JESSICA'S STORY

My therapist says I was a masochist

Jessica, 45, was married to Sean, 46, for more than 20 years before he left her for a younger woman. She has two sons, aged 12 and 21.

THE DAY I met Sean, my first day of university, we got run over by a car, so we had this crisis that bonded us and from then on we were inseparable. He had enormous charisma and he became my best friend, my lover, my mother, everything - it never occurred to me that we wouldn't be together for the rest of our lives.

About three months after we married, he started to have affairs. As a musician, he used to travel with his band, and he'd met this amazing French model in Paris. He brought her home to meet me, I suppose to show her off, and he told me that he'd slept with her.

Oh yes, honesty was his thing - he'd say: 'I'll never lie, never deceive you,' and somehow the logic inherent in that was that it was therefore OK. And in a perverse way, I felt flattered - after all, that beautiful women wanted my husband, but he was mine and he adored me.

So there was this unconventional marriage unfolding, and the years rolled by. It was actually a good marriage, which seems, I know, perverse, but it really was. And although I landed up on valium, I always thought it was because my mother had died so young and because I felt rootless. I went to various therapists and they would all ask me, 'How's your marriage?' and I would say, 'Oh my marriage is absolutely fine.'

And I took the freedom to be unfaithful myself because, looking back, I was lonely. I had one affair for two years, which Sean encouraged, and he even asked the guy around for a meal. He'd say: 'Whatever's right for me is right for you,' and I went along with it. It was like, 'This is the way marriage should be, and isn't it sad that all those faithful, boring people out there are not really living their lives.'

All the time, sex with Sean was wonderful, the best I've ever had. And so it progressed, year after year, until it came to a head in 1990. We were working together on this big musical production, when he sent along a girl for me to interview as his potential personal assistant. In walked this articulate, bright young woman with a degree from Cambridge and I employed her. That was the first time he had ever deceived me, because he'd been sleeping with her. He had manipulated the whole thing, which was insulting and embarrassing. For nine months I worked with her, knowing she was sleeping with my husband, and they would go off for lunch. Suddenly became incredibly painful.

One day he rang me up from his office on the fourth floor - I was stuck down in the basement - and he said: 'I'm not coming home.'

I said: 'What do you mean?' and he said: 'I'm moving out.'

It's astonishing how somebody can end 24 years with one sentence. That night, he came home and packed and . . . it was totally bizarre . . . we made love. I was still mad about him, we were still in love, it was just that this woman had temporarily come between us. I had this sense of disbelief - that he actually did leave me, that he even wanted to - and I still feel it to this day.

For two years I walked round with a huge pain in my abdomen. It felt as though my mother had abandoned me, as acute as that. People said: 'How are you going to manage?' and I thought, I'm not, I'm going to die. But they meant about money - it didn't occur to me to think about practicalities. The first thing I did was to go into therapy, and the way that helped me was to say what a ghastly man, what a sadist he was, and how lucky I was to be rid of him. It was odd because although I was comforted by that, I didn't feel it to be true. I felt I understood him and that he had made this enormous emotional blunder.

Since he's left, I've realised what a dysfunctional marriage it really was, but I'm still not sure why I went along with it. My therapist says she has to work out why I was such a masochist. My children say the marriage was a farce, that this man couldn't have loved me, even though he kept telling me he did. It's made me lose trust that anyone could ever love me.

I've been out with other men since, but it's as though I'm emotionally dead. It feels like a bereavement, like he's died. I would have been happier if he had died, because then he wouldn't have chosen to leave me.

Five months ago, he went bankrupt, which means that all the maintenance money I used to get has dried up. So I've got to find a job and become a breadwinner. The money side has become a nightmare, but apparently he's on the dole and having a really bad time. Life's full of little ironies, isn't it?

GINA'S STORY

I always refused to believe he was gay

Gina, 34, was married for nine years before her husband left her for another man three years ago.

AFTER university, I went to a language school in Israel and there, walking into the dining-room, was the man I had always dreamt of: he was short, dark, fat and Jewish - the most beautiful male I had ever seen. So I sat down beside him, grabbed his fork and said: 'Can I use this, too?'.

Years later he would say that I came into his life like a bulldozer and knocked him flying. There we were - I, this blousy Londoner, sexually active since I was 13, and he, from a sheltered life in white South Africa - together in a strange land, and we spent five wonderful months getting stoned, having sex, laughing and talking.

One night we were lying in bed after sex and he said he had something to tell me. I can't remember the exact words - he didn't use the word 'gay' (this was 1981 and society wasn't that open yet) - but he told me he had slept with another man. When you're 22 and in love and you lie in bed looking at your lover (and I used to lie there thinking he'd been sent to save me), things like that don't really register.

We got married and went to live in Johannesburg, where he became a medical student. I held down two jobs and supported him through medical school and, although he became distant and I often felt lonely, I lived for the day when he would qualify as a doctor. Then I discovered he was having an affair with a married man. All through our marriage, there had been times when he'd said: 'I'm gay', but I refused to believe I couldn't convince him it was just a passing phase.

I fell pregnant for the third time, and again it was an unsuccessful pregnancy, but this time I had to have major tubal surgery. When I got out of hospital, I vomited the whole night and woke him up - my husband, the newly qualified doctor - and asked him to help me. He turned to me and said: 'What can I do about it?', and rolled over and went to sleep.

That's when it started to disintegrate: he stopped holding and caressing me, and sex became rare, purely about fucking, and I suppose I loved him least when we slept together. We came to London and he grew even more detached and awful things started to happen. I would find drawings he'd done of penetrative anal sex; one night I came in after he'd been to a club and found him masturbating in the lounge, frustrated about the men he'd seen.

He started working at a hospital in Sussex and would come home at weekends. One Saturday we met in central London and I asked him: 'How are you feeling about us?', and he said: 'It's over'.

I couldn't take it in. It was like being told that someone close to me had died. After 10 years, after supporting him through medical school, he said to me: 'You've got to get on with your own life', and then he got on his Tube and I got on mine. I don't remember much about that week, just that I spent it in my dressing-gown, crying, numb with shock and pain.

I found out later that he was having an affair with another man. I cried and kept declaring my love for him. I was so scared. There I was, 31 years old, with no car, no money, no friends, no job and now, no husband. I had nothing. There he was, starting off his wonderful career, ensconced in a new relationship.

Eventually I got a job and bought a flat in Hackney, but I still had no concept of myself as a woman. In my family, 'getting your man' was the pinnacle of achievement, and if you had a child, too, well, you had everything. I not only felt I had failed as a wife, but also I'd had three aborted pregnancies.

I would go into deep, dark, despairing holes where I just wanted to sleep and never wake up and in which I regularly contemplated suicide. I started resenting my parents because they were the only people preventing me from killing myself.

I've learnt a lot in the past three years, and it's probably positive, but learning about yourself doesn't necessarily make you happy. I do acting and drama therapy and I feel more complete, but also more self-obsessed and my ability to give has diminished.

I still wear his wedding ring. At first, I wore it because I was embarrassed to be seen without it. Now I wear it because it's part of my history, one of the scars I carry - like someone with a tattoo that says 'I love Andy', and years later they've moved on but that relationship has marked them for ever.

DEAN'S STORY

This bloke is sleeping in my bed]

Dean, 39, was married to Debby, 30, for nine years before she left him for her driving instructor last year.

WE MET at the local football club, where I used to run a youth team. She had four elder brothers and her football-mad mum treated her like one of the boys, which she hated, but from me she got love and affection and proof that she was a woman. In return, she gave me confidence in myself. She was young, in her teens, and although she decided then that she wanted to marry me, we waited a few years until I had a stable job. Sex was good - we'd do it twice a night, every night, try different things - and our relationship was strong. Two years later, we had a little boy called Dylan.

When Dylan was two, she went back to work. I would pick him up at the end of the day and prepare dinner and she'd come home tired and sit in front of the telly while I played with him, read to him and put him to bed. Later, she began going out regularly with friends from work, and gradually took less and less interest in Dylan and me.

Then she started driving lessons and suddenly seemed different altogether. The instructor used to leave notes for her saying 'Lesson cancelled - phone me', and they seemed unusually friendly. I started to suspect and eventually I confronted her.

She denied everything but by then she had sexually and emotionally quit the marriage, so I filed for divorce. She said: 'That's the best thing you've ever done for me.'

I said: 'Why's that?' and she said: 'Well, I am seeing Stanley.'

I said: 'In that case, I'm withdrawing my application.'

I wasn't going to make it easy for her. She smiled and said: 'You do that and I'll take Dylan away and you won't see him again.'

She was blackmailing me, but in the end, I gave way in return for reasonable access to Dylan. Then one morning I got a letter from the boyfriend saying I could see Dylan only once every three weeks. I went round to tell this bloke to stop interfering and we had an explosive stand-up argument. She - the ex - wouldn't speak to me after that, wouldn't even return my calls.

Whenever I saw Dylan, he looked neglected and dirty and so I applied for custody. But although Dylan's choice was to live with me, the welfare people say that a child is best with its mother.

The welfare people ask me why I keep calling her 'the ex', why I can't bring myself to mention her name. I've lost my car, my house, my son. And this bloke is living in my place, sleeping in my bed, living off my maintenance money while I lie on the settee in my parents' spare room, unable to sleep, without motivation to live.

I'm left with a gaping hole in my life and my work has deteriorated to the point at which I've had to leave. I go to a therapist, who is helping me to stand up for myself, to see where I'm being used by other people. I was in court this morning for GBH - the boyfriend was maltreating Dylan so I went round to sort things out. He took a swing at me, but I hit him first and fractured his nose.

I realised about six weeks after she filed for divorce that I didn't want to be apart, that it would be much better to sit down and work things out. But divorce is so easy and she had no will to work it out. I still feel bitter and angry and deceived, but after all she's done, if she knocked on the door, I'd have her back today.

CRAIG'S STORY

She went away with Nicola

Craig, 38, courted Anne, 32, for six years before marrying her. But she was always more interested in her female friends and within a year she demanded a divorce.

WE MET at a friend's wedding in Devon. I was 25 and introverted; she was 19 and naive with a lovely smile. Both of us were virgins. I adored her and spent most of my time with her, but right from the start, she had female friends she used to cling to. In particular there was Nicola, an old girlfriend who was the biology teacher from her former high school, and Anne clung to her in a way that was not entirely natural.

But when she sent me a Valentine's card suggesting she was keen to marry, I was touched and my suspicions allayed. So I booked a private room in a hotel and halfway through the meal, being the romantic that I am, I went down on one knee, offered her a ring and asked if she would be my wife.

We were both old-fashioned when it came to sex and had only started sleeping together just before the wedding. I was lustful but I had difficulty getting her worked up in any way, and she never really got turned on. She confided in me that only once, when she slid down a rope at school, had she felt any sexual excitement.

Despite the fact that she was always bone dry, our sex was excellent for me. But when she went to a family planning clinic for advice, they gave her a tube of lubricant and suggested that possibly she'd married the wrong bloke.

After a few months, with the summer hols looming, she asked to go away with Nicola. I felt that as newly weds we needed to spend time together, but she was clearly unhappy about that. She said: 'I'm always short of money, we don't hit it off and we have no sexual relationship to speak of - I want a divorce.'

I was shocked and asked her if there was somebody else, and although she said no, I didn't believe her. Once, when we were having a row about our sex life and I asked her straight out, 'Are you gay?', she looked at me and said: 'I don't know'.

To this day, I can only suspect, and for that matter, I don't know whether her friend is lesbian, either. But she had such strong feelings for her, beyond those of a best friend and beyond anything she ever felt for me. And irrespective of the facts, it felt like I was being left for another woman.

I asked her to reconsider, suggested marriage counselling, promised to be less lazy, to change, but she didn't want to know, and soon afterwards the divorce went through on the fabricated grounds of 'unreasonable behaviour'.

I moved out of the home and we split our assets, but I was miserable and at times almost suicidal. I'm not the type who makes friends easily, and after seven years together I had grown emotionally dependent on her. I wrote to her three times to tell her that I missed her, but all I got back was a very curt letter saying that it was time I made other friends. Her attitude was that she never wanted to see me again.

I went to see a marriage counsellor who said that I was very analytical and talked an awful lot. Obviously, I never went back. For five years, I was sad and morose and eaten up by bitterness towards this other woman. Then one day, the cloud of depression suddenly lifted. I still can't pinpoint why, but I suddenly felt happy to be single, free of pain . . . over her. In an odd way, though, I still love her, and if she ever needed me I'd be there like a shot.

All names have been changed.

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