Real living: The beginning of the end

Why endure a divorce after decades together? Hester Lacey talks to one woman who has no regrets
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Last week, the former president of South Africa, FW de Klerk, was granted a divorce from his wife of 39 years. Why wait decades to end an unsatisfactory relationship? Is it possible to start again? Below, Irma Kennedy, 69, describes her own separation, which took place after 30 years of marriage...

I had been married 30 years when I separated from my husband in 1992. The reasons for splitting up after such a long time are complex. I come from a very strongly Catholic family and I married someone from a very strongly Catholic family. I grew up in an environment that was in many ways essentially happy and healthy, but I can see now that it was very rigid about behaviour, sexuality, marriage - life in general. As a little girl I was taught that marriage was a sacrament, a commitment for life, and through my adolescence and young adulthood I never questioned that.

When I married, I was in my early thirties. I was a professional woman, I'd been to university and I was a qualified teacher and lecturer. I married this nice, simple guy and I had very strong ideals about marriage. I realised very early on that it was a disaster. I was very proud - young people often are - and I didn't want anyone to know I'd made a mistake. It may sound dramatic but I felt as though my heart had been broken and, after that, nothing mattered. We'd had a lovely daughter and I tried to conceal from her that there was any unhappiness in the relationship.

Then the feminist movement came along and I started to read new books and talk to other women, wonderful women, normal, ordinary women - most of my friends up to then had been Catholic and I'd moved in such small circles that I couldn't believe non-Catholics could be so nice. It was a slow metamorphosis for me. But I finally began to believe that I deserved better. I was intelligent, articulate. But I was so bound and hamstrung; it takes ages to move from such an entrenched social environment, discover yourself, and work out what you as a human being could expect when you'd never thought you were entitled to much.

When I decided to leave my husband, he had said he thought we should get a smaller home. I told him that if we sold our home I wanted my own house and he could have a house of his own. He said we should go for counselling, which made me snort; I'd been dragging him there, kicking and screaming, for years. We went, but it was evident there was no hope; I sorted out the financial side and divided up the furniture. It was a pretty lonely old thing. If you decide late in life that as a human being you are loveable, you deserve happiness, and you decide to try to change things, people think you are very odd indeed. I had to exercise great courage. I found I was a person, I was unique, I had some great friends and I was entitled to some happiness. It took ages, but the freedom and liberation I've experienced are indescribable.

Do I regret not doing it earlier? I don't let myself think about that. I never say "if only". I've learned to look back and realise there were some good bits, I made good friends and that helped to keep me human. My friends counterbalanced my husband's negativity - his non-cooperation, his not caring.

After the separation in 1993, I bought a little house and a car, and I found teaching work - I have to work hard. I can't afford to get all gloomy about having no money to do this or that. I've always loved travelling. When I was married, I saved enough money to go on long trips, and it did a great deal to loosen up my self-confidence, self-knowledge and self-belief - the tight band I always had around my head went away. Since the separation, I've managed to save enough to travel all round the world. It's part of recovering from the grief at separation - any separation is always accompanied by a deep sense of loss.

I'll be 70 in a couple of months, though I don't feel it. I'm hoping to keep my physical fitness for a bit longer. I don't worry about being lonely - in fact I need my solitude. I've got a student who lives in my house - initially the arrangement was a source of income but now I know her well, she's a friend and I've stayed with her family in Japan. My social life is quiet, I don't have many male friends. I would like a male companion but I think I might have to do without that.

I feel privileged and fortunate. I've had guts and courage to do what I've done - that's not being conceited, that's how it is. I'm still working very hard at life.

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