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    The good divorce, Harper’s Bazaar, November 2012

    Being left is hard. But so is doing the leaving. When I separated from my husband of 13 years to be with the man I’d been having an affair with, I weathered a storm of pain, anger, disapproval and disbelief. Hardest to bear was the reaction of my husband and my children, then 10 and 6 – the memory of my daughter’s wail when I told her the news still brings tears to my eyes.

    But the reaction of our close friends and wider circle had to be endured too. It was evident that many were appalled by the tsunami of misery I’d unleashed. Some, who felt their first loyalty was to my ex, I simply didn’t see anymore. Others, friends I’d known for years, were shocked and baffled by my decision. I was irresponsible, selfish, having a mid-life crisis, making a terrible mistake and worst of all, I’d betrayed the person who’d loved and trusted me. I’d bought the divorce meme to our social circle and other couples felt contaminated.

    So at 41 I shouldered the horrifying responsibility of divorcing my husband, traumatizing my children, leaving behind many of my friends and forging a sometimes difficult independent life with nothing but gut instinct to go on. Yet after three long painful years, I am confident that I did what I had to do to be an effective parent to my children and a loved and loving woman. And about that, I find that I feel neither guilt, nor shame, nor a sense of failure.

    Every year, according to the latest government figures, roughly one couple separates for every two that get married. Divorce is a fact of life, like death and taxes, and disapproving of it is as futile a gesture as instructing the tide not to turn. There is a very good reason why divorce should cause us anguish ― because we have badly hurt another human being (or been badly hurt ourselves). But our collective, obligatory hand-wringing and breast-beating is prompted by something else; the notion that divorce is an absolute evil, to be avoided at (almost) all costs; bad for children, bad for society, and even bad for us misguided divorcees, lightweights who lack the maturity to stay the marital course.

    Yet that conservative orthodoxy is now being challenged. For women of my generation life is just too short to settle for marriages of quiet desperation. Our extended life spans and professional and economic liberation have given us more than one chance at happiness with more than one ‘significant other’, and the freedom to choose who that other should be.

    The so-called ‘good divorce’ may be devilishly hard to achieve; but if you can secure it, this prize frees all parties, even the injured one, to start afresh. Finding ways to process divorce constructively and even positively, it seems to me, are now life skills as essential as the ability to parent. Divorce need no longer feel like social and sexual death, as it did for our mothers. Instead, it can be the opportunity for a fundamental re-examination of everything important in our lives, from work to friends to sex to our physical selves – and a chance to change them. Not so much a mid-life crisis, then, as a mid-life opportunity.

    As a society, we’re beginning to adjust to the new reality that divorce is now a ‘life stage’ much like marriage, motherhood and the menopause for one in three married women; in fact the divorce demographic now enjoys the dubious advantages of a brand new mini-industry, sprung up to cater for it. Smart London law firm Lloyd Platt recently caused outrage by promoting ‘divorce vouchers’ for legal advice as a ‘must-have’ Christmas gift, and inevitably, there is also a divorce app, devised by family lawyers to generate ‘informed discussions and better communication’. A new self-help book, Adele Theron’s The Naked Divorce, promises to help ex-husbands and wives ‘move on from’ divorce in just 21 days, with the help of ‘rapid results coaching programmes’, while imaginative department stores now run a ‘divorce gift list’ for those kitting out their newly single life.
    Most telling of all is the volume published in February of this year by arbiters of etiquette and good form Debrett’s. Written in association with fashionable divorce lawyers Mishcon de Reya, their Guide to Civilised Separation advises readers, to take a typical sample, that ‘Throwing your husband’s vintage wine collection down the loo or cutting his suits to shreds might seem like a therapeutic gesture when you’re in the throes of rage and despair, but it can rebound on you and undermine your case.’

    Such cultural ephemera signal a genuine shift in attitudes; towards the recognition that divorce is a modern ‘rite of passage’ that must be appropriately marked in order to be properly experienced. Hence the ‘divorce sales’ launched in LA last year by fashionista Jill Alexander to give divorcees an opportunity to dispose of wardrobes full of designer pieces. ‘People get rid of things for emotional as well as financial reasons,’ explained Alexander. ‘It’s really cathartic to clean out your closets.’ The ‘divorce party’ concept was pioneered by Christine Gallagher with her US website ‘It’s a way,’ says Gallagher, ‘to mark the end of the pain and suffering that comes with divorce, and provides the ritual we humans need to cope with any difficult life transition.’

    Some commentators regard all of this as the trivialization and by extension normalisation of a process that should be lengthy, difficult and hedged about with guilt and pain (agony aunt Virginia Ironside even compared a divorce party to ‘the celebration of a miscarriage’). Anything that sugarcoats the bitter pill of divorce, they argue, weakens the institution of marriage.  I don’t agree. Male strippers and balloons emblazoned with the words ‘Just Divorced’ may be crimes against good taste but they represent an attempt to salvage black humour from very grim circumstances. Besides, it doesn’t get much cooler than Jack White and Karen Elson’s divorce party invitation, inviting guests to celebrate ‘their upcoming divorce with a positive swing bang hum dinger’. To divorce without the bitterness that corrodes and destroys long after the marriage itself is over; it’s a revolutionary idea.

    If we’ve begun to feel a little more at ease with the idea of divorce, perhaps, says relationship expert Sally Brampton, it’s because we have a different understanding of how it affects our children. ‘I don’t believe anybody gets married with a casual attitude to divorce. We’re still as romantic and committed as ever; what’s changed is the idea of “staying together for the sake of the children”. There’s plenty of evidence that, while a happy marriage is the optimum environment in which to bring up children, a bad marriage is a much worse outcome for them than a good divorce.’ After all, research which shows poorer academic results and lower self-esteem for the children of divorced parents has no way of knowing how those same children would have fared if their parents had stayed unhappily married.

    ‘It’s not the event [of divorce] but how you manage it that makes the difference,’ says clinical psychologist Kathleen Cox. ‘It’s important to make the point that parents are still parents, even if they’re not partners.’ In the ‘hieararchy of desirability’, she says, ‘the worst scenario is a cold, frozen household where parents insist they never argue and are staying together for the children. Even blazing rows are better than that because at least then children get the content of the argument and can see it’s not to do with them.’ Preferable by far to the first scenario is a well-managed divorce.

    In addition, says Philip Hodson of the British Association of Counselling and Psychotherapy, ‘divorce is more culturally normal for children today. Some 55 per cent of all divorces involve children under 16, the majority under 10. This means that every week some 3,000 children assimilate to the “new culture”.’
    Writer, musician and psychoanalyst Anouchka Grose agrees. ‘I see a lot of people in my analytic work whose parents stayed in an unhappy marriage, and they hated it. A child who feels responsible for their parents’ unhappiness has to compensate somehow, by being very good, or ostentatiously happy themselves. It doesn’t work.’ Grose, now contentedly ‘living apart together’ with conceptual artist Martin Creed, has an 11-year-old daughter by her Argentinian ex-husband, from whom she separated 6 years ago after X years of marriage.
    She is now on very good terms with her ex, but explains, ‘The main thing that went wrong with the marriage was that we had totally mismatched ideas about alcohol, drugs and money. I fell into the role of being the main earner, and being against all the drugs and alcohol – so I kept feeling like his Mum, which was bad for sex, and also bad for my feelings about myself. I didn’t want to be cast as the boring, repressive one – I couldn’t stand to live my whole life in a role I felt totally alienated from. I felt like my marriage was turning me into someone I wasn’t, or didn’t want to be – and I’m very happy not to have to be that person any more. Also, I didn’t want set a bad example to my daughter by being very unhappy. So you could say I got divorced for the sake of my child…’

    Now, she continues, her ex-husband ‘actually has a much better relationship with Dot than he ever did when we were married. He was so keen to be a good dad to her that he learnt how to make her sandwiches, bath her, and put her to bed – things he would never have done before.’

    With twice as many wives as husbands petitioning for divorce, according to the ONS, it’s evident that women are in the driving seat when it comes to making decisions about the long-term sustainability of their relationships. And increasingly, we’re refusing to apologise for that. Sophie Hastings is a contributing editor to GQ and travels all over the world covering the contemporary art market for the British press. She split from art dealer Fred, the French father of her three children, now 13, 12 and 7, a year ago after 14 years of marriage. ‘It was a long slow burn towards divorce,’ she remembers. ‘Getting transplanted to the UK probably didn’t help his self-confidence – in France he’s hugely funny, but it doesn’t always translate here. Work was an issue, too; in Paris he had a guaranteed job in his old gallery, but the British art establishment is very hard to break into.

    ‘But between us, I don’t know, we just grew apart. When the kids are young you just get on with it, then later you stand back and think is this it? I realised nothing would change unless I changed things myself, and also that we wanted different things – he’s not as ambitious and social as me.’ Now, she says, ‘The knot of fury and regret and anger has gone. Fred and I are much nicer to each other than we ever were when we were married and he has blossomed because I’m not there to sort things out when they go wrong.’

    And necessity is the mother of reinvention. My own separation has prompted a wholesale reappraisal of my life and some fundamental changes, the most important of which was choosing to be with Sean, a man who makes me truly, deeply happy. Thanks to him I’ve rediscovered my love of live music and dancing, regaining some part of myself that got buried in my marriage (I’m thrilled to say I did Glasto for the first time in 2010). I’ve had the boob job I’d been promising myself since I was a teenager and in some ways feel physically younger at 44 than I did at 36 when, in mummy mode, I was subsumed by small children and domestic duties. I’ve also stopped drinking, facing a problem that had been steadily worsening for years. Regaining the time I’d previously spent numbing my growing despair with alcohol has made me not only a better mother but also a more creatively fulfilled adult (OK, the novel is on hold, but only because a bunch of other professional projects are keeping me busier and more fulfilled than I’ve been in years). In short, I am now fully adult, a woman in charge of her destiny, and I feel both competent and confident about my future.

    When the nightmare of separation is over, it’s not uncommon to experience this new lease of life (which may also explain the way divorce, all of a sudden rather an attractive proposition, can spread through a peer group lke wild fire). Writer, poet and socialite Amanda Eliasch divorced her ex-husband Johan Eliasch in 2007, after 21 years of marriage. She has spoken publicly about her post-natal depression (the couple have two teenage children) and long love affair with plastic surgeon Dr Jean-Louis Sebagh, both factors which contributed to the end of her marriage, but tells me ‘that her divorce ‘opened creativity that was closed by the confines of marriage and supposed duty to it. I wrote a play inspired by it, and have also produced two books of poetry and done an exhibition of neon artwork on the Seven Deadly Sins.’ Similarly, Sophie Hastings realized that the child psychotherapy training she’d embarked on during her marriage was really a means of processing her own conflicted feelings about her childhood and relationships. She has now returned to her first love, writing.

    And then of course there’s love, and sex. Many women of our parent’s generation who stayed in unhappy marriages until their children had left home no longer felt desirable at 50 plus. Lacking the financial wherewithal to leave, they also feared a lonely old age and chose the devil they knew. But in 2012, fifty simply isn’t old anymore, while social networking has made dating an entirely different proposition.

    The men we chose, with the best intentions, to be good and loving fathers to our children may not be ideal partners for life when they have grown up and left home; and as women in their forties, fifties and beyond are discovering, the young do not have the monopoly on passionate sexual attachments. What’s more, women who have children and don’t wish to have any more are in the liberating position of being able to choose a partner not because he exhibits signs of healthy DNA or reliability but just because he makes them feel wonderful.
    Tim Willis, editor the website for over fifties High50, puts it like this: ‘Our motto is that there are two acts to life, and there’s no reason why the second shouldn’t be better than the first.’

    If you are feeling bereft, abandoned or betrayed by your husband or wife, such talk of another chance at happiness may sound glib. (And celebrities aren’t exempt from those feelings of rejection and humiliation; when Russell Brand filed for divorce from Katy Perry, the singer reportedly begged him to consider couples counselling, but was refused). Charlotte Friedman is a former family law barrister who retrained as a psychotherapist and went on to set up a nationwide network of professionally run support groups (go to for more). ‘The stigma that was attached to divorce 20 years ago has gone,’ she says, ‘but that doesn’t mean it is any less devastating when you are left. However if you process your feelings in the right way, and begin to understand your grief and feelings of anger or abandonment, then you will come to see divorce not only as an end, but also as a new beginning.’

    ‘Moving on’ in this way is possible even if you did not instigate the divorce, says Friedman. ‘People often say, “I felt like I didn’t have a voice”. Yet there is also a tendency to idealise the marriage – “all our friends thought we were so happy together” and so on. Group therapy allows people to examine the relationship and decide that perhaps it wasn’t as perfect as they thought.’

    Canvassing old school friends for their opinion, I caught up with actress and writer Lucy Briers, who divorced her husband after 9 years of marriage when he had an affair with her best friend. As we talked I was struck by our contrasting situations, and also by the wisdom she seemed to have been able to bring to bear on hers.
    ‘It took me two years to recover from what had happened,’ she says. ‘But after the first year I began to realise that I had to leave behind the role of victim I’d adopted; partly because my friends were going to get bored sick of it, and partly because it was just too easy to pin all the blame on my bastard of an ex-husband. I had some heavy-duty therapy, and that helped me take responsibility for the part I’d played in the breakdown, and my view of relationships is now totally different. I find it bizarre that we shackle ourselves to someone for a lifetime when we change all the time.’

    Does she wish the affair had never happened and she’d stayed married?  ‘I can’t believe I’m saying this, but no. I’m a stronger and less naïve and more compassionate person as a result. It was awful and horrific and I wish he hadn’t done it in quite that way; but I don’t regret my marriage, and I don’t regret my divorce either.’

    My ex-husband now has a new partner and we are reopening more comfortable lines of communication about our children. Thanks to a strictly equitable financial settlement freeing up my investment in our marital home, I am now able to buy a house of my own. With help and support, my children are surviving and even thriving; and I am a little more in love every day with my partner Sean. So yes, I freely confess to feelings of relief and liberation as well as guilt about my affair, remorse about my ex’s suffering and anxiety about my children’s well-being.

    I don’t know yet if I’ve managed to achieve the ‘good divorce’ – it’s of necessity a work in progress. But of one thing I’m sure; it’s very possible for humans to find true and abiding love, a meeting of minds and bodies that miraculously bridges the gulf between man and woman, you and other. It’s just that not all of us are lucky enough to get it right first time round.

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