That's not the person I married: Sometimes a partner makes a radical change of lifestyle. David J Cohen talks to three couples who have lived through the resulting turmoil

David J. Cohen
Friday 31 December 1993 01:02

WHAT DO YOU DO when, 10 years down the line, the person you thought you married turns into someone completely different?

Maybe they become spiritual, whereas previously you were both sceptics; perhaps they opt for a lifestyle you used to mock. Do you welcome it? Of course not. You resist, possibly undermine it - at the very least, you panic. But why? If change is part of life, why are we unable to cope with it in our partners?

'Our whole notion of relationship rests on the secret hope that things will stay the same,' says Andrew Samuels, a Jungian analyst. 'We live in such a rapidly changing society that marriage is the one place that is supposed to be a stable, unchanging refuge. When our partner undergoes radical change, we not only worry about them leaving us behind but the image we have of ourselves is thrown into turmoil. That is why people panic.'

Some experts argue that change, perceived as sudden and dramatic, raises the question of how well the couple knew each other in the first place.

Renate Olins, director of London Marriage Guidance, says: 'People don't change suddenly. Rather, as they review their lives, different aspects of their personality emerge and they revert to something that was there all along. Sometimes change is part of a progression used by partners to extricate themselves from unsustainable relationships. There is no recipe for a happy ending. People either renegotiate their relationship or it's the beginning of the break-up.'

It is not all gloom, according to Samuels: 'Crises are also opportunities for growth. Without denying the pain of the couple - because they go through hell - what looks like a disaster may end up enhancing the lives of both people.'

David J Cohen talks to three couples who have lived through the turmoil of radical change.


Brigit and Erasmus Darwin Barlow, both in their seventies, have been married for 55 years and live in a mansion in Ashwell, Hertfordshire. Ten years ago, after a career as a psychiatrist and then as chairman of a public company, Erasmus retired and became a 'domestic maniac'.

Brigit: When we got married in 1938, I realised I would never have a secure position in our household unless I took cookery lessons. So I went to the Chelsea School of Cookery, and for 45 years the kitchen was my domain. Once, a photograph was taken of Erasmus in his shirtsleeves stuffing a turkey because it was such a remarkable thing that he was even in the kitchen. Then, 10 years ago, my executive husband retired and became a domestic maniac - he nosedived straight into the mayonnaise.

It began when I was having trouble with one of my recipes and Erasmus solved the problem by adding an extra yolk. After that, it was a slow advance and my lebensraum was progressively threatened. Soon, he was doing 75 per cent of the cooking and I had become almost redundant.

It's incredible how petty and protective one gets. I like to serve gravy with a ladle, for instance, but Erasmus insists on a wooden spoon. That sort of low-key battle can repeat itself eight Sundays in a row.

Then there's his unbearable banging and clattering, the constant cascade of saucepans. Nothing is put down quietly. It all seems to be dropped from six inches. He has been known - and this is the pits really - to extract things that I've chucked out from the dustbin and to use them in the Scotch broth. I do think that is ghastly]

His other new-found obsession is shopping. When he was at Cambridge, he was a left-wing intellectual and when his friends from those days come to lunch, I implore him: 'For God's sake, don't talk about Sainsbury's' But, before long, Erasmus gets chatting about supermarkets, and the odd thing is that these men blossom on the subject and soon everyone is talking about how the girls at the till have been taught to smile and what a difference it makes.

It's not all hardship though. With 12 grandchildren, we have huge Sunday family meals which Erasmus takes brilliantly. I suppose he has dealt with retirement rather well. But his enthusiasm is such that he'll be eating one meal and discussing what we're going to eat at the next. I do think that's a bit much. I've told Erasmus that I'm happy to share my double bed, but I would definitely like us to have separate kitchens.

Erasmus: My mother was a Darwin, the youngest granddaughter of Charles. My grandfather on the other side was physician to Queen Victoria at the turn of the century - he diagnosed Edward VII as having appendicitis, which postponed his coronation. It meant that one was surrounded by two very distinguished families and had rather large expectations placed on one. One was expected to achieve. It's so ingrained that, even at 78, I feel terrible when one of my souffles flops on me.

I suppose you could say I retired and then set up shop in the kitchen. I love food and I suppose it's natural that cooking has become my passion. There were conflicts at first, because it's a small kitchen and it was sometimes difficult for us to work together.

We operate differently - I clear as I go whereas she leaves a vast mess in her wake. Also, I'm terrible about not throwing things away. She'd go to the refrigerator and find a scruffy bit of mould covered with foil. She would blow off and I would blow off and, in the end, it would all blow over.

Biddy has strong views on how things like vegetables should be cooked, and she can go on about it if I mess it up. I am much more of an experimental cook, though I suppose I'm best at traditional English fare - roast beef, Yorkshire pudding, that sort of thing. I'm quite good at the sweet stuff too, like chocolate mousse and caramel custard, and even cakes. I like to feel that I am complementing Biddy in the kitchen, not displacing her, but then again, she's a far more competitive person than I am. You should see her at croquet. She plays a vicious game.

At my age, the hardest thing is coming to terms with one's physical and mental deterioration. My memory and hearing are not what they were. But when I'm in the kitchen I feel young and forget all about my wasting away.


Suzie and Gerald, childhood sweethearts, had been married nine years when Gerald decided to give up the family business to become a jazz singer. They are both in their thirties and have a daughter aged five.

Suzie: I knew that Gerald had a fabulous voice because he used to croon to me in private. He was a great impressionist and harboured a secret ambition to be a singer. But he never sang in public - he was too shy - and, knowing his talent, I thought it a shame that he didn't have the personality.

Then one night, on my father's birthday, we went to a restaurant that had a resident guitarist and my father suggested that Gerald might sing. I was amazed because he got up, spoke to the guitarist and did three or four numbers. I was hiding my face under the table, thinking he was going to embarrass me. But as he sang, I thought, God, he's wonderful. The customers stopped eating, the staff came out of the kitchen - he was a total sensation.

After that, he lost interest in the family business, a textile operation that we had successfully built up, side by side, over 10 years. He said he wanted to go for it, become a professional performer. It was so out of character because I had always been the flighty, extravagant one, whereas he had been dependable and stable.

He started jamming in crummy jazz clubs, mixing with people in the music business and going to their parties, but he would always go alone. I was willing to adjust to him becoming a jazz singer, but I couldn't handle the coldness and selfishness that came over him. We'd always socialised together but all of a sudden I was shut off from his world and he had completely lost interest in mine.

At first, I didn't push it because I'd had the glory within our business and I thought that perhaps he needed time to establish himself in his new domain. But as his coldness persisted, I grew more and more lonely and unfulfilled. I was looking after the baby and supporting him financially and I started to resent it. We had hit a brick wall. Apart from our baby, there was no longer anything holding us together. I said I wanted us to end. He agreed. It was a very quiet conversation.

I've seen him play once since - at Pizza on the Park in Knightsbridge. I saw someone with low self-esteem looking for adoration. There was a crowd of people that were his friends, people I didn't know. I was a stranger. It was so upsetting. People become strangers so quickly.

Gerald: My father died unexpectedly when I was 17 and I was bundled out of school and into the family business. I remember the night he died, taking his keys and going into the office to try to grasp what his operation was about. I felt such enormous pressure - not only did I have the responsibility of supporting my mother and sister, but I had to step in as boss to people a lot older and more experienced than me.

Suzie and I were together as boyfriend and girlfriend and Suzie came into the company to help out. She had incredible flair and together we turned an ailing concern into a profitable one and expanded over the years to five shops. But as Suzie's stature in the business grew, she started to take control and a power struggle developed. I guess I couldn't handle the feeling of being taken over and I started to step back.

For the first time in more than a decade, I took time to explore myself, to think about what I wanted to do. I had the woman, the car and the luxurious house I wanted - yet I felt unsatisfied.

I took myself back to when I was 17 and what might have been if my father had lived. Singing had always been a love of mine and it was Suzie who reminded me of the time I had been lead vocalist in the school band. I started to see that, under different circumstances, I might have pursued a career in music. I also realised, with some bitterness, that my business success had been an attempt to mollify my mother. Suzie was tremendously supportive and that gave me the kick start I needed.

The first time I sang in public was at Suzie's father's party. I did a Neil Diamond number, 'Love on the Rocks', and for the first time in my life, I felt I was expressing myself. From that point, my mind was made up that I wanted to sing.

I consciously excluded Suzie from my new life because she has such an overwhelming personality and I worried that I wouldn't be able to express myself. Later I had another reason - I met a woman of like mind musically, the woman I'm living with now, and I fell in love. I felt that in order truly to go back to when I was 17, I had to make a clean break. It meant changing everything - my career, my partner - and once I decided to go for it, I ditched them all at once.

Financially, my singing career has yet to take off. It has meant a drop in my standard of living - I've swapped my Range Rover for a second-hand Mini - but I'm in touch with my emotions and I'm much happier.

I still feel guilt for what I did to Suzie. She trades on that, reminding me of how difficult it is to be a single parent all the time. But the guilt is diminishing. What's done is done.

I spent the best years of my life pleasing everyone else. Now I'm putting myself first.


Bill Davis, a primary school teacher, and his wife, Jan, both in their forties, have been married for 21 years. Six years ago, Bill became a born-again Christian. They have two daughters and live in Somerset.

Bill: The first time I rebelled against God was at secondary school. It was a church school and my peers were preparing to take communion and I felt concerned that I couldn't make the commitment. So I carried out an act of rebellion: instead of singing 'Hosanna in Excelcis', I sang 'Hosanna in his Chelseas' (a reference to the Chelsea boot, a popular shoe of the time). Afterwards, I was terrified that I would be struck by a thunderbolt, but when it didn't happen I concluded that God wasn't all he was pumped up to be and I drifted away from religion.

Jan and I became lovers when we were still students. We felt very strongly that we were meant to be together, but as neither of us felt comfortable in a church, we got married in a register office. I got a job as a money-broker and I was doing well, but on the home front we were both immature and our interactions became increasingly stormy. I used to get like John Cleese in one of his Fawlty Towers fits and occasionally we would come to blows and I would hit and punch her and then we would cuddle and love one another.

When the baby was born, I began to think about God again, this time as a father. I looked at my newborn and thought of the baby in Bethlehem and I realised that the religion I had denied could all be true.

So I embarked on a mission to sort out God. That led to me standing up in our boardroom in the City and telling my fellow board members they were 'a load of wankers' and that their shallow values were 'pissing me off'. Their response was that they thought my wife was giving me a hard time (she was), and to pay for her to see a psychologist. I took a sabbatical and left to do my own thing.

Then I felt called to God and decided to go back to church. Jan wouldn't have it. Her attitude was that there is no God, that the whole thing is a con and I was raving bonkers. I began studying the scriptures and started to experience states of heightened spiritual awareness. I had one experience of seeing the whole of creation rush past in one wide, huge expanse. It blew my mind.

I realised that if I was to give my life to God, I might have to do it alone. At first I tried to make a deal with God. I said: 'Look, maybe I can be one of your occasional ambassadors and in return I'll do good deeds.' But I felt guilty that I wasn't prepared to give everything and I became born again in 1986 and was baptised a year later.

I prayed and said: 'Father, I don't know what you want of me but I understand that if it is your will that Jan and I are not meant to be together, so be it.' I became worried about my rationality, but because I had the support of the church group I was able to go through with it. And as I got closer to God, I felt a new love for Jan and began to understand that she had difficulty believing.

There were times when Jan was going to leave me. In fact, she once half-left and I found her sitting in a motorway cafe. My prayer is that, one day soon, Jan will take on my relationship with God. Until then, the God thing remains an unresolved issue between us.

Jan: Early in our relationship, we looked into some way-out spiritual movements, but we were both sceptics and rejected religion. Bill always had a deep neediness that I found claustrophobic, and when he became religious I thought that was his way of satisfying that need. Also, we'd just had a baby and I thought that perhaps he was getting back at me for giving all my attention to the new child. In any event, I felt threatened; I felt he had rejected me for God.

I used to put him down, tell him it was only mad people that needed God. And I hated the way he would play his religious music at full blast all over the house. But then I thought - if this makes him a better person and if he finds what he's looking for, then perhaps our lives will be better for it. The God thing had made him less violent: he didn't hit me as often - in fact, I was the one who had begun expressing my anger through violence. I decided to live and let live and I involved myself in church youth work, and I was happy for the children to go to Sunday school.

But Bill wasn't content. He tried to push his beliefs on to me. He said that if I didn't find God I'd go to hell, and that he wanted me with him in heaven. He viewed himself as more advanced. That kind of smug righteousness is plain irritating to live with. I stopped going to social events at the church because his attitude was that any week I would see the light. I wanted him to understand that was not going to happen.

Counselling wasn't much help. A lot of counsellors in Somerset treat you like you're deficient if you don't embrace your partner's spiritual side of life. I'm convinced that the only way out is for each of us to respect the other's beliefs. I don't mind doing grace at meals, but I don't have to believe in it.

I've done lots of crying in the past six years. In many ways, it would have been easier to part. I have stayed because despite all the turmoil, something is still alive in my heart for Bill.

Danny Danziger is back next week

(Photographs omitted)

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