When I read the title of the article, I was excited. What Happened When I Left My 22 Year Marriage. I separated from my own husband five years ago, and it helps to read about other people’s experiences.
Turns out it was an excerpt from a book called “Late Love: Mating in Maturity”, which, as my friend Cate commented, sounds more like an Attenborough documentary about the sex life of elderly elephants than a memoir.
“God knows, leaving a marriage is hard. It requires courage, faith, resilience, strength.”
Still, kudos to the author for writing about her journey. God knows, leaving a marriage is hard. It requires courage, faith, resilience, strength. It takes the belief that it is better to be alone than to remain in a situation that is unsatisfying at best and untenable at worst. I have boundless admiration for women who have left unhappy marriages. My own separation was unspeakably hard.
And so I eagerly read the excerpt. To say I was disappointed is, frankly, an understatement.
To summarise: the author, Aviva Wittenberg-Cox, wanted to leave her uninspiring marriage.
“New Year’s Day of the year I turned 50, I decided I couldn’t bear going on, in a state of suspended dissatisfaction, across the threshold of another decade, and into the second part of my life.”
But this put her in a dilemma. She wanted to leave, but she was terrified of being alone.
The spectre of being alone, female and ageing was the ultimate fear for many, she wrote, using “many” to mean “herself”.
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“I didn’t want to leave before having found what I was looking for: love.”
And so she looked around and found a suitable man, whom she propositioned whilst still married.
“I wouldn’t have to go trawling the internet or wandering around singles’ bars”, she writes triumphantly. “I wouldn’t have to go live alone to prove I was a modern woman and could be entirely self-sufficient. Right here in front of me was a fine specimen of a man”.
Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not judging the infidelity, per se. Affairs happen. People fall in love with other people all the time.
What I am judging – or, to be more accurate, what I find terribly sad – is the deliberate seeking out of a new partner before leaving the old. What I am judging is the notion that being alone is so heinous, so unthinkable, that the avoidance of said state is a triumph.
Because of course, this is completely absurd. And as someone who was in back-to-back relationships from the age of 17 to 44, and has been largely single ever since, I feel I am qualified to comment.
Every state of being has its pros and cons. There are wonderful benefits to being in a relationship: the companionship, the sex, the shared financial burden, the support. Having someone to kill the scary spider on the wall. A warm body to cuddle up to at night.
And there are also huge compromises. Daily irritations. Hair in the sink and towels on the floor. Different financial styles. Different sexual needs. Boredom. Conflict. The in-laws. Their snoring. The lack of alone time. The lack of independence.
Similarly, there are pros and cons to being alone. On the downside, there can be lonely times (though of course, one can be lonelier in a relationship than one can be as a single person). Sexual frustration. No-one to debrief with. Having to do everything for yourself, all the time.
On the other hand, there is no-one to answer to. No-one to steal the sheets or wake you up with their throat clearing in the middle of the night. You can do what you want, when you want. Spend time only with the people who make you happy. Have full control of the TV remote. Eat cereal for dinner and wash the bowl in the morning.
Interestingly, Wittenberg-Cox made an excellent point:
“The attitude and assumptions we bring to the idea of being alone hugely affect our ability to explore new love. Choosing a new partner well is impossible when remaining single is unbearable.”
In this she is absolutely correct. Choosing a new partner well is impossible when you believe that being single is unbearable.
But the answer is not to avoid being single. The answer is to change the thought processes around being single. We need to be okay in ourselves before we can make good choices about a partner. Good partnerships are borne of desire and choice, rather than fear and desperation.
I’m glad that my kids did not read that excerpt. I don’t want them to believe that their happiness is conditional on being part of a couple. I want them to seek fulfilment and contentment within themselves. And then, if they do eventually find love, it will enrich their lives rather than saving them.
I am living that reality, and I will continue to do so. And I will say to Aviva Wittenberg-Cox, you are wrong. Being alone is empowering and exciting and enlightening. It’s a shame that you weren’t brave enough to try.