Women who won't take it any more

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The Independent Online
TWENTY years ago women were much less likely to try to end an unhappy marriage, even in the face of physical or emotional abuse, than they are today. Since the Seventies, the number of women petitioning their husbands for divorce has doubled, rising from 66,700 in 1970 to 135,400 in 1989. Women now instigate three-quarters of all divorces in England and Wales. What's more, almost all actions (most of which are on grounds of adultery or 'unreasonable behaviour') go through undefended. (All the women interviewed here have brought their cases uncontested.)

What are the reasons for the rise, which gives Britain the highest divorce rate in Europe - one in every 2.3 marriages? Derek Hill, head of counselling at Relate, says that 'although the kind of problems that go on within a marriage haven't changed one iota, the social context has changed completely. What's changed are the choices available to women.'

Renate Olins, director of the London Marriage Guidance Council, agrees. 'The explanation lies in the increasing confidence among women that they can run their own lives, and this is underpinned by their growing financial independence. The knowledge that women can support themselves if push comes to shove is very empowering. That doesn't mean that they are rushing to get divorced for petty reasons. It just means that women are not prepared to take the kind of nonsense they used to.'

Freedom, after 27 years of pain

Shirin, 61, born in India, is divorcing her English husband after 27 years of marriage on grounds of unreasonable behaviour. They

are both professional people, have two children and live in London.

We met in India. I was a popular, well-known professional with many connections and from a respectable family and he was exceedingly clever and handsome. Soon after we married, we came to England. We lived with his parents in the North for a year. I don't know what happened, but he became nasty and I lost a good friend and gained a bad husband.

He was very close to his mother, who despised me from the start. One night, while they were chatting and holding hands on the sofa (something he never did with me), I saw my baby son put something in his mouth. I squeezed his mouth open and found my late mother's diamond ring. I shouted at my husband: 'I thought you promised to put all my jewellery in the safe.'

His mother started screaming: 'How dare you speak to my son like that]' She started hitting me and - you won't believe this - but the father started hitting me, too, and then my husband joined in. All three of them. I lost a molar, my face was swollen and I had a black eye. I went to the doctor and he was shocked because my father-in-law was so highly respected in the community. That was the first of many times that my husband hit me.

One day, while shopping, I had to go to the ladies' room and he said he would wait outside, but when I came out he wasn't there. I waited and waited and then tried to get home, but I was new in the country and didn't know the way. Luckily, one of the bus drivers knew my in-laws and dropped me off, but my husband still wasn't there. Later, while my father-in-law thought I was sleeping, he telephoned my husband and said: 'She's back'. He had been to a party. He had just left me.

My husband treated me as a servant. I washed, ironed and cooked for him, but if he wasn't coming home, he never telephoned - he just wouldn't turn up. When he went abroad, he never called. 'I come and go as I want,' he said. When I asked where he'd be, he'd say: 'My secretary knows where to find me.' His blooming secretary knew where to find him, but his wife didn't.

When people invited us out, he would lie and tell them I was away. Everybody said what a charming man he was, but he had one face for the public and another for the home. Once, because of my former corporate contacts, we were invited by a leading London firm to a party. My husband hadn't returned from overseas, so I went on my own. I said to the host: 'I'm terribly sorry, but my husband is still abroad.' He said: 'What nonsense, he arrived an hour ago.' He hadn't even bothered to tell me he was back.

When I got pregnant for the third time, he and his mother said I had to abort the child. I arranged for a termination but couldn't go through with it. They were so nasty to me that I think the poor thing must have felt unwanted, and I miscarried. That was the most devastating thing of all. Something died in me then - I miss that child to this day.

Then I got cancer of the bladder. The chemotherapy was killing me, but slowly I started to recover. I went home to India and thought about all that had happened. I had endured 27 years of marriage because I wanted to keep a secure household for my children. Children need fathers and I had elected to bring them into this world, but now they were grown-up. I came back and said: 'File the papers - I want a divorce.'

I'm doing the divorce myself. I'm not worried about my financial position - although everything is in his name, I know I'm entitled to half. Emotionally, though, the cost of staying in the marriage has been enormous. I've been through such misery, such mental cruelty, that I no longer have any feelings. I used to be a loving person, but now I'm hard, selfish and suspicious. He has destroyed my character. He has brutalised me.

Two months ago, after tinkering with the car, he came up to me with a spanner in one hand and black oil paste in the other which he started smearing over my face. I picked up a carving knife, but thank goodness I didn't use it. For the first time in my life, I reported him to the police. That has put a halt to him because now he is worried that his name is on the records. I felt awful doing it, because according to my culture I'm not supposed to say bad things about my husband. I betrayed my upbringing by making it public. My sisters think I'm crazy to divorce him. They ask: 'Who will provide for you in your old age?' I say I don't care. At least I've got my respect and dignity back.

His Swedish doctor was the last straw

Emma, 49, was married for 23 years before divorcing her husband two

years ago on grounds of adultery. She is a teacher, has three

children and lives in London with her second husband

We met at Cambridge in 1967 - he was a beautiful, tanned undergraduate - and within a year we were married. He became a highly successful doctor and I had three children in quick succession. His career often took him away to conferences, yet I was happy and trusted him. But in September 1984 he took a trip to South America with one of his nurses, and when he came back he said he had fallen in love with her. He would ring her up and I could hear all this lovey stuff on the phone. She had given him a copy of Tom Sharpe's Wilt, which is about burying your wife in concrete. I remember shouting, 'Tell her I don't think much of her taste in books.' He was turning me into the mother figure - telling me about his love for her, how he'd never felt so passionate - and I began to fall apart.

My first reaction was to hold on to him. I met his nurse for lunch and over a bottle of wine, I said, 'What are we going to do about this man of ours?' She said, 'I don't consider him to be mine.' And I thought, good, at least we've got that straight] But of course it wasn't true. One Sunday, his bleeper went off in the middle of a lunch party and he said he had to go into hospital. I was suspicious, so I drove to her flat and there was my husband sitting on the sofa completely naked, with a used condom on the floor. That night I told him: 'If you love her, go and live with her, but I hope you come back. I don't think we have a bad marriage - I won't divorce you.' So he went.

It was traumatic. I lost two stone in weight and was on Valium all the time. After eight months he came back, mainly because I was falling apart and he saw that it was bad for the children. He agreed to stop seeing her and I was so thankful that I tried to be an even better wife. He had told me about her wonderful sandwiches, so I said: 'This is Maggie Thatcher's Britain - competition improves the service.' And I made him wonderful sandwiches, too.

Then he started talking about going to America on a lecture tour. I went to a travel agent to find out whether she was on the flight and sure enough she was. I decided - that's it, I'm going as well. The night before they were due to fly, he went to her flat, so I packed my bag and went, too. I sat cross-legged on the floor among the luggage in her hallway so they couldn't leave without me. As we were checking in, my husband asked for my ticket and then she handed him both passports - his and hers. That little act of intimacy was so devastating that I suddenly thought: I can follow these people to the ends of the earth, but if she's looking after his passport, that's it, she's taken my place. I felt so humiliated - I took my suitcase and stormed off.

When he returned, I wouldn't allow him home for the family Christmas. My father-in-law wrote to me and said: 'You read English literature so you must realise that men do these things. Why can't you behave like one of the heroines in the books and let him have his fling?'

Bringing up three adolescent children with no father was very difficult. Once, in an argument with my daughter about her staying out late, she screamed, 'Dad's off screwing nurses, why shouldn't I stay out?' My younger two became withdrawn and I took them to a child psychologist. She thought the children were bewildered by my seemingly civilised approach, but at least they were seeing that the family unit was worth fighting for.

A few months later, he brought me flowers and said it had all been a mistake, that he did love me and he wanted to start again. We went to marriage guidance and things were getting better. Then he met a lovely Swedish doctor whom we stayed with on our travels. On our return, I found a letter to him in Swedish, which I got translated. It said: 'Emma wrote a nice letter thanking me. If only she knew that I will sleep in her bed, but what she doesn't know won't hurt her.' That was the end. I believed the nurse was an infatuation and that I could ride it out, but now I realised that he didn't want me. I called him at work and said: 'I'm divorcing you and I don't want to see you again. Come back, get your things and go.' He cried for three hours, saying, 'She means nothing to me', but I'd had enough.

I applied for divorce on grounds of adultery. I got Queen's Counsel to ensure I got a good settlement and I have gone back to teaching. I don't regret hanging in there the way I did. I needed to prove to myself that the marriage was over. The children say they're glad I tried so hard.

Two cruel men too many

Angela, 34, divorced her husband a year ago on grounds of unreasonable behaviour after they had been married for 16 years. She is a qualified nurse and lives in the North with her four children

As far as I can recollect, I was eight years old when my father started to abuse me. By the time I was 11, it had grown into full intercourse. He would wait until everybody was asleep and then he would come to my room, usually drunk. It's strange, because at the time it didn't seem wrong. As a child, your parents are your beacon and you get your morality from them. I remember the pain and the bleeding, but so much is a blur because I blocked it out in order to cope.

At 17 I got married, basically to get away from my family. I told my husband that my father had slept with me, but instead of supporting me, he used it to get his own kicks. I was so weak that I let him do it. During sex, he would make me describe in graphic detail what my father had done. It plunged me straight back into my childhood and I used to blank out completely. He was also into objects. Once he inserted a knitting needle up as far as he could get it and another time he put his whole hand inside me and I needed medical treatment for severe bruising. All my life males had abused me and that's how I saw my relationship - that I was there for him.

For the first three years of our marriage my husband had a manual job on a production line. Then, as we were about to buy our first house, he told me that he'd taken voluntary redundancy. He said: 'I've retired now, so you better get some work.' The house deal fell through, and for the next 10 years I worked as a barmaid, waitress, cleaner - you name it - and in between, I had four children and ran the house. My mum had always worked because my father drank away his wages, so I'd simply stepped into her shoes.

It was only when I started training to be a nurse at the age of 30 that I met women who controlled their lives and enjoyed themselves. When they were with men, they were on an equal footing - none of this bowing and scraping stuff. And sexually, 'no' meant 'no'. The realisation that I didn't have to take his crap combined with my new-found financial independence was the turning point, and I decided to leave him. But my husband said that if I didn't come back, he would tell my mum what my father had done.

Don't ask why, but I desperately wanted to protect her, so I went back to him. Then I discovered he had told her anyway. That betrayal was the last straw. I kicked him out and petitioned for divorce. He never believed I would do it. He kept taunting me, saying things like: 'You haven't got the bottle, you've had a breakdown, you don't own your own mind.'

After the divorce, I felt elated. I had managed to strike out and prove that I was a person in my own right. Although I can never get over what has happened to me, I have learnt to live with it. I am a rape counsellor now. I have survived. My mother didn't, though. After she heard about my father's behaviour, she became an introvert and a year later she died of a heart attack. I told my ex-husband that it was his malice that killed her.

I have a new partner now. He lives in his house and I live in mine. I will never have another man telling me how to run my life. I probably sound bitter, but I'm not really. There are some good men about. I just put up with a bad one for far too long.

All the names on this page have been changed.

He just started to strangle me]

Lauren, 30, is divorcing her husband, a 35-year-old executive, on grounds of unreasonable behaviour after five years of marriage. She is a psychologist and lives in the South-east with her 10-month-old son.

One night, just before our son's christening, my husband and I were having a conversation about something totally mundane when he suddenly attacked me. He'd never done anything like it before. He just walked towards me, tore my clothes and started to strangle me. It was frightening - I had never seen anyone so detached.

Eventually he stopped. I was very distressed, and - it's one of my flaws - I started to deal with it like I would a client at work. Instead of getting angry and calling the police, I tried to counsel him. He apologised and said that he had wanted to rape me, which upset me further because we had had a good sexual relationship.

We went to see a psychiatrist who thought he might be depressed and at first I thought so, too. But later I realised that he was being wilfully unreasonable and I asked him to leave. He was a director of a company, earning over pounds 75,000 a year. He had been a warm, involved husband. But I had a foreboding

that things would get worse and wanted him out as quietly as

possible.

It was only after he left that I discovered he had been living a double life. Suddenly I found out that he hadn't paid the mortgage for two years, cashed in our endowment policy and cancelled our pensions. Unbeknown to me, he had also been fired from his job for lying and disappearing for long periods, and had since opened his own consulting practice. All in all, with the lump sum his former employers gave him, there was more than pounds 70,000 unaccounted for and we were head over heels in debt.

When I confronted him, there was a tearful scene and he said he was a cocaine addict. I was sympathetic and keen to work it out, so I went to a Families Anonymous group. But then someone explained that the missing money was too large to be explained by drugs. He retracted his story and said he was actually addicted to gambling. A month later he admitted that this was a lie too, and claimed he had squandered his money on prostitutes, saying he was into S & M and some really hideous stuff. Later it emerged that that was another lie; although he had been to prostitutes, which I find completely intolerable because now I've got to have an Aids test.

I started to wonder whether he had another wife, so recently I employed a private detective to ascertain where the money went. I still don't know.

My family is staggered by what has happened. My sisters used to say, 'If only we could meet someone like him - he's so kind, so reasonable.' They thought we would be together for the rest of our lives. I must admit, so did I.

One thing that riles me is how our men-friends colluded in keeping his secret. They knew all about his vices, yet nobody said a word. It shows that there is a much greater tolerance of men's unreasonable behaviour than there is of women's. There's all this stuff in the papers about how irresponsible single mothers are. But who exactly is being irresponsible?

(Photograph omitted)

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