13:12, July 25 141 0 theguardian.com

2018-07-25 13:12:05
The courts can’t make Tini Owens love her husband

If you stay in a marriage 40 years before deciding to leave, you might imagine nobody could accuse you of not having at least given it a go. If you have actually moved out to escape a loveless relationship, you might imagine a divorce would be fairly easy to obtain. Indeed, in the mythology of the burgeoning right, divorce and abortion are way too easy – they are even said to be available “on demand”. And the result of all this laxity is we are suffering societal breakdown. But neither of these things is true. Women need permission from two doctors for a termination, and anyone in a marriage needs permission from the courts to leave it. If we needed reminding of just how archaic our marriage laws are then we only have to consider the lamentable case of Tini Owens.

This woman has been refused a divorce by the supreme court. She is in her late 60s. Her husband Hugh Owens is in his 80s. Judges have essentially ruled that she must stay married to a man she wants to divorce.

We have new laws on coercive abuse within marriage, yet somehow, in 2018, a century after female suffrage was won, this is the conclusion that has “reluctantly” been reached by the supreme court.

Tini Owens says her marriage is wretched, the pair’s children are grown up, and she and her spouse have long slept in separate rooms. She has had an affair and moved out of the family home in 2015, and now she wants an official split. Her husband begs to differ. He says that as a married couple they have a few more good years “to enjoy”. What his definition of enjoyment is here is mind-boggling. His legal team’s argument is that his wife has failed to establish that the marriage has broken down irretrievably. Last year she was refused a divorce by a lower court, although she had explained that she felt “unloved, isolated and alone”, and cited her husband’s behaviour as grounds for divorce. Examples she gave included criticising her in public, treating her like a child and other strange kinds of humiliation, like making her pick up “bits of cardboard” in the garden. The judge said at the time that her husband’s behaviour was not unreasonable; he described his attitude instead as “old school”.

Old school, indeed. That is a euphemism and a half. Old school used to be said to mean beating your wife with a stick no wider than your thumb. The rule of thumb. There are no suggestions of violence in this case, but surely most of us would see the wife’s situation as intolerable, which is why she pursued it all the way to the supreme court.

Perhaps Owens wants his wife to stick around because he needs a carer in his old age, although as a millionaire he can surely afford to pay one. Perhaps he doesn’t want to share the fortune he and his wife built up together. Who can say what is going on the mind of this stubborn mushroom farmer?

Whatever it is, this woman is now locked in because her husband will not agree to the divorce. This is why no-fault divorces are necessary. One of the judges said that being in “a wretchedly unhappy marriage” was not grounds for divorce. The barrister Nigel Dyer QC, leading Hugh Owen’s legal team, raised concerns about the introduction of divorce “on demand”.

Seriously? This woman is a captive. Is she not allowed to leave? Who knows, she may want to remarry at some point. Would liberating her from this ridiculous man mean that perfectly happy people suddenly start filing for divorce? Everyone knows that minimising conflict in the divorce process is a humane move, especially when children are involved.

Sometimes marriages end with no fault, or equal fault on both sides, and the current system must recognise this. Nearly 20 years ago Tony Blair’s government was set to bring in no-fault divorce, abolishing the outdated requirement to cite such grounds as adultery for divorce. But ministers abandoned the plan because they were so terrified of the fundamentalists in Middle England and that great arbiter of morality, the Daily Mail.

I am not a fan of marriage, which is essentially about property and patriarchy, and little to do with love. That view, I know, may seem a little extreme these days, but then a case like that of the Owens reminds us that marriage is a contract that often works in favour of controlling men. Hugh Owens has “won” his case forcing his wife to stay married to him. A pyrrhic victory indeed. No judge will make this woman love this man. No judge should have the right to make her stay with him. Sometimes the law is an ass. And for women, it very often is. It may not be the lawful thing until we get marriage reform, but setting her free would surely be the humane thing.

Suzanne Moore is a Guardian columnist

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