REAL PEOPLE: The final countdown

Bill and Hillary's isn't the first roller-coaster marriage. But when should you call it a day? asks HESTER LACEY

It's all over now - or is it? Bill and Hillary make a good show of togetherness, despite reports that the end is nigh; Bruce and Demi sued a newspaper over reports that they were splitting just weeks before they did; Cindy and Richard spent pounds 20,000 on a newspaper advert to reassure the world that their marriage was rock solid - guess what happened two months later?

A few days ago an American minister preached a sermon on the "disciplines of love"; his theme was that love does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. Among the Washington congregation absorbing this cheery message were Bill and Hillary Clinton. Over the past few weeks there have been many gleeful reports of presidential marital schisms; screaming matches, lamps being hurled, bookings not just in separate rooms but in separate hotels, trips being cut short. But Bill and Hillary left the church together, she with a smile plastered firmly onto her face, he giving a thumbs-up signal.

Does this mean the Clintons have resolved their differences? Not necessarily. The two of them have taken on a number of engagements together to counter the persistent rumours that they are estranged, but it wouldn't be the first time that appearances have been kept up at all costs while a relationship flickers out behind the scenes. A relationship can be dead as the deadest of parrots but still be propped back on its perch. Take Charles and Diana: they carried on waving and smiling long after things were on the skids. It was years before photographs taken on official visits with the two of them glaring in opposite directions told a different story. And Paula Jones, the woman whose legal action against President Clinton triggered the Monica Lewinsky scandal, has just announcedthat she is splitting up with her husband, although they have publicly put on a show of commitment to each other throughout their time in the media spotlight.

Bruce Willis and Demi Moore also plastered a brave facade over a crumbling marriage. They announced their separation in June last year - just a few weeks after successfully suing an American tabloid, the Star, over allegations that their marriage was heading for the rocks. They had also strenuously denied claims by a former nanny that their relationship was breaking up. Willis had earlier told one interviewer, "I always know when there's a lull in the tabloid market because they come up with the Bruce-Willis- and-Demi-Moore-are-breaking-up story. It's happened once or twice a year since we got married. It's just gotten to be funny." Ha ha ha! The couple are are now negotiating their divorce.

Another pair who presented a united front were Richard Gere and Cindy Crawford, who, irritated by nasty stories about their marriage, spent pounds 20,000 on a full-page advertisement in the Times. It assured their fans that they were not only married but "very married" and that "reports of a divorce are totally false". "We take our commitment to each other very seriously," they told the world; two months later they had split up, though they managed to conceal this successfully for a further five months.

So how do you tell if a relationship that's on its knees is going to keel over completely or stagger back up again? After all, sometimes partnerships do crawl back from the brink of disaster. "We found it very difficult to adjust to being married," recalls Alison, 29. "After only a year my husband had a brief fling with someone else. I really thought that was it. We had dreadful screaming and shouting matches - I actually thumped him once." Four years on, though, Alison and her husband are still married. "Initially what kept us together was embarrassment. There was something about having to go to our parents, who had spent thousands on the wedding, and say, `Oops! Made a mistake!' that really discouraged us from throwing the towel in too quickly. And what would we have said to all our friends and family? I think we'd have felt too stupid admitting that we'd made such a bad mistake." Bound together by the pounds 500 cake, the pounds 2,000 dress and the pounds 10,000 reception, they settled their differences eventually. "In a way our terrible quarrels over the affair did clear the air," says Alison. "We are fine now. I can't imagine being without him."

Linda, 31, found that her friends were stunned when she split up from her boyfriend of eight years 18 months ago. Although things had been going wrong for a year, no one had realised they were on the verge of separating - they were seen as the perfect couple. "Everyone was really shattered when we broke up," she says. "We'd been together so long it was unthinkable we'd split up. I'd known things had changed for about a year. But both of us had this thing about loyalty - neither of us spoke to other people about it. You paper over the cracks. You know something is happening and you're very frightened. The strain of holding it all together was immense - it was a relief when I finally told a friend about it."

Fear, she says, prolonged the relationship. "You are scared to start again. You know you're going to have to go through such pain. You can be right on the brink and it's like being on the edge of a cliff - you feel sick, and you know you can avoid it by not jumping." But once the point of no return had been reached, the end was swift. "So much is buried in a relationship, and as soon as you unlock it, it all blows up." In the end, she says, it was a relief to come clean. "The year after we split up was painful, but the year before that was worse - I felt lonely and alienated and we were both living a lie."

Amanda, 36, feels bitter at having wasted time over a five-year relationship that didn't work out. "If I'm honest, I knew that I wasn't happy some time before we broke up. But I'm not getting any younger, I wanted a child, I felt I'd put the best years of my life into this relationship and I couldn't face starting again. I can't believe the Stepford Wife existence I had, inviting friends round, going on holiday, smiling and smiling and all the while thinking `I don't even like him any more'. In the end, the ultimate irony was that he met someone else and ended things between us - he thought I'd be shattered when he said he'd felt for ages things weren't right but in fact I knew it already. We'd both been putting up a false front."

Suzie Hayman, agony aunt and author of the Relate Guide to Second Families (Vermilion, pounds 9.99), warns against giving up on a relationship too soon. "Sometimes putting on a brave face is not unreasonable, because there is often hope, even a long way down the line," she says. "And the very worst thing you can do in a relationship is tell everyone that your partner is a rat and that everything is over between you - and then pull back from the brink. It's very hard then to face telling your family and friends that everything is fine." She recalls one couple who finally went for counselling when they were on the verge of splitting up. The woman had told her mother in great detail just what kind of a man her husband was. After counselling, she managed to forgive him - but her mother never did and never accepted him back into the family.

However, couples do try to paper over the cracks even when their relationship is truly as dead as can be. "When you have invested so much of yourself it's terribly hard to pull back," says Ms Hayman. "There is enormous loss of face, loss of self-confidence and self-esteem. Effectively you are having to say you got it wrong, and it's a blow having to admit that to other people." It is, she says, important not to write the whole relationship off as a disaster just because it ended badly. "A 20-year marriage that ends in misery could have been 19 years of a very good relationship. It's important to look back on the good bits, treasure them and cherish them. Accept that things that were good can end. Just because something has ended doesn't mean it was bad."

And, she adds, if someone close to you has just amazed you by telling you their rock-solid romance has just disintegrated, don't fall into the classic trap of saying "I'm not surprised! He/she was never good enough for you!" For one thing, it makes them look pretty stupid for sticking with the ratbag/sleazebum in the first place. "Even if the relationship is over, most people would like to feel it hadn't been a complete waste of time," says Ms Hayman, who recommends tailoring a response depending on how the newly single one is bearing up - this could be an endless supply of tissues or it could be a night or two on the town.

Despite last week's ostentatious display of togetherness, perhaps those close to the presidential pair had better take note ...

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