When my marriage broke down, I laid the blame squarely at my husband’s door. After all, he was the one who walked away without leaving so much as a forwarding address.
Three years on, I realise the end of a relationship is more complex than that — and, ultimately, it’s not about blame.
(Admittedly, it took much reflection and vat-loads of medicinal rosé to reach this point.)
Yes, his behaviour was more reprehensible than mine, but my post-marriage journey of self-discovery led to some painful truths about myself (not least that I’m an ugly crier). I realised there was a whole host of things I could — and perhaps should — have done differently. I don’t know for certain if these changes could have saved our marriage but they would have given us more of a chance.
After I wrote about our break-up, I received pleas from many broken-hearted women, and men, for my advice. Less expected were the generous souls who contacted me, having been through their own devastating split, wanting to offer insight, counsel and hope.
Most had been treated badly, but only a few remained feather-spittingly furious. Instead, they were thoughtful, considered and able to see their own shortcomings as well as their ex’s. They were hungry for positivity, to learn how to nurture a relationship so their next one would be better.
Keen to find myself in a similarly sanguine state, I had a significant amount of therapy and became an almost obsessive reader of self-help books. And now my learning curve is your gain.
Why take nuptial advice from someone who couldn’t keep their own marriage alive? Just as alcoholics are best placed to help you put down that wine glass, a divorcee is best equipped to point out the pitfalls and patterns that could spell break-up.
That’s not to say I have regrets about the split: I’m happier now and in a new relationship with someone better suited to me. Both battle-scarred, my boyfriend and I are grateful to have been given a second shot at — yes, I’m going to say it — love. And I’m confident that what I’ve learned will give us a better chance.
So, with Valentine’s Day looming, I’m using my divorce to help save your marriage. Here are my love lessons . . .
Learn to say the unsayable
The more uncomfortable the issue, the more you need to raise it. My husband and I shared a bed, a bank account, two teenage children, a loathing of anchovies and quite often a toothbrush, but we shied away from sharing some of our biggest feelings and resentments.
There were things I didn’t say for fear of being too hurtful to him or too exposing of myself.
We had been together for 26 years — married for 15 — so, of course, we had collected grievances. I was frustrated with always taking the lion’s share of parenting, as well as his long working hours.
I hoped the problems would magically evaporate if I ignored them. Instead, they festered like splinters left under the skin.
And yes, this applies to sex, too. You might think your partner should just know what you like and need. But newsflash: they don’t. I should have told my husband I needed to feel sexy, loved, invested in and cared for — but I didn’t dare.
Ditto money. Maybe you hate that they spend too much. Or that they are too tight. Say it. But do it in a calm, controlled manner with zero blame. Even if the thought of the words coming out of your mouth makes you feel sick, just count to three and do it.
Be warned — just because you have finally found the courage doesn’t mean they are ready to hear it. They may react angrily in self-defence. Keep calm, give them space and hopefully your words will slowly sink in.
Don’t shut down sexually
When my husband and I first met, I was a hotpants-wearing, freewheeling fox with self-confidence in abundance. But somewhere between the birth of my second child and the Lehman Brothers crash of 2008, I started shutting down sexually.
The exhaustion of early motherhood plus two decades of familiarity meant I started closing off erogenous zones like an impoverished aristocrat might shut rooms in their stately home.
I stopped seeing myself as a sexual being and instead felt like the cook, cleaner and nursemaid.
Meanwhile, I saw my husband as driver, handyman, accountant. Our sex life lost spontaneity and intensity and I became prescriptive about when and where we did it.
It’s natural — domesticity seeps in and you lose sight of the person you were so attracted to. But it’s not inevitable. Now, I know it’s essential to remind yourselves why you liked each other in the first place.
Take yourself out of the domestic sphere. Date nights are a cliché but they work. If you can’t make it to a restaurant, eat à deux after the children have gone to sleep.
Go to bed early — together. Watch a romantic movie. Reminisce about old times.
I know it’s hard, and expensive, to get a babysitter or book that mini-break — or even just get to the cinema — but believe me, they’re all far cheaper than a divorce.
Stop striving, start living
I’m a grade-A striver. A worker bee. I’ve grafted to create a good life. I tend never to sit down, working or doing from dusk till dawn. If my ex ever wanted to chill in front of the TV or read the sports section, I’d task him with yet another project.
Like many people, we strived for a better house and financial security. We bought doer-upper houses and lived in half-finished rooms for years on end. The lack of downtime took its toll. I know so many relationships that have been decimated by a renovation. You end up with the perfect house — but the love leaves with the avocado en suite.
Similarly, I have friends who are so busy striving to accumulate a great fortune that they never actually get to enjoy the fruits of their labours.
So, public service announcement: don’t overstretch yourself. Do either of you really need the bigger house? Or the flashier car? Or the high-status job that means you’re so super-stressed you can’t sleep? Take time to enjoy what you have created together.
Maintain the mystery
When I was married I would dismiss those couples who kept bodily functions strictly private as prissy. I was all for openness in a relationship and for being your most basic self. Why? Because I saw that as being more real.
I proudly wore my tracksuit that gave me a bottom so big it needed its own postcode. I reserved make-up and dressing up for my work, not for my husband. I had underwear older than my white goods.
I believed it meant our love was authentic; shallow things like appearance no longer mattered. Busy with the daily grind, I told myself spending time and money on hair colour or gym membership was indulgent and vain.
But the very same person you’re trying to impress with your parsimony might well look past your downtrodden self — to someone else with honey highlights and a peachy posterior.
Now, I’m having a rethink. While polished perfection is not possible or desirable, maintaining a bit of mystery is essential for keeping the magic alive. So in my new relationship, I’m getting my nails done, locking the bathroom door and keeping my lingerie on point.
Try to put yourself first
My husband met an ambitious, independent and openly undomesticated young woman. Then life and children happened and I slipped into the role of chief cook and home-maker. I became a bit of (a lot of) a martyr to my family.
I thought I was being my best self by prioritising everyone else. I prepped nutritionally-balanced children’s lunchboxes when I was dog-tired. Work was to pay the bills, not to gladden the soul. Looking back, I lost part of myself. The part that loved my job, whose identity was bound up in it.
Because I was so exhausted, I stopped fighting for what I needed. And that made me resentful, which in turn created conflict between us.
Remember, you must be happy with yourself before you can make someone else happy. So book a night out with friends. Chase the work you love. Put yourself first sometimes.
Do sweat the small stuff
When a friend asked my ex what had made him so unhappy in our marriage, one reason he gave was that I didn’t want him to put matting on the flower beds in the garden. It seemed an unbelievably trivial reason to end a marriage.
But now I realise that he felt the weight of managing the garden —and I just dismissed it out of hand.
Equally, I felt many of my annoyances were minimised. Like, please God, don’t turn the thermostat to Arctic levels because being cold makes me miserable. And don’t eat all the children’s snacks for the next week in one sitting.
These are the little irritations that we do feel able to air, all the time, in fact, but which seem so silly they are often ignored. And they can become simmering sores over time.
If your husband hates your dishwasher stacking, then maybe try to respect his views. And he should respect yours.
In my relationship 2.0, I’m trying harder. Don’t judge me, but last week I used a cereal bowl for a dog bowl at my boyfriend’s house, which made him feel queasy. I won’t be doing that again.
Let them win (sometimes)
My ex and I endured five gut-wrenchingly hard marriage counselling sessions over the final few months, and the therapist, unsurprisingly, observed: ‘Your world views are different.’ We differed on parenting styles and attitudes to spending. I was softer; he was more authoritarian. I like holidays; he would happily stay at home.
But whatever the topic, I was so preoccupied with being right — and mostly believed I was — that it took me until the age of 45 to realise that other people’s opinions are just as valid as mine.
Our therapist offered a valuable reminder that the lens through which we each see the world is irrevocably shaped by our childhood, working environment and life experiences.
You don’t have to agree all the time. But you do need to allow your partner their views. Next time, before you shoot them down, take a breath and listen instead.
Make sure you demand more
My new boyfriend puts toothpaste on my toothbrush when I stay over and it brings me such joy. But in a long relationship, it’s easy to forget these little kindnesses or decide they are too much trouble.
Now, I’m much more appreciative of them than I ever was in my marriage. And better at acknowledging, and encouraging, them, openly saying how much they mean to me.
And, in turn, I’m upping the ante myself.
Because I was guilty of lavishing my friends, family and colleagues with attention, leaving only crumbs for my ex.
Now, I massage my boyfriend’s back — and, more prosaically, clean his coffee machine. Do the little, thoughtful things before it’s too late.