Stephen.

He had been the main carer for a year, but now his sons would be living nearly 500 miles from him.

"Looking back, I didn't realise how hard he would find it being so far away from his sons," says Lynne.

"At the time, I thought that if I was a happier person back in Edinburgh, the boys would benefit from a better home life. I needed the support of my friends and family.

"The boys did miss their dad, but I explained that while mummy and daddy didn't live together or love each other any more, we still loved them. I also said they would spend every holiday with their daddy."

Lynne claims the boys understood her explanation and were satisfied with their new life, but Stephen wasn't pacified as easily.

So, perhaps unsurprisingly, at the first signs of strain, their fragile set-up came crashing down - all captured in depressing detail on camera.

Things came to a head in November. Lynne had taken the boys on a week's break with her mother, but on the first night in a hotel, mother and daughter rowed and had a physical fight, lasting five minutes, in full view of Oliver and Harvey.

Both women were left with bruises to their arms and chest and Lynne's mother called Stephen to inform him of the incident.

Understandably, he was incensed and decided to report Lynne's behaviour to social services. He told them he was worried for the welfare of his children and concerned that she was an unfit mother.

"I'm incredibly ashamed of what happened," says Lynne. "My mother and I have a volatile relationship and I'm sorry the boys witnessed the fight.

"I was angry about my difficult childhood - I harbour a lot of resentment towards my mother. It all came to the fore because of the worry about my own divorce.

"My behaviour was wrong and I'm not proud of it, but I never expected Stephen to react so angrily."

A few weeks later, Lynne received a letter from social services announcing a home visit and assessment.

"I was destroyed when that letter arrived. I was, and am, a good mum to the boys. The letter stated Stephen had contacted social services and asked them to visit, but I hoped he could have spoken to me directly about his worries.

"At the time, he wasn't paying maintenance, so I was surprised he'd contacted social services."

All hopes of settling their children's future amicably had evaporated. Stephen began communicating only via letters because he didn't want to speak directly to Lynne, while she used the boys as a negotiating tool.

On camera, she threatened not to let Stephen see them if he doesn't pay maintenance.

Lynne maintains she would have allowed Stephen to see the boys in the end, but it makes for uncomfortable viewing as she repeats the threats in full hearing of Harvey.

"When I saw the footage, I was upset that I'd said those things in front of the boys, because they're old enough to understand and get confused.

"It was wrong to use the boys to get to Stephen,' she says.

The stand-off continued through January 2006, with Stephen continuing to withhold maintenance to the boys unless it was arranged through the Child Support Agency, and Lynne requesting him to put in writing the date and times for every visit from the boys.

In March, social services told Lynne they had decided not to take any further action.

"It was a massive relief and I really hoped Stephen would accept the decision and come round to an agreement over the boys' arrangements," she says.

"Through all of this, the boys still absolutely adored him - he's a wonderful father."

But, a few weeks later, as the Easter holidays approached, Stephen came to collect Oliver and Harvey for a scheduled visit and it quickly became clear to the documentary makers and Lynne that he had other plans.

"After a couple of days, I rang the boys to check if they were having a good time and Harvey told me that daddy had enrolled them in school.

"My stomach flipped because I realised Stephen wasn't planning to bring the boys back. I felt absolutely sick at the thought of losing my children.

"My first reaction was an anger I can't even express in words. It was as if he'd torn a limb from me and I wanted to explode.

"It was such a difficult time. I wanted to go to Kent, scoop them up and take them home with me, but I didn't want to sink to the same level as Stephen.

"His actions were already a blot on his copybook — especially as social services had said the children were perfectly safe with me.

"All this time, the cameras were with us. I got upset because it was a world away from the film about divorce I'd imagined showing Oliver and Harvey in the future.

"I spoke to the boys on the phone every night. I felt as if my heart was breaking, because Oliver was crying and telling me he wanted to come home.

"I managed to arrange a visit with the boys in May and they were totally changed - much more subdued and very confused.

"While I tried to reassure them I was doing my best to get them home, Stephen would say they were staying with him."

In May, Lynne was officially allowed to take the children home with her.

"I was over the moon, but the journey wasn't over. Stephen's actions may have been a little crazy, but for the sake of the boys I wanted to try to sort it quickly.

"We'd been fighting over the boys for 16 months and I was drained."

In a bitterly ironic final twist, Stephen and Lynne managed to agree on shared living arrangements which mirrored their very first plan: the boys would spend holidays with their father and term-time with their mother.

"Doing this show taught me that, despite all our good intentions, Stephen and I are human beings and highly flawed," says Lynne.

"I always wanted to keep the children's best interests at heart, but our emotions and bitterness got in the way. For a time we lost sight of who we cared for most: the boys.

"Divorce should never be taken lightly. If anything, my experiences can help other families going through this.

"Our marriage broke down because Stephen and I stopped communicating. This continued throughout the divorce and that's why it got out of control.

"We both made mistakes, but doing the show has helped me realise where I went wrong. If this can help others, then something good has come out of it.

"Stephen and I are no longer in contact. I'd like to write him a letter now the show is being broadcast and maybe one day we can be on speaking terms again.

"After all the fighting we've been through, I've realised life is for living and I'm determined to enjoy my new beginning.

"I do regret how bitter our battle became. I certainly wasn't innocent, but I wished Stephen and I could have sat down and discussed everything in person, rather than through letters.

"The boys seem happy and well-adjusted. I hope I've managed to minimise the damage."

But while Stephen and Lynne appear to have come out of the split relatively unharmed, only time will tell whether their young sons are similarly unaffected.

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