Even more tragic, however, were the expletive-laden texts read out in court between Huhne and his then teenage son, who now refuses to talk to his father, or see him. “Happy Christmas. Love you, Dad.” “Well I hate you, so f— off” reads a typical exchange.
According to Lloyd Platt, a huge number of divorcing spouses she counsels are initially hell-bent on vengeance. “Every practitioner has noticed that clients’ behaviour is getting worse. It’s always been bad, but over the past few years it’s become even more common. All those films such as The War of the Roses and The First Wives Club have made us think that it’s acceptable to behave insanely.”
Family lawyer Alex Carruthers agrees. “There is a lot of talk about judges becoming very stressed, that with legal aid for most divorce cases about to be stopped in April, the amount of anger they’re witnessing is really taking its toll on the judiciary.”
At his practice, Hughes Fowler Carruthers, partners have heard of clients dumping white paint over cars, shredding clothes, scattering possessions in the garden, and a wife arranging for the actress who had been having an affair with her husband to be served with divorce papers just before she went on stage in the West End. “It can be the people you’d least expect, the middle-class people who hold down respectable jobs, who can be very, very manipulative and nasty and display some really low cunning,” says Carruthers.
Last year, Kevin Fiore from Staffordshire sawed in two all the furniture in his former family home, labelling each half “Kev’s half” and “mine”. He was outdone, however, by Cambodian Moeun Sarim, who suspected his wife of an affair with a policeman. In 2008 he bisected the entire family home, removing the debris to his parents’ house and leaving his ex-wife’s half still standing, at the mercy of the elements.
But even this pales beside the exploits of American doctor Nicholas Bartha, who, in 2006, died from his injuries after he blew up his New York townhouse rather than hand it to his ex-wife. Then there’s the 2009 story of another US doctor who donated a kidney to his wife, thereby saving her life. When their marriage ended, Richard Batista demanded the return of his organ or $1.5 million (£950,000) in compensation, but his case was thrown out by a judge who ruled that organs were not marital assets.
Last year, an open-mouthed British public UK witnessed the unedifying case of Kavanagh versus Kavanagh: two lawyers who lost their £3 million home after spending five years and nearly £1 million bickering over their children and assets.
Recent research by Manchester law firm Pannone revealed that one in five divorce rows features custody disputes over items such as a packet of smoked salmon and a mustard jar, in each case invoking a lawyer’s bill that could probably have paid for the same item 100 times over.
“These cases sound funny, but the reality of someone being assailed with that degree of heartbreak is deeply sad,” says divorce lawyer Ayesha Vardag, managing director of Vardags Solicitors. She adds that the internet has given estranged spouses a whole new boxing ring.
“They get hold of their spouse’s online address book and send an email to all their contacts outlining what they’ve done; or they alter statuses on Facebook.” Husband and wife Kate Rothschild and Ben Goldsmith, scions of two of Britain’s wealthiest families, last year heaped humiliation on themselves by attacking each other on Twitter, with his calling her “appalling” and her responding that her new lover had “saved my life.”
Social media apart, Vardag’s experience is that men most commonly express their anger at marital breakdown through physical violence, or by withholding money – stopping credit cards and emptying bank accounts.
In contrast, women try to withhold contact with the children or damage the father’s relationship with them. “It happens again and again, but fortunately, the courts will not sanction any of this. I tell my clients that it’s much better not to be vindictive but to follow Ivana Trump’s maxim of, ‘Don’t get mad, get everything.’”
Lloyd Platt agrees that many clients are initially too angry to think logically. “So many people say: ‘I’m going to tell the Inland Revenue about his dodgy tax returns’, or ‘I’m going to tell the boss he had an affair with someone in the office’. I have to ask them to think things through.
“The Inland Revenue may accuse you of colluding, and you’ll end up involved in criminal proceedings. There could be tax penalties, interest, and it could wipe out everything you want to get. If you reveal his affair with the assistant director, he could lose his job and then you won’t get maintenance. I can usually persuade around 85 per cent of vengeful clients to step back, but the other 15 per cent get into all kinds of difficulties.”
Lady Sarah Graham-Moon became a poster girl for scorned wives when, in 1992, she cut up her philandering husband’s Savile Row suits and distributed the contents of his vintage wine cellar on neighbours’ doorsteps. But Moon’s actions distressed her children and ended all chances of a favourable settlement. “I ended up living in a basement flat in Swindon feeling completely wretched,” she said a decade later. “Being seen to be happy is the greatest revenge.”
Christopher Compston, a retired judge who has written a book on divorce, Breaking Up Without Cracking Up, is the child of divorced parents and has himself divorced and remarried. He agrees. “Lady Moon delighted the media and the public. She did about £30,000 worth of damage, I believe, and severely embarrassed her children. Years later, she conceded that wisdom had not been her friend at the time. The moral is be as angry and bitter as you like but don’t publicly harm your former partner. After all, the divorce itself is traumatic enough for the children, and they, not you, are the most important people in this tragic breakdown.
“I have been divorced and, over many years, both in court and outside court, have dealt with these problems. One of my favourite stories concerns a middle-aged vicar’s wife whose husband had run off with a younger woman. She was devastated. Furthermore, she lost her status and her home. Her reaction? When in great pain she would place a photograph of her husband on the sofa, collect every cushion in the house and then throw them at the photograph. She’d collect up the cushions, put the photograph away, and make a cup of tea! That’s the way to do it.”
Marriage therapist Andrew G Marshall, author of My Wife Doesn’t Love Me Any More, is another advocate for restraint, not only for financial reasons, but for the sake of any children.
“People think older children, such as the Huhnes’, won’t be hurt by divorce, but it’s just as painful, especially if your parents start confiding to you inappropriate things like ‘your mother didn’t have sex with me for six years’ or ‘you were an accident’. It makes you question your whole past and wonder if your childhood was a lie, which is incredibly upsetting and destabilising.”
Mary, 35, was shaken by her parents’ divorce when she was 26 (which included her father cutting down her mother’s pride and joy, the ancient wisteria that grew around the family home). “The divorce was the first time I became aware of my parents as people with distinct personalities, strengths and foibles rather than just Mum and Dad in bad ways as well as good. It was also the first time I felt I had to look after them rather than vice versa. The feeling of having lost the people who looked out for you, that your wellbeing was no longer the focus of their attention, was surprisingly painful.”
Marshall agrees that most rejected spouses entertain revenge fantasies. “But most people are sensible enough not to act them out. So when somebody else does, they have incredible resonance.” This, Pryce is discovering, to her and her children’s eternal cost.