When Eleanor Wood broke up with her boyfriend of 12 years, people failed to take her feelings seriously – because she wasn’t getting divorced. Here, she shares her story.
It was a Monday morning and I had recently started a new job.
“Hey Eleanor, how was your weekend?” one of my new colleagues asked me.
I didn’t know any of them very well yet, so they wouldn’t know that my face only gets that puffy after crying for approximately 48 hours straight. I wasn’t sure what to say without making things awkward, but I also didn’t know if I could get through the day pretending everything was fine.
“It was pretty bad, actually,” I replied. “My boyfriend and I decided to break up.”
My colleague made a vaguely sympathetic noise and asked if I wanted anything from Pret. And why would she do anything else? It was a perfectly appropriate response. She had no way of knowing that “my boyfriend” was in fact my partner of 12 years, who I owned a house with (and, even worse, a combined record collection).
As I sat at my desk and made a list of all the things I would have to do at lunchtime – mostly involving solicitors and estate agents and financial advisors, not to mention distraught family members – I thought about how different her reaction would have been if I’d said “I’m getting a divorce”.
A divorce sounds more grown-up, more “proper” and more official than a break up. The word “divorce” would automatically make what had happened a huge, life-altering event.
The first time I had cause to say “I’m breaking up with my boyfriend” was after a tumultuous two months of hand-holding in the cinema with Russell Martin back in 1995 (ultimately, we just wanted different things, and he needed to “focus on his GCSEs”). Now, I had no accurate word to communicate the fact that my heart was broken and my life was smashed to pieces.
As my ex and I had been together for over a decade, disentangling our lives was far from an easy or straightforward process – on an emotional or practical level. There was so much crying and so, so much admin. Over the following days and weeks, I had to repeat the slightly pathetic-sounding “breaking up with my boyfriend” line more times than I would ever have wanted to and, every single time, the lack of a recognised language for my situation felt like adding insult to injury.
On so many levels, being an unmarried, child-free woman in your 30s can feel strangely infantilising. When I’m filling in forms, I prefer to use the title “Ms”, not only because I’m a feminist and my marital status is nobody’s business, but also because “Miss” sounds a bit childish. Not having the old-fashioned “adult” markers of a wedding ring or a couple of small kids sometimes feels like you still get seated at the children’s table long after you’ve earned the right to be counted as a fully formed adult in your own right. Unfortunately, you still get all of the council tax bills, broken boilers and responsibilities that go hand-in-hand with growing up.
If you decide not to get married – which is increasingly common, with current marriage figures the lowest on record – there is no language to cover any of the stages of a serious adult relationship. “My husband” sounds grown-up; “my boyfriend” does not. However, I have friends who have gotten married within months of meeting someone, having never lived together or really gotten to know each other, and at least one who decided to split up on their lavish honeymoon. It might be petty, but it feels obscurely unfair to me that these relationships are automatically given so much more weight.
Families and relationships are changing, yet it still feels like so many of these outdated ideas prevail. My break up was a few years ago now and I’ve finally moved on from it. In retrospect, I guess I’m glad we didn’t get married – we weren’t right for each other and the relationship ran its course – but I still feel like a divorced person in all but name. Not receiving any real acknowledgement of this feels somehow unjust.
It’s almost enough to make you want to get married – except, you know, weddings are awful and so is the patriarchal system. I quite like the idea of a civil partnership, but it sounds a bit business-like to me, as does referring to “my partner”. I’m yet to find a suitable term for something that feels a bit beyond “my boyfriend” but isn’t technically “my husband”. I suppose “common-law husband” would be accurate but it sounds archaic. “My beloved” is too twee.
We need new terms to encompass our changing lives. This applies to relationships, break ups and evolving families. I’m regularly shocked that “what is your mother’s maiden name?” still features as an acceptable password question. We’ve outgrown these old-fashioned terms.
Selfishly, I’d just like a bit of recognition for a relationship that took up most of my 20s and a good chunk of my 30s, left me with a lot of legal bills, and a missing copy of my favourite Bob Dylan album. It only seems fair.
Staunch by Eleanor Wood (published by HQ in Hardback, eBook and Audio) is out now.
Images: Getty, Unsplash