The Language Of Divorce Proceedings – Why It Matters

Rachel Chisholm 23 April 2024

The Language Of Divorce Proceedings – Why It Matters

The author of this article argues that the terms used to describe divorce today often add to a sense of aggression and combat, rather than point to solutions.

The following article on divorce law, as it applies in England and Wales, is from Rachel Chisholm, barrister at 4PB. As regular readers will know, divorce law is a regular subject because significant accumulation of wealth can be put under strain and broken up when, for various reasons, marriages end messily. And while this news service deliberately avoids the salacious aspects of such cases, it wants to explore how cases are managed, new developments in law, arbitration and conduct by courts.

As always, the editors don’t necessarily endorse all views of guest writers. To respond, email

“It is blindingly obvious that the language we have been using is not appropriate and only goes to stoke the minds of those in a combative mindset, rather than direct them a different way,” president of the Family Division, Sir Andrew McFarlane.  

Divorce is a time of crisis. Separation stirs painful and complex emotions. For some, it may be easier to blame the other or focus on anger, rather than process their own feelings of loss, fear or guilt. Thinking and reasoning become very difficult in such a heightened state of emotion. Couples and families need the support of the professionals involved along their separation journey to reframe their approach into something more solution focused and less harmful (1).  
The far-reaching societal risks become clear when looking at the number of children impacted. Between April 2023 and April 2024, 86,419 children were the subject of court reports by welfare officers in court proceedings (2). Research is clear that the quality of interparental relationship, specifically communication and how parents relate to each other, is a primary influence on children’s long-term mental health and future life chances. Long-term parental conflict and acrimonious court proceedings negatively impact children’s behaviour and how they parent or relate to others as they grow up (3).  

Why choose your words carefully?
As Freud said, “words have magical powers. They can either bring you the greatest happiness or the deepest despair.” For separating families, words can bring adversity or they can bring co-operation and solution-focused thinking. The language of family separation shapes the mindsets of those involved and influences their actions and approach.   

The Family Solutions Group called for a re-framing of the language used for separation. Their 2022 report Language Matters (4) highlighted how “language for separating families has evolved out of an adversarial legal system: it is accusatory and divisive. It is also potentially harmful, increasing conflict through battle metaphors while parents compete for justice and control of their children.” (5)  

All those working with separating couples and families need to be aware of the impact of their use of language: “appropriate language is needed through every part of a family’s journey of separation: at the school gate, with their wider family and friends, in the media, on government websites, with support services and for those who engage with the legal system, throughout the legal process.” (6) The consensus being that there needs to be a shift from “parental rights, towards thriving childhoods following separation” and “away from adversity and battles, towards wellbeing.” (7).  

How to achieve that? 
The Family Solutions Group recommended using the “five Ps” (8): 

1.    Plain English; 
2.    Personal, using names rather than legal labels;
3.    Proportionate, language proportionate to the issues; 
4.    Problem-solving, using constructive problem-solving rather than battle language; 
5.    Positive futures, the emphasis not on past recriminations but on building positive futures. 

What can you say then?
The most common phrases to reframe when working with a client going through separation are: 

1. “Custody,” “access,” “residence”: these words are not used within the legal profession and suggest an outdated idea of control or possession. More appropriate language to use would be to refer to where the child lives and that they spend time with their parents;

2. “Parental rights,” “parental entitlement”: the focus needs to shift towards the responsibilities of the parent to a child and it being the child’s right to a safe relationship with both parents; 

3. “Primary carer”: the idea of a primary and secondary carer is outdated and suggests a hierarchy that does not exist. A more useful approach would be to use the language of cooperative parenting (9) or of family time spent together;

4. “Sides” “position” “opposition”: a more helpful reframing would be to use the language of perspectives (10) and interests; 

5. “Custody battle”: again, military or battle terminology is divisive; 

6. “Your ex,” “the husband” “the children”: using people’s names is important in humanising them and remembering that they are individuals with their own feelings and fears; 

7. “50/50” “equal care” “shared custody”: a more helpful approach would be to talk about cooperative parenting and thinking about what arrangements would best work for the children rather than thinking about the children as possessions to which the parents are entitled. 

Lastly, what does the language of separation have to do with wealth managers?
As wealth managers, you will undoubtedly have clients who are going through or have been through a separation. Your client relationship is based on trust and responsibility. Clients value your advice and your outlook. For some clients, they may not have had a good example of parenting or communication growing up. Change comes from all professionals modelling attitudes and approaches that foster respectful communication and a de-escalation of conflict.


1,  Of course, if there are risks of domestic abuse or abuse of children then appropriate professional support is needed for those affected and the appropriate language to be used in these scenarios is not the subject of this article.
2, Cafcass Our Data 
3, Family Solutions Group: ‘What about me? Reframing Support for Families following Parental Separation’ 2020
4, Family Solutions Group: ‘Language Matters A review of language for separating families’ 2022
5, Ibid
6, Ibid 
7, Ibid 
8, Ibid
9, Ibid
10, Ibid 

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