`I want to be alone'

A new love is no way to mend a broken heart, says ANNALISA BARBIERI - you need time by yourself

What a difference six months make" cooed the papers last week over Ali Cockayne, Will Carling's ex. Six months ago Carling left her for another woman and the pictures that showed her clutching their new baby, her face contorted with pain, touched everyone's hearts. Now, apparently, she has found happiness in the arms of another man - David Ross, the multi- millionaire founder of The Carphone Warehouse - and she's smiling again. Hurrah! Except, when I didn't think "hurrah!", I thought "too soon!" Too soon to be getting involved again.

In these cases even your best friends won't always tell you that you are rushing things. Even the best-meaning folk can reach sympathy saturation point after six months. They are so grateful for the change of topic from the lamenting and repetitive "Why? Why? Why?" that they throw themselves into the new relationship with you. No one questions it. Why should they? Spring has arrived after the horrid darkness of getting over someone - it would be churlish to say otherwise.

At least Cockayne, God bless her, has left a bit of time between one and t'other, unlike Johnny Depp whose relationships just seem to merge into one. I think he is Elizabeth I, making up for lost time - after her doomed affair with Sir Richard Dudley, Earl of Leicester, she went to the other extreme and never went near a man again. This is equally silly: one must strive for balance.

And yet there is such a thing as too soon and time spent alone between relationships is vitally precious. Not least to make absolutely sure you're not on the rebound. This is like being permanently drunk - you don't think straight, your actions are exaggerated. You can become a caricature and the people you attract are very different from those who would be drawn to you if you were "sober".

But surely rebound is preferable to moping round planning revenge? "Problems can occur if you get involved with someone else too quickly," warns psychotherapist and group analyst Gabrielle Rifkind. "You often take the difficulties of the old relationship into the new one because you don't take the time to digest it and work out what went wrong. And you need to understand what went wrong so you don't recreate it."

Rifkind also points out that not taking the time to "digest things" can lead to decisions based on knee-jerk reactions - going for the exact opposite type of partner is classic rebound behaviour. "I'd been with Philip for four years," says Georgia Mahy, 36, "and he had no ambition, no money, couldn't drive and he smoked loads of pot. Because things didn't work out with him, I went for the next guy I met who was the yin to his yang. It was like I was ticking off a list that actually had nothing to do with what I needed, it was just what Philip wasn't. Rick was successful, earned lots of money, had a flash car and hated drugs. And despite hundreds of character defects I snapped him up."

The relationship lasted two months. "I was actually less well matched with Rick than I was with Phil," Mahy continues. "What frightens me now is that in the mad heat of it all, Rick asked me to marry him and I said yes. I was only saved from a fate worse than death because he then chucked me - he too was on the rebound but he came to his senses faster than me."

Launching yourself into another relationship without tidying yourself up a bit first is not only a fantastic display of bad manners, it can also break hearts. I too was once at the receiving end of a rebounder. He was straight out of a relationship. Not knowing any better - then - I thought asking pertinent questions would be enough. "Are you sure you're ready for this?" I asked. "Don't you need time on your own?" "Yes," he answered to the first and "no" to the second. Because (I can see it so clearly now) he was so desperate to avoid thinking about his ex and why it had gone wrong, he drove into our relationship at full speed and swept me off my feet. Proclamations of undying love and marriage followed. Luckily I resisted his attempts to run up the aisle, although I fell for him heavily. Six weeks later he finished with me saying he "wasn't ready for a full- time relationship".

For him I had been an Elastoplast when what he really needed was to go into neck-to-toe plaster, with traction, for at least six months, followed by a protracted course of physiotherapy. Although the fallout from that relationship was excruciatingly painful I remember sitting through every awful minute, determined not to heal the wound with the quick-fix solution I had been to him. Some months later, and after a 48-hour acquaintance, he left his job, his family and his life in England to set up home with an Australian woman he had met at a wedding. Her name was Tracy, his surname was Essex. There is a God. (Readers fret not about me, this was many years ago and I have blossomed ever since and now have a lovely boy who waited three years, after a seven-year relationship, before getting involved again. Which I think shows respect to me and his ex.)

Luckily for my boyfriends, I learnt to be happy alone early on, refusing to have anything to do with boys until I was 22. So when at any point after that I found myself sans boyfriend, it was not such an alien state. This skill was one of the most useful things my mother ever taught me. "If you canna be on your owna, Annalisa," she said, "you canna do anything. If a man comes along, lovely! If not, it's not the end of the world." (She took her own advice, got married late for a southern Italian - aged 32 - and has been very happily married for 36 years.)

It was hideously lonely at times, but when a relationship came along it was a bonus, not a necessity. Being able to be on your own will eventually translate into an almost unshakeable inner strength. You will have the ability to take it or leave it, and that's very, very powerful. But getting through the racking pain of a relationship split and coming through the other side means not just avoiding other relationships. It means actively facing up to spending some time on your own.

"After Richard, I thought I was being on my own, but actually I wasn't. I went out all the time, drinking and partying, and I kept having affairs with unsuitable people which I told myself were part of reclaiming my independence because they weren't serious. But in retrospect it was all just a way to avoid being on my own," says Madelaine Heal, 35. "At some point you just have to confront it. Now I really am on my own and it's been transforming."

Heal's frenetic socialising is a common avoidance tactic. "After I split with Angela the silence was deafening," says Paul Denbow, 31. "I did anything to fill that space. When I wasn't working late I was having a one-night stand. The best thing I can compare it to is being drunk at a party and not being able to listen to one track all the way through - you can't be bothered with the boring bits, you just want the crescendo. So you keep changing the CD. When actually the crescendo is much better with the build-up of the boring bits."

So how do you know when you are ready for a new relationship? "When it's not created around panic and from fear of being alone," says Rifkind. "The key is to be two wholes but connected together." (Remember that wise saying: `When two people become one the only result can be two halves.') "I knew I was coming through the other side," says Heal, "when I stopped behaving out of character. When you start living the life you want to live, but on your own."

"For me," says Denbow, "I was forced to take stock, because I became temporarily impotent." Continuing his analogy, I guess his CD player broke.

Sadly, there are no short cuts to learning to be alone - its strength comes via the learning process. But it's worth it. As Georgia Mahy, who confesses she had spent "only the length of an episode of Coronation Street" on her own between the ages of 14 and 27, says: "I'm a completely different person now that I've learnt to be on my own. It was hell, like going cold turkey, but you have to do that learning curve." And, of course, it's only when you've learnt to be by yourself that you can really be with anyone else.

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