If anyone asks “What’s the closest you’ve come to death?” I answer with the medical emergency I had long ago: the blue light, the ambulance … but the real answer is the night my husband told me he didn’t love me any more. That felt like a death, at least. I had assumed that we were happy. It was a physical shock – I was reduced to gibbering and panic – and the striking, persuasive thing was that he didn’t care; he had stopped caring what I felt about anything: that was the point. He went off overseas the next morning on business, as planned, and I made arrangements to move out.
There would be crying for a long time, on and off, but for the first week there was weeping more or less without stopping. I did it while crossing the park with the dog and walking along the beach. I wailed my way about town and sobbed in checkout queues. I lost all social embarrassment.
Three and a half years later, I live in a rented flat 200 miles away and we are divorced. The last time we met was almost two years ago, at a family event. We asked each other how we were, like acquaintances with no conversation. He was wearing a jacket I’d bought him once, from the Boden sale, and looked smaller than I remembered. For some reason, I told him this, and he said: “Yes, I appear to be shrinking.”
He didn’t look too unhappy about it. I realised that I wasn’t going to say any of the one-liners that had queued up in my head ready for this moment, and which dealt saltily with the pain and chaos his decision had caused. Something about the day was too banal, and there was too much. I knew I wasn’t going to say anything personal to him ever again.
Besides, technically, I had already moved on by then, following the directive that, at some point, you have to get back out there. I wasn’t much interested in other men, but I made myself be interested; the one thing that seemed obvious, from my vantage point in the slough of despond was that only the distraction of another relationship was going to help me get out of it. The memory of being tracked at night across the sheet by someone intent on spooning in his sleep wasn’t fading: quite the opposite. It had become powerful and undermining. It wasn’t the prospect of being alone that was the problem. If I had been able to eradicate the sense of loss, if I had been able to reboot my brain and start afresh, I might have been happy to be alone. But I was constantly haunted.
If you work at home and don’t talk to strangers in pubs or do sport or belong to associations, and don’t have school-age children, it is very hard to meet new people. After a while it seemed obvious that online dating was the only way forward, though I wasn’t prepared for how much effort that would take. The process of being “on offer” was not only humiliating, but time-intensive. Soon, a significant chunk of every evening was taken up patrolling half-a-dozen dating websites, pruning my advertising copy and getting into conversation with people. Often they proved to be the wrong people, though the realisation could take a lot of effort and a lot of Skyping, trying to establish a friendship so as to minimise the sense of risk.
People on dating sites fall into two camps: the instant meeters, who say hello and want to have a drink on Friday and those who have been badly burned and need a long run-up (I fell into the second category). There are different rules there, inside the digital flirtation pool, and people behave in ways they never would otherwise. The discarding of people becomes commonplace because it can be seen as a throwaway culture of endlessly refreshing offers.
One high-achieving, emotionally literate, sane-seeming man sent two emails a day for a month, growing ever more sure I was the woman for him, before deciding he didn’t want to meet after all. Not meeting became the norm. Sometimes just before the date the confession emerged: his unusual fetish, his being a decade older than the profile suggested or the existence of a wife watching television in the next room, entirely oblivious. At other times it was simpler: he got off on the attention and was lonely, but not actually interested.
Somewhat dented, I gave up for a while but all attempts to meet someone in other ways failed. Partly this was to do with being middle-aged and out of shape. If I dropped a glove in winter in the street, there was never a man rushing to retrieve it, smitten and intent on taking me ice-skating.
Back in the online swamp, I began to give myself pep talks about the good-enough match. I began to operate in a kind of optimistic denial. It is easy to get into a situation in which he is keen and you are not very, or vice versa: a pragmatic clinging together of incompatibles, for just a little while, until too sad or bored to cling on any more. There are times in life when the sea is more attractive than the lifeboat.
‘There’s a lot of crap talked about the spark’. Photograph by Graham Turner fr the Guardian/posed by model
Unrequitedness was a big issue. Men who reminded me of my husband, the interesting, handsome ones to whom I wrote long, witty letters, naively expectant of my worth being obvious, were out of my reach, talking to younger women with smaller bottoms. Rows and rows of contestants, even of age 50-plus, specified that they would meet only females under 30 who were a maximum size 12. A man of 56 told me: “Plain fact is, you’re the wrong side of 40 and Rubenesque, which means you’ve got very little prestige.” He told me to go to the gym and give up carbs. A frequenter of the manosphere, an online subworld of male bloggers and commenters, used the manosphere acronym SMV (sexual market value) so as to inform me that I didn’t have much of it. It was all very disheartening and the end result was that I became grateful for crumbs of hope. In that situation, if someone nice crosses your path, genuinely single, not alarming-looking, someone you like on first sight, and the date goes well, and he’s keen to have a second: the day this happens is a magnificently lucky day.
It seemed less and less likely that it would happen. But then, a year ago, reading new listings on a website from which I was about to delete myself, I met a man called Eric, a very tall man (good), who lived alone (good) and who worked in IT (maybe not so good). I wasn’t sure, after the first date – nervously, he talked a lot about fibre optics – and that’s when lots of people give up, thinking that if there is no instant “spark”, there’s no point.
There’s a lot of crap talked about the spark. I can tell you from my own experience that sometimes it doesn’t emerge for quite a while. Sometimes, people are just slow to get to know.
Some of the most endearing things about Eric have only emerged over time. Besides knowing a lot about the stars and about science, he has a secret passion for romcoms, is a buyer of surprise flowers and tickets, is up for budget flights on winter weekends, and is the uncrowned prince of DIY.
It also turns out that he is the kindest man I have ever met. If I were to lock myself in the bathroom and howl like a wounded fox, as I did the night my ex made his announcement, Eric would be distraught. He would sit on the floor and talk to me through the door, and beg to be let in to comfort me. Kindness is too often under-rated.
What is also noticeable is the constant physical proximity when we are together: the snuggling, the wanting to have a point of contact when sitting – a shoulder, a knee – and the frequent glancing touches when we are cooking together; the fact that even when it’s cold, he’ll take one glove off in the street so that we can hold hands skin to skin.
Not that things are simple. He has his baggage and I have mine, the actual and metaphorical, though I’m learning to live with the shadow, the one cast by grief. At the start I spent a lot of time fighting it, convinced I couldn’t see anyone else until the shadow was gone. The truth is that it probably won’t disappear altogether. It wears slowly away, like other griefs, and the trick is to accept that and be happy. Sometimes, even now, the ex pops up in dreams. Sometimes we have a frank exchange and he finally sees things from my point of view: a search for closure, I suppose. Once, when he visited me in my sleep, he told me he had broken up with the other woman, and I was horrified to find myself begging him to come home. It isn’t something I’d do when awake, not now, but sometimes the subconscious hangs on to things the conscious mind has put to rest.
Now when I hear that people are to divorce I feel an acute pity. Separating is hard. When I was young and everything was black and white, I would see those articles about great life stressors and wonder about divorce being in the list next to bereavements and tumours. Even when you are happily married, the idea of separation is sometimes quite tempting. Your own flat and your own things; shopping and eating and travelling at will; a single’s social life again and blessed independence.
At ordinary low points in a relationship you might think: “Well, it will be sad and there will be tricky negotiations over property and books, but it will be OK.” The reality is somewhat different. What I hadn’t expected was how much divorce would undermine the past. The doubts can begin to breed and multiply. Did he really mean it when he said “I do”? When did his heart begin to sink in response to my affection? Were they really happy, those holidays marked by smiling photographs? I can drive myself mad trying to identify the turning point.
But most of the time I don’t obsess over these things. Most of the time I live my life forwards and can stop myself from looking back. Admittedly there are still bad, self-destructive days when everywhere I go, all I see is everything I’ve lost. Sometimes they are quite concrete things: I lost my house, for instance, and may never be able to afford one again. Other less tangible kinds of loss strike deeper, and quantifying them is a seductively bad habit. There are times, even now, when I beat myself up because suddenly it’s obvious that it must have been my fault. Superficially, we were happy: it wasn’t a bickering, obviously bad sort of a marriage and the end of it shocked everyone we knew, but the fact has to be faced that he was so miserable that he was driven into a corner, and turned his own life upside down in his desperation to be free. That’s the shadow that’s difficult to shift. But you have to live your life as forward-facing as you can. And you learn as you go; you learn so much.
I live my life differently now. I don’t know if I could live with someone again. I don’t assume that love will last, or look forward beyond the summer. Fundamentally, no matter what promises we make, the truth is that today is all we have.
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