Bel Mooney: She never picked up the signals

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The Independent Online

Which is worse within a marriage, not to tell or not to ask? Should we expect couples who share a bed to share intimate details about their financial affairs as well? Tessa Jowell has split from her husband David Mills because she is "angered" at the way questions over his complex business dealings have embroiled and embarrassed her. As newspapers questioned how an intelligent woman could possibly sign a document without asking why, and speculated what the high-flying couple actually talked about at home, the "dreadful strain" (in the words of Mr Mills's statement) on the marriage increased to breaking point.

The lack of communication in the Mills household may seem bizarre yet surely, in some ways, we can see this as a paradigm of modern marriage. The fiercely ambitious politician and the international tax lawyer must have been ships passing in the night for years, and when they met up there would be family matters to discuss, as well as dinner parties to attend.

So shooting the breeze about Silvio Berlusconi at breakfast would not have been likely. Independent cash-rich/time-poor couples do not spend much time talking about the minutiae of their bank balances. I confess that during my long marriage I was too idle to interest myself in finance, and allowed my ex-husband to deal with everything, it so happens, with exemplary efficiency. So I do not share the general astonishment that Ms Jowell "signed the relevant papers" for a loan on their home without knowing the nature of the investment. She trusted him, so why should she?

At the end of last year, the financial adviser, MSN Money, published research which revealed a third of Britons admit lying about money to their partners. It also found men lie more than women, perhaps because their debts extend to bigger things than designer handbags, perhaps because of some atavistic conviction that it is their right. The point is, in today's Britain both sexes are uneconomical with everything including the truth, and the result is a weight of debt which can easily drag a once-happy marriage into the depths. In time, the erring partner will become so appalled at the prospect of confessing how weak/greedy/hopeless/ dishonest he or she has been that the web of deceit grows all the more sticky. After embarrassment comes fear, then despair. Ten per cent of the population lie because they have no idea how to sort things out.

What disturbs me about the Mills-Jowell case is not that she did not ask him what he needed the loan for, because surely to cross-examine your spouse implies a lack of trust. It is not even that he did not tell her. The real source of wonder is that Ms Jowell didn't notice her husband was becoming increasingly stressed, as he must have been. If a relationship is a genuine partnership, both halves will possess antennae to pick up signals that something is up.

But only if there is time. Whatever happens to this couple, I suspect observers may read something of their own marriage within the mess. Working long hours, cherishing the independence of separate accounts, juggling children and career, evolving different interests, never having the time to catch up, this is the way we live.

Not to tell and not to ask are two sides of a tossed coin, risking closeness and companionship, even love itself.