Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Divorced, I feel I need a man to complete me

It's hard getting used to not being part of a couple

I've recently woken up to a new world. Locked out of the one that I used to belong to, I've been banging on the door for membership to another that I didn't really want to join, but for which I have learnt to be grateful. It is the world of women. The women such as me whose husbands have thrown them off like old sweaters they no longer need for the unseasonably balmy climate where new love keeps them warm.

Eva, whose husband announced that he was gay after 25 years of marriage, bought a sports car and leather trousers and left her in a five-bedroom house with the rest of the jumble that they both spent their lives collecting. He gets the sex and she gets the pictures. One fiftysomething friend who divorced 15 years ago when she discovered her house-husband was having an affair with another mother at their child's school. A former colleague, who has been divorced for nearly 20 years and is married now to her job. Another, who has been looking after her ill sister for the past five years and whose long-term boyfriend began to stalk her, sending her abusive letters and ringing up to 20 times a night. Dee, recently and cruelly widowed and one of her friends, never married, while yet another, a fantastically bright academic, has never been able to find Mrs Right. On and on and on and on the list goes: the widows, the spinsters and the divorcées - the losers in love, the left behind and the never picked.

The news you usually hear from the other side is that life after marriage is freeing - and it is liberating to escape the numb desperation of a dead relationship. But people don't tell you about the disorientation you feel when you're suddenly single in the married world in which you have previously been quite comfortable - it's like having a phantom limb that you keep trying to walk on; your female friends become your crutches.

When the car breaks down we ring the AA, then each other. We offer sympathy and solace and encouragement and recipes. We cook meals and form book clubs and take long walks. We have learnt how to put up shelves. As families go on summer holidays we go on hers and hers breaks for yoga and painting full of other women exactly like us, with one token widower and a single gay man (who did not used to be married to Eva).

We accompany each other to gallery openings and exhi-fricking-bitions. We see plays together, whole tribes of us with our well-groomed hair, loose Shirin Guildesque clothes and quirky jewellery. We go to films, thinking that we're “naughty” when we eat a bag of popcorn, or have a cake with our genteel cup of tea in a cafĂ© afterwards to postpone going back to our family-less marital homes, which are always tidy.

But despite this overpopulated world of ever-diminishing oestrogen, and highly intelligent and interesting single women, life still feels empty. I hate going to exhibitions. I want to wear the leather trousers. I am not, frankly, that interested in the theatre and when I'm bad I plan to be really, really, spectacularly bad and for it to have absolutely nothing to do with the number of calories I've consumed.

But still, there I am. I always did rely on my women friends, but in the past they were mostly other wives. Eva before her husband swung the other way; Dee before her husband died; Nel, a DIY widow; Fran without Joe, who would be playing tennis; Angie without Andrew, who would be hiking in Wales; and Mary without Michael, who would be at work. In fact, it was a world of women with invisible men. But at weekends we would pair off. The dinner parties, the cinemas, the concerts when our names elided to NelandTom, AndrewandAngie, and we would sit round a table in our couples as if we were about to dance an eightsome reel, each linking arms with another for a round of conversation and then back to your partner for the skip home to bed, to talk about the evening with your spouse, to think, secretly, that no matter how nice Tom and Dick are, you're much happier to be coming home with your own Harry.

Now I'm the hanger-on at these parties - the lame duck. Just as I once, I admit, slightly beneficently, included my single friends in our family life, inviting them to Sunday lunch and children's parties - the plus one, poor thing, not all loved-up like lucky, lucky me. Now I'm the one invited along to the pity party. I'm the plus-one appended to other people's family holidays.

I listen to the suburban WAGs using that magic “we” word in every sentence and it's like having a nail banged into my heart every time I hear it. “We're off to France for the summer”; “We can't do Tuesday as we're having the builders in”; “We're going to our house in Sussex.”

And I think, I used to have a “we”. I used to be a plural, too. I still find myself saying sentences in which I tie myself to the ankle of another in the great threelegged race of marriage, then I stop and remember. My we's are all in the past - “We used to”; “We had”; “We were”.

The life of coupledom doesn't include me any more, but still it gushes on, two by two, while I am cut adrift. A girl in the office, effusively talking about her new husband and how much he wanted to marry her, “we, we, we, we, we” all the way home. I feel disenfranchised from this world, and it hurts. Yes, I know it's ridiculous. I have a good life. I may not have the brand-new love, but I have the good old home, I have the children for company, I have an interesting job, a career, a talent, a novel coming out, an education. I also have all those great friends in the world of women without whom I would have floundered.

So I don't need a man to complete me. Except that, actually, I sort of do.


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