Yasmin Alibhai-Brown: Why breaking up should be much harder to do

Many have accused me of washing too many wet hankies in public, of being obsessed with the past

Yasmin Alibhai-Brown
Monday 27 February 2012 01:00

On Wednesday, Eric Joyce, the Labour MP for Falkirk, an ex-army major, was ignominiously arrested in the Strangers' Bar in the House of Commons after what seems to have been an almighty fracas. A glass door was shattered and parliamentarians were allegedly assaulted and headbutted by Joyce, who seemed to have "flipped".

This top soldier bravely accused the Army of being "racist, sexist and elitist", went into politics and rose fast. The case is sub judice but there is some speculation Joyce was "not particularly well", after apparently separating from his second wife. The last, if true, makes me feel for him. Divorce can rip and ravage all that you thought you were, consume you like a rabid fever which lingers in the cells long, long after you get over the worst of it.

In Britain, a depressingly large number of marriages fail. Some people decide to get divorced for perfectly understandable reasons – violence, real incompatibility, alcoholism, oppressive partners – others because they want to move on to new pastures or feel imprisoned by the institution. To avoid any misapprehension, let me say it out loud. Enabling men and, even more importantly, women, to divorce without atrocious social repudiation was one of the most progressive changes achieved in this country. But now it's all too easy; Britons are blasé about marital split-ups, unconcerned about the serious emotional consequences of the momentous life change. Go online and you can now find lawyers offering cheap, fast divorces for £37! Including VAT! Divorce-party planners are doing excellent business, a growth sector obviously.

In classrooms full of pupils living post-divorce lives, you find an engineered normalcy; parted couples stay friends and the cultural expectation is that you maybe get a new haircut or suit, a little counselling and simply move on, get on the train to tomorrow, don't look back, don't analyse what happened and why. In this Pollyanna world, inspirational divorcee role models are Prince Andrew and Fergie, Demi Moore and Bruce Willis, Jude Law and Sadie Frost. Those who can't join this merry train are judged to be immature, selfish, manipulative, uncaring, backward. As one distraught mum said to me: "He leaves me, broke and broken-hearted and I am just to take it, give him his share of the babies I carried and gave birth to, treat him well, never cry, never tell him I want to die." The manners and courtesies of modern divorces are as throttling as were the manners and courtesies of Victorian marriages.

I have been interviewing people affected by separation and divorce for a Radio 4 series now being broadcast on One to One on Tuesday mornings. I talked to a grieving grandma, a passionate father-novelist (Louis de Bernières) and a damaged and recovering teenage girl. With only three slots, we weren't able to talk to a mum. I wish we could have. They all spoke poignantly about their pain and struggles for recognition. The listener response so far has been overwhelming, because such expressions of sorrow are rare.

I write candidly of my own divorce 20-plus years ago. The experience made it impossible for me to understand the ex's point of view. It's as if my eyeballs were turned inwards and my other senses too. Many have accused me of unseemly solipsism, of washing too many wet hankies in public, of being dementedly obsessed with the past. All true. It was all I could and can do. It must be hard for the dear departed, never being allowed to forget. I hear he hates me. Can't be because he carried on an affair for five years, meticulously planned his exit, leaving me to raise our boy. Must be because I didn't go quietly. I understand his fury but not the pernicious rules of behaviour when everything falls apart.

A new book on her divorce by the writer Rachel Cusk is, again, a riposte to these injunctions. I am not a fan of her sharp dissections of life, the way she cuts through bodies on an ice-cold slab as if she is both a forensic doctor and a patient. But I admire her hugely for not packing and putting away an old marriage. It is a shockingly honest and self-absorbed account. Conversations with her husband are like "chewing on razors"; she is appallingly intolerant of his domesticity, a man who was a house-husband for 10 years. He hates her. ( I would too.) Her children are hers, because of the "long pilgrimage" of pregnancy. It's not pretty. But divorce is not pretty. Several years ago, the journalist Kathryn Flett wrote a book on her marriage break-up, which led to a total breakdown and hospitalisation. She too was slagged off for not being properly tight-lipped and lady-like.

Psychotherapist Phillip Hodson and others believe we must acknowledge our primitive selves, recognise pain and sorrow when love, trust and hope fall away. The pressure to accept pivotal life changes without fuss is damaging. Soldiers back from wars were expected to ignore their internal traumas. Now we know there is no good war. Couples may fake it, pretend and posture, but there is no good divorce either.


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