Couples who were on the brink of divorce – and how they recovered

Rory McIlroy has recently called off his divorce proceedings from his wife Erica, saying he 'realised that our best future was as a family together'
Rory McIlroy has recently called off his divorce proceedings from his wife Erica, saying he 'realised that our best future was as a family together' - Sportsfile

At some point a rubicon was crossed and Rory McIlroy and his wife decided to call an end to their marriage. The Northern Irish golf star filed for divorce in May, the day after winning a PGA tour event, suggesting that the separation had been coming for some time.

But now the couple have “resolved their differences” and dismissed the petition. “Over the past weeks Erica and I [...] realised that our best future was as a family together,” McIlroy told The Guardian last night, adding that the couple can now “look forward to a new beginning”.

The McIlroys aren’t the first celebrity couple to un-divorce after announcing their split publicly, or even after beginning the legal process through the courts; other marriage boomerangers include Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta-Jones, Robin Wright and Sean Penn, and Elon Musk and Talulah Riley, who have married and divorced twice.

Tech giant Elon Musk and British actress Talulah Riley divorced for the second time in 2016
Tech giant Elon Musk and British actress Talulah Riley divorced for the second time in 2016 - WireImage

Rocky actor Sylvester Stallone and his wife Jennifer Flavin have also stepped back from the brink, calling off their divorce proceedings in September 2022. “There was a reawakening of what was more valuable than anything, which is my love for my family,” Stallone said at the time. “It takes precedence over my work and that was a hard lesson to learn.”

For couples who want to un-divorce, hard lessons such as these are a sign of emotional intelligence, says Susie Masterson, a therapist who specialises in relationship counselling. “In couples therapy, we refer to the ‘dragger and the dragee’,” Masterson says, “because one half of the couple always wants to be there more than the other.

“But often, it turns out that the ‘dragee’ becomes much more invested over time, when they stop blaming their partner for the problems in the relationship and start being willing to look inside themselves and be accountable for their own actions.

“Once that happens, I know that the couple has a really good chance of working things out if they decide they want to give it a go.”

Sean Penn and his wife Robin Penn planned on divorcing in 2007 but called it off, and only went through with it in 2009
Sean Penn and his wife Robin called off their initial plans for divorce four months after papers were submitted - AFP

Official figures suggest that ordinary couples, too, are un-divorcing, or are resolving to make a proper go of things – with or without the help of a therapist – before getting their lawyers involved.

Though there were some 80,000 divorces granted in England and Wales in 2022, this figure was down by almost a third on the previous year and marked the lowest number of legal separations since 1971.

Having now practised for four years, Masterson has seen many couples bring their relationship back from what looked like a point of no return, particularly over the course of Covid lockdowns.

These were “extraordinary events to live through,” Masterson says. “A lot of relationships were put under strain, but people [did not] have the practical freedom to separate, and I still see clients who are emerging from that and reorienting,” she explains.

“A lot of people were saying, ‘We were going to break up’, or, ‘We just thought, during the pandemic, that there was no way back and we were just coexisting.’ But now that things have gone back to normal they’re rethinking it.”

Though Stallone has described his marital U-turn as “a reawakening of what was more valuable than anything”, not all decisions are based on love. Friends of McIlroy have speculated that the golfer changed his mind after realising how much money he might have to pay out in legal fees. “Perhaps,” one told Mail Online, “the cold realisation of exactly how much the divorce could cost him hit hard.”

He has, after all, amassed a fortune of more than £200 million over his career. “It would have felt like a huge waste if millions ended up in the pockets of lawyers,” said the friend.

Rory McIlroy's career fortune stands at £200 million
Friends of McIlroy have speculated that the golfer, whose fortune stands at £200 million, changed his mind after realising how much money he might have to pay out in legal fees - AP

Cultural and familial expectations can also change a couple’s mind, says Masterson. “Other times, they feel that the pain of splitting would impact them more severely than the pain of staying together, and people just prefer to be in a couple for that companionship and don’t want to live a solo life,” the therapist adds.

In other instances, there are financial grievances that have been bothering one or both parties for years.

Divorce lawyer Jane Keir, of London firm Kingsley Napley, says that couples in this position might come to her for a post-nuptial agreement or “reconciliation contract”, as they are often now called. “The vast majority of couples who come to me seeking one of these do so because of financial problems,” she says.

“In the 30 years I’ve been practising, couples have been able to seek out a huge number of other means to reconcile – like marriage counsellors, divorce coaches and personal therapists – and that’s part of the reason divorce rates have gone down,” she explains, though she notes, too, that fewer couples are formally tying the knot.

The point of a reconciliation contract is to provide assurances to one or both parties that certain changes will be made, while, at the same time, prescribing in advance the financial terms of a split if the reconciliation fails. This can put the minds of both individuals at rest.

“For example, I saw one couple where both parties had married before, and the wife felt that the husband was spending enormous amounts on his first family while she was financially insecure,” says Keir. “He gave his eldest a deposit for a house and paid school fees for his two teenage children, while her name wasn’t even on the house that they lived in.

“They drew up a contract that he would transfer some funds to her and put the house in both their names, and that assurance was enough to bring them back together. As far as I know, they resolved their differences and remain happily married.”

Far from stoking conflict in order to extract the maximum fees possible from their devastated clients, as they are so often accused of doing, divorce lawyers prefer couples to settle their differences, adds Keir.

“Who knows what happened with the McIlroys,” she says, “but the headline is one of reconciliation, which any good divorce lawyer would see as a good outcome. We’d rather see couples come in and talk things through, and perhaps sort out a reconciliation contract or a will if needs be, whatever’s needed. We say, ‘It’s a serious decision and you should think it through’, and would never push.”

The McIlroys pictured in 2018
The McIlroys pictured in 2018, a year after their lavish wedding - AFP

Even if couples never see a lawyer, it’s important they “verbally contract” with each other, says Masterson. “In cases where couples are trying to bring themselves back together for largely practical reasons, it’s especially important that they communicate well.

“Couples in this position need to be really explicit about their commitments to each other in terms of how they divide childcare or domestic duties, just like they would if they were running a business together.

“Sometimes we will write up a non-binding contract that couples can take away and review and work on,” she adds. “Otherwise, I advise that couples should schedule meetings with each other in a neutral place outside the home, and check in on whether both feel that the other is upholding their obligations.”

But Masterson is keen to emphasise that many couples do come to her out of the love for each other that still remains “even when things have become difficult”. In these cases, a counsellor can provide some practical strategies.

Masterson, for example, suggests that couples “start writing things down or leaving themselves voice notes and making lists of the things that are important to them, as well as how they feel and the ways that they used to feel, bringing up both the good and the bad”.

“It’s important to have a vision of how you’d like the future to be,” Masterson adds. “After that, you can come back together and take turns to read out or play back those things, not as a two-way conversation but where one person speaks and the other listens, and then you swap.

“Then you can both reflect on what you’re thinking and feeling and truly listen to each other.”