This year? I’ve learned I was wrong’
On December 22 last year, my husband told me our marriage was over. I think he had been intending to wait until after Christmas, but could no longer live a lie.
As he uttered the words, I felt a surreal moment of peace. The punch I’d been bracing myself for had finally been delivered. The plaster ripped clean off.
But only seconds later it hit me. A tidal wave of despair. Head-spinning, heart-wrenching, stomach-curdling, knee-buckling desperation. All clichés. All true. We had been together for more than two decades, married for 15 years. We had got together at university and shared two teenage children, all our friends and every formative adult experience.
At our wedding, we had that quote from Captain Corelli’s Mandolin that talked of our roots being ‘so entwined together it is inconceivable you should ever part’. I couldn’t imagine I would survive them being severed.
Even though things had not been right for a while, I was desperate to keep the only life and love I had ever known. To keep the family together. I followed him around the house, begging and pleading. He looked at me coldly. His mind was made up.
The children, who were next door watching TV, bathed in the twinkling light of the tree, were oblivious to the enormity of the words being spoken in the kitchen. Oblivious to how their lives were about to change for ever.
The timing compounded my heartache. Three days before Christmas? When the Western world is flooded with images of perfect families and messages of love and peace and unity? It only served to amplify my pain. It felt unreal. Nightmarish.
And now, a year on, it’s Christmas again. The same songs playing on the radio. The cards once again dropping through the letterbox with news of little Lucy’s flute achievements or Auntie’s cruise. It makes me reflect on how far I have travelled, how many torturous lows and exhilarating highs I have experienced.
This time last year I couldn’t conceive of a future without my husband by my side. Now I can see that it can be a better one.
I’ve learnt that I don’t need a man to survive and thrive. I’ve learnt the power of human spirit to keep going when you feel as though you’ve lost your mind and your heart has been ripped out and trampled on.
Certainly, last December 22 I couldn’t imagine my career would be flourishing, that the household would be (mostly) calm and happy. That I would be on the precipice of a new relationship.
Then, my priority was just getting through the festive season. It was surreal. I may have felt broken, destroyed, decimated, but presents still needed to be bought and wrapped, nativity plays attended, children fed, and washing done. Christmas stops for no one and nothing.
My husband wanted us to host a fake Christmas — for the family and his parents — but I told him I couldn’t do it. He said I was selfish.
On the 23rd, I put my two kids, my mum (who lives in the annexe next door) and the half-wrapped presents in the car and drove to my cousin’s. My husband stood on the drive as we left. As we drove away, the car was heavy with grief, filled with the sound of low, heartbreaking sobs.
It was a five-hour journey, and we stopped for a break just outside Bristol, at a John Lewis. The Christmas tunes were playing, the lights twinkling, the staff smiling despite their obvious exhaustion.
As I say: surreal. Incomprehensible. I survived by calling my friends. Their soothing words temporarily dulled the pain just a little.
The day itself was made bearable by the kindness of my cousin, Pete, and his family. And there were some genuine moments of joy. Finding my daughter curled up asleep with their Labrador, watching my son polish off his twelfth bacon-wrapped sausage, when I won the family planking competition (to see who can hold the stomach exercise pose the longest).
But January was harder; beyond bleak. My husband moved out. Packed a few suitcases and walked down the garden path. He left without a forwarding address and seemingly without a backward glance.
No matter how I was feeling, though, it was important my children maintained their relationship with their dad. The next day, my editor — I’m a freelance writer — called to say my most lucrative job was over.
Every year there are headlines about ‘divorce day’. This is the first Monday in January, the day when lawyers are inundated with requests from miserable spouses. Apparently there were 40,500 online searches for ‘divorce’ last January, more than 25 per cent higher than any other time.
I couldn’t believe I was set to add to those statistics. To become a single mother. As my mother had been to me. She was full of love, and gave me her unwavering support, but I had always craved a secure family unit of four. Now my kids wouldn’t have that and it broke my heart.
February started little better. It was a case of crawling through each hour, each day, until a sleeping pill at bedtime would buy me some peace. My brain tortured me with the same thoughts on repeat. Had I not been kind enough? Supportive enough? Sexy enough? Pretty enough? Was I not enough?
I, who had always been strong and feisty, had become so weakened by the last six months of marriage that I questioned and berated myself constantly. Every day I woke drenched in sweat. My weight plummeted. I didn’t want to die, but I didn’t want to live either.
But even in my misery, the love and support of friends and family touched me deeply. It’s not hyperbole to say I don’t think I would have got through it without them. There were endless calls, food delivered to my door, messages and hugs. Others rallied round to help me find work. In late February my son, my daughter and I went to Abu Dhabi to see old friends, and the warmth of the sun and their welcome was balm for us all.
By March, there was a new calm in the house, a new normal. Which felt better. But worse. Part of me didn’t want the bruises to fade, the cuts to heal, because this would mean accepting the new status quo.
For Easter, we went to see my dad and his partner in Spain. It improved our spirits, if not our carbon footprint. I ran along San Sebastian’s promenade every day, forcing myself to be grateful for my children, my family, my life.
My dad urged me to detach — to sever my emotional bonds with the man whose life had been intertwined with mine for 26 years. He could see the unshakeable sadness that came from thinking of this man I knew so well in a strange side of town in a strange bed.
He was right. The distance and time away gave me some perspective. Shafts of spring sunshine finally filtered through to my soul.
As summer arrived, the sun emerged literally and metaphorically. I swam with friends in the Thames, and plunging into the cold water made me feel alive.
The sensation was compounded by the first flutterings of romantic interest. After writing about my heartbreak in a magazine, I’d had an overwhelming response. Thousands of direct messages on Instagram from women in similar situations. Just knowing I wasn’t alone helped me feel stronger. That there were funny, successful, beautiful, kind women who had been through the same.
Among the messages were some from men, who had seen my article and now knew I was single.
They included one from a photographer who seemed interesting, and sane, and cute.
It felt good to know I was attractive to other men. I wondered if it was like my daughter and her rabbits. When they went missing, presumed dead, she was consumed by grief. Until I bought her some new ones. Should I adopt the same approach and simply replace?
The books (and I read so many books) say you have to love yourself first before you look for another partner. But I didn’t want to wait too long. I wanted hugs and flirty texts and romantic dinners.
So I went on a date with the photographer. We kissed. It made me feel human. I went on a second date and ended up on the back of his Harley. He was fun, but young, so it went no further than three or four dates. But it didn’t put me off dating. In fact, the opposite. Although I decided not to tell my children.
It was around this time that I came across a quote: ‘When nothing is certain, everything is possible.’ For the first time I felt a glimmer of excitement about this new life.
And as the days got longer and hotter, I cried less and smiled more. The positives of a single life emerged. Watching your choice of TV, going to bed when you like, sleeping like a starfish.
One day I realised I’d stopped waking up with a feeling of dread. Slowly, I was doing as my dad had suggested: I was detaching. I cared less about what my husband was doing and with whom. Our conversations became more practical and less stacked with emotion.
Slowly I felt the need to call my friends less. That the children were surviving helped. They are fragile, but they keep growing, keep eating, keep needing me. They want me to be strong.
Then autumn arrived, and I started to see that a good relationship with my ex could only be beneficial. That animosity and bitterness would not serve anyone’s best interests, least of all our children’s.
On a friend’s advice, I saw a therapist. I talked about wanting my husband to face the reality of the pain he had caused. (She told me this might never happen).
I also talked about the fear of exposing myself emotionally to a new man. She helped me understand that my self-esteem should not hang on another person. Essential to remember in the ruthless world of dating.
And dating is something I am new to. In fact, as someone who married my university boyfriend, before this year I had been on zero proper dates ever. It’s a whole new world. Online! Liking? Messaging! I realise that dating is a bit like looking for a house in new area. There are always the initial few that look great, but no one seems to have snapped up and it’s hard to work out why. With men it’s the same. It only takes a few WhatsApps to know why they are still single.
Still, I met some interesting, smart, attractive men. Now there’s one in particular. Clever, thoughtful, sexy. With whom conversation is easy and the chemistry good.
The flutterings of desire, the excitement of kissing someone new, the deliciousness of possibility. It feels good — and terrifying. Perhaps, I think to myself, this is a gift. The chance to start a grown-up relationship with someone who gets me and I get them.
It’s still early days. I worry about how the children will take it — they have been through such upheaval already. I have resolved not to tell them anything until it feels more solid.
I know I am their lynchpin, the constant in their equation and a new relationship could easily feel destabilising to them. Meanwhile, they see their father every week.
At 18, when I got together with my ex, I craved safety in a relationship. But this year has taught me I don’t need a man to survive. It’s a bonus. And that is liberating.
Tougher is forcing myself to look inward. What did I do to contribute to this marriage breakdown and what can I do better in my next relationship? Easy to paint myself as the victim. Harder to assess my role in it. A year on, when the Christmas trees are back in every window, and the schmaltzy songs are on repeat, how do I feel?
I still feel bruised, I still have moments of abject sadness, but the difference now is that I know they will pass.
I worried last year that Christmas would be tainted for ever, but now I find myself looking forward to the day. We are going to another of my cousins and it will be full of family and laughter and dogs and tortoises and food. I think, but I don’t know, the kids will be distracted from any sadness by presents and board games.
Last weekend, I bought the tree and I wondered how I was going to get it from the car to the living room. I asked my son to help.
He wandered over to the boot, pulled it out then threw it over his shoulder and carried it in. Somehow, in the past year, without me really realising, he has become strong, and 6 ft-plus.
Life has a serendipitous way of making solutions appear when you need them.
It reinforced that we will be OK. It will all work out.
So now, a year on from that terrible day, I feel genuine hope, optimism and yes . . . happiness.