Long Reads

“What getting a divorce taught me about relationships”

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Stylist Team

In the UK, 42% of marriages will end in divorce. Here, author Natasha Bell reflects on what she learnt from getting a divorce.

“When we’re old…” Sam began on one of our early dates. The sentence that followed was a casual, optimistic 20-year-old’s fantasy of riches and success, properties around the world and theatrical stardom. However, it was also a fantasy of a love that didn’t have to end; a fantasy I suddenly realised I’d never allowed myself to have. Throughout the first weeks and months of our romance, while Sam dreamed of Tony awards, grey hairs and an overweight cat called Biscuit, I’d been silently thinking, “When we break up…”

More than a decade later, I find myself looking at my friends and dividing us into the children of stability and the children of divorce. I don’t mean to idealise; I know many couples stay together when they probably shouldn’t, and that can have just as damaging an effect on their offspring as the alternative. Equally, no part of me blames my parents for splitting up, or would ever have wanted them to stay together unhappily. But what I see in these divisions of my friends is a difference in the way we think about our relationships. Some might call it a hesitation to commit, but I think it’s more complicated than that. It’s more like an uneasiness with the simplicity of the fairy tales and Hollywood endings we’re so often presented.

“I divide my friends into the children of stability and the children of divorce.”

My early expectation that Sam and I would break up was not simply about us being young, or the fact that when we met I was about to move to a different country for a year. I thought like that because, at 20, what I knew about relationships was that they ended. Throughout the entirety of my life, my parents, my friends’ parents, my parents’ friends and even one of my parent’s parents had all been providing proof that love had an expiry date. I couldn’t think of a single couple I knew who had stayed together. At least, not without hating each other or having an affair. 

Sam, on the other hand, had parents who had met in their twenties and still cooked meals together. They still went to the theatre, still did crosswords, and still sat around their kitchen table drinking pot after pot of Yorkshire tea when their children came home. Sam had grown up seeing what I hadn’t: the full stop after the words “happily ever after”.

Which might make it surprising that, five years after we started dating, I was the one who proposed. I proposed because I’d spent half a decade observing Sam’s certainty. At some point I’d realised it was more than an easy, unthinking optimism; it was an actual belief. A belief in the future. A belief in us. And a belief I was desperate to share in.

I proposed because I wanted our love to be the exception to the rule.

“I proposed because I wanted our love to be the exception to the rule.”

As it turns out, Sam and I are the very opposite of an exception. According to the Office of National Statistics, a couple’s chance of divorce is greatest between their fourth and eighth wedding anniversaries. Right on time, two months after our fourth anniversary, I left Sam, making us entirely average.

At thirty-one, I am a divorcee, the child of divorcees, the grandchild of divorcees. Depending on your point of view, my younger self now seems either wise beyond her years, or entirely to blame for the failure of my marriage. If I had been able to believe from the beginning, I’ve asked myself, would I still believe now? Is it possible that my damage brought about ours? 

I hope not. I think those of us who grew up witnessing the confusion and pain that can follow “I do” are often more cautious, more cynical, and more realistic about love and romance. But I’m not sure that means we’re less devoted. I’m not sure it means we ourselves are more prone to divorce. We may struggle, bore therapists and subject our partners to the pain of our wavering doubt, but it’s not because we don’t want to believe. Whether it was me or us that turned my marriage into an entirely predictable statistic, I will always be grateful to Sam for showing me what hope looks like.

“When you break up,” I wish I could go back and tell my 20-year-old self, “it will be devastating. It will destroy you and feel like the biggest failure of your life. But don’t waste the time you have waiting for it. Enjoy the fantasy, give yourself over to belief, throw everything you have into the optimism.” Because the magical thinking of a marriage is the best bit. If 42% of marriages end in divorce, that still means 58% don’t. And how wonderful would it be to find one of those?

Natasha Bell’s debut novel, Exhibit Alexandra, is published 8 March. You can pre-order a copy here and read an exclusive extract here.

Images: iStock