There’s a scene that has become something of a movie cliche. It’s the one where a married couple has split up and the woman (it is almost always the w
There’s a scene that has become something of a movie cliche. It’s the one where a married couple has split up and the woman (it is almost always the woman) will throw armfuls of the faithless husband’s clothes out of the bedroom window and then go through their joint photo albums, ripping his head out of every happy, smiling shot.
I was reminded of this when I found myself sitting on the sofa in my flat one evening, flicking through my phone and cropping not my ex-partner’s head, but my own out of a series of wedding photographs.
It was a fairly surreal experience and not something I had ever anticipated, because you don’t think about divorce when you’re walking down the aisle. You don’t imagine it will happen to you.
What had gone wrong in the six years since I’d made all sorts of promises in front of our friends and family? How had I failed at the one relationship I had been so convinced was going to work?
There is no doubt that I loved my ex-husband. I loved him in a different way from any of the other boyfriends who had come before. I remember a friend once asking me what it was about him that made me feel this way and I replied, ‘I just want to hear what he thinks, about everything’.
‘What had gone wrong in the six years since I’d made all sorts of promises in front of our friends and family? How had I failed at the one relationship I had been so convinced was going to work?’ says You Magazine columnist Elizabeth Day
But I’m not sure I loved myself. In truth, I’m not sure that I really knew myself, having spent all my formative years in a succession of romantic relationships where I tried ever harder to please. I forgot, in the rush to appear flawless and irreproachable, that it was far more important to be real than to be perfect.
Like many women I know, I thought marriage would firm up my shaky sense of self. If I placed no demands on my spouse, the internal reasoning went, if I did everything right, then there would be no excuse not to love me. It’s a terrible foundation for a marriage and, inevitably, things fell apart. I folded myself into ever-smaller squares, diminishing myself to such an extent that I would have no needs to place on the person I was meant to be sharing everything with. I lost my capacity to express how I was feeling. At some points, I didn’t even know what I was feeling.
In many ways, it was easy for me to feel I had to subdue my own aspirations. My husband was 11 years older than me and had two children from a previous marriage. He had an important and high-pressure job. In my mind, all I did was write.
From my perspective, it made sense to me that I should be the one to take care of him when I often worked from home. It made sense to me that, as he earned more, he should have more of a say over where we lived and how we spent our holidays.
It made sense to me that any time I wanted his attention, I should not believe it was my due; that I should exist low down a list of priorities that – rightly – had his children at the top. It made sense to me, but perhaps it shouldn’t have done. Perhaps, at least, I should have questioned it.
It was only when I tried to have a child of my own that it came to a head. I could convince myself that most of the things I desired, I did not actually deserve. But there had always been one stable, deep-rooted certainty in the middle of this swaying forest: I wanted to be a mother.
I was the one who pushed for a child, not my ex. He already had his children and I don’t think he wanted more (although he said otherwise) but I found that this was the first time I couldn’t subsume my desire.
It was a desire that grew stronger and transmuted itself into yearning. It would not be quelled or ignored or wrapped up tightly and left in the back of a drawer somewhere. It got bigger, until it was difficult to spend a single second not thinking of it.
When I eventually found my voice, it was not just my own; it was my future child’s, too, fighting for the right to be heard. For the right to exist. The best way I can describe what happened next is this: when my marriage came to an end, it was in slow motion. There was no sudden explosion, no screeching of car tyres as I drove off into the night in a fury. There was, instead, a period of gradual erosion, months and months of what my friend Emma described as seeing me disappear behind a screen.
She said that communicating with me during that time was like knocking on perspex and trying to get to the real person she knew existed beneath the numbness.
Motherhood didn’t happen for me, for reasons I will go into next week, and this was a difficult thing to come to terms with. It took its toll. At night, instead of getting the Tube home, I would walk long distances in the dark. I wanted to feel cold, so that my body was more fully in tune with the internal pain I couldn’t yet process.
I would let my hair get wet and the rain would mix in with the tears and I would feel that this was as it should be: that I didn’t deserve shelter. I, who had failed at motherhood. I, who was failing at marriage.
Day runs the podcast How To Fail With Elizabeth Day, in which she discusses personal failures of an interviewee and how to succeed better. She is pictured with guest Alastair Campbell
I have some photos of me from back then. They were photos taken on superficially happy occasions – weddings, Christmas celebrations, drinks with friends – and what strikes me in all of them is the mask of my face. The smile never quite reaches my eyes. I look sad. Pale. Shrunken.
I remember the last New Year’s Eve my ex-husband and I had together, when we went to the countryside and stayed with friends. When we arrived it was night-time and a heavy fog shrouded the house. The next morning, the skies were clear but the fog seemed to have slunk its way into my head.
I smiled and made conversation and we went on a long clifftop walk and all the time I was wondering if this was just what life felt like, whether the fault was mine for expecting myself to feel something different.
After the walk, we ate dinner and drank strong cocktails and I kept drinking, because then I could kid myself that what I was feeling was a product of drunkenness when in fact, I remained stoutly sober.
A month after that, I got to a point where I could no longer ignore what was happening or keep up the pretence to myself. The perspex screen shattered. And so, one black February evening just before Valentine’s Day, I found myself sitting on the stairs of our terraced house, drinking neat vodka to stop the pounding of my blood, waiting for my husband to walk through the front door so I could tell him I had to leave. That if I stayed, I would drown.
I walked out of the marital home and got the bus to my mother’s. I stayed there for three weeks, in a state of shock.
The end of my marriage ended other things, too. It ended the story I had written myself since childhood that centred around the neat symmetry of wife, husband and two children of my own.
It ended whatever faith I thought I had in my own judgment, which would take years to build back up. It ended my hopes of being a mother in my 30s, although I didn’t know that then. It ended my frenetic attempts at perfectionism. When you fail so conspicuously, there is no pretending.
I was forced to confront myself as I was. There were aspects of myself that I didn’t much like. My inability to express myself, for one. If you don’t say what you need, it’s much harder for people to give it to you.
And when you’re trying to be perfect, you’re not being truthful about your own imperfections. I had to cope with the knowledge that there were people who actively disliked me.
My ex-husband’s friends, for instance, who did not understand what I had done, some of whom wrote me appalled letters and emails. I had to let that go, to understand my own reasons and to know that what really counted was what my former partner and I thought and what we communicated to each other and what had happened between us. I learned that no one else will ever know the truth of your life, just as you will never fully grasp the truth of theirs.
The divorce catapulted me into a different sort of life from the one I had imagined. Here I was, in my late 30s, single, without children, and navigating uncharted waters. If motherhood wasn’t going to be part of the future I had always imagined for myself, where else would I find fulfilment?
Life crises have a way of doing that: they strip you of your old certainties and throw you into chaos. The only way to survive is to surrender to the process. When you emerge, blinking, into the light, you have to rebuild what you thought you knew about yourself.
It dawned on me that I had my work and my friends and family, from whom I got a great deal of love and compassion.
And, actually, if I looked at the failure in a different way, it could also double up as an opportunity: I was free of responsibility.
If I wanted to move to Los Angeles for three months, then I could – and I did. It was in Los Angeles that the fog finally cleared. When I first got there in August 2015, a year after my marriage ended, I knew no one other than my cousin, Andrea.
Over those first 12 weeks, I often felt like a small boat, tossed on the currents. Andrea was the anchor that held me steady.
On Sunday evenings, I’d go round to hers with a bag full of laundry and we’d order take-out and watch Keeping Up With The Kardashians on her sofa.
I made wonderful friends while I was in LA. They ranged in age from four to 80 and were a mixture of nationalities and professions. But if I had to think about it, they had one thing in common: they were all living different kinds of lives.
There was the civil rights lawyer married to a wonderfully glamorous screenwriter whose love for each other was pure and joyful despite not having children.
There were couples who seemed more relaxed around their children than those in London because they viewed parenthood as simply part of a wider life.
And there were women in exactly my situation: single, childless, in their late 30s and coping with all that entailed while pursuing professional success.
It was perfect. I got better in LA. In fact – to use the appropriate Californian language – I healed. My heart was patched up and returned to the beating world. I was accepted by my new friends for who I was right then, as opposed to being known as someone’s wife.
I learned that if your life is not how you want it to be, then it is never too late to change that life. You just have to be brave enough to take the leap over the side.
It will panic you, and make you scared, but once you allow those feelings to subside and once the vortex calms, you will rediscover yourself and find that the world is large and beautiful and offers an endless opportunity to do different things.
How To Fail, by Elizabeth Day, is published by Fourth Estate on April 4, priced £12.99. Offer price £10.39 (20 per cent discount) until March 31.
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