Britain’s split with the EU may well trigger the different stages of grief. Just like a divorce.
The extent of bad feeling and division that has swept the country in the wake of the referendum vote for the UK to leave the EU by 51.9% to 48.1% has been startling. While the debate that led up to the vote was certainly bruising, the general mood of the country immediately following what, for many, was a shock result has been even uglier.
As a family lawyer, accustomed to dealing with relationship break-ups on a daily basis, the current situation and high level of emotion around it is clearly reminiscent of such a break-up, albeit on a much larger scale.
There are a number of parallels between the reactions of the public to the prospect of the UK leaving the EU and the reactions that one sees in clients going through the breakdown of their own relationships.
Most of us are familiar with the different stages of grief that arise around relationship breakdown. Shock (sometimes referred to as denial) is a classic early hallmark of grief and this has been clearly evident in the days following the result, particularly in areas such as London which were largely in favour of remaining in the EU.
Typically, the next stage would be one of fear and anxiety. One only had to read the papers over last weekend to see the prevailing mood become one of fear, particularly in relation to movements on the financial markets.
Another stage one might expect to see people go through is commonly referred to as searching or bargaining, typified by those involved seeking a compromise to avoid the full implications of what they see looming. The petition which over 3million people signed requesting a further referendum in an attempt to try to overturn the result of the first referendum would seem to be a clear example of this type of behaviour. Also, the desire to delay triggering the article 50 Lisbon Treaty process to start the formal process of leaving the EU for as long as possible seems to be another example of bargaining through attempting to postpone or avoid the implications of the UK’s exit.
When it comes to a struggling relationship, clients contemplating formally ending the marriage or partnership often experience feelings of ambivalence about the final decision.
Many clients who come to see family lawyers are not 100% sure at that point that they wish to go ahead with formally ending their relationship. Sometimes, clients will seek legal advice because they are angry with some behaviour of their spouse or partner, due to, for example, an affair and may feel torn between pressing on with dissolution of the relationship and actually wanting to save it.
It is not unusual for a person who, at one time was dead-set on proceeding with a divorce to later come to reassess their position and decide not to go ahead and a significant number of clients do decide to withdraw their application prior to Decree Absolute, even at very late stages. It’s not unheard of for couples to remarry following even the most acrimonious of divorces and, more commonly, former spouses can develop the closest of friendships following a break-up.
It is clear that some voters in the referendum have experienced similar feelings of ambivalence given the reports that some of those who voted ‘leave’ now have cause to regret their decision. This phenomenon of post-voting regret has been most widely reported in relation to ‘Leavers’ but also among some ‘Remainers’ and is indicative of the fact that feelings are rarely clear-cut when a relationship of any type ends.
Clearly, in relation to the UK’s exit from the EU, it would not be straightforward for the UK to row back from its decision, even if the majority of the population wanted to, and so this breakup will be ‘final’. However, much as with divorcing parents who have to find a way to work together despite their personal difficulties with each other, the UK and the EU will need to find a way to maintain cordial and constructive relations given that we remain a European country, sharing borders and will continue to trade with the EU.
The anger surrounding the referendum result and the sense of division between communities, age groups and regions has been palpable. Anger is of course another classic stage of grief, along with the desire to blame others. This is of course why a great many relationship breakdowns still become ‘nasty’ and subject to court proceedings despite the creation of more conciliatory methods of resolving disputes out of court, such as mediation, to counteract this.
Typically what follows anger is sadness and depression about what has been lost and it’s important that people use this time to reflect on such feelings and not to sweep such feelings under the carpet.
As a country, we will inevitably move towards acceptance as time goes on, one of the final stages of the grief process, when one integrates what has happened and it becomes just another fact of one’s existence, rather than being the overriding topic of conversation as it is now and will presumably remain in the coming weeks.
Typically, the final stage of grief is one of reinvestment and growth including reinvestment in new relationships. For those going through relationship breakdown this may include entering into a new relationship and/or developing new friendships, interests etc. For the UK, this will include the new prime minister, probably a new Labour leader and other seismic changes to the political landscape in the UK.
It will also include the development of new types of alliance with countries both within and outside the EU. As a country, we will no doubt assimilate these changes as time goes on. However, for now and probably until we have a clear plan for the way ahead, the general mood of instability and uncertainty looks set to continue.
Annmarie Carvalho is a solicitor and mediator at Farrer & Co