The blame and shame of a second divorce
One marital blip elicits sympathy, but two divorces? Billie Piper must be feeling the pain
Celebrity break-ups are rarely tales of the unexpected. The real anomaly is a famous couple that stays together for decades. But while some make a virtue of divorce — the Zsa Zsa Gabor, Joan Collins and Elizabeth Taylor ‘diamond collector’ approach to marriage — others still take us by surprise. And I can’t help feeling sad that the loveable actress Billie Piper (33) has just announced a separation from her second husband, Lewis actor Laurence Fox (37).
If her first marriage had succeeded, it would have been unexpected, given that she was 19, her husband, laddish broadcaster Chris Evans was 35, and they wed secretly in Vegas.
Everyone assumes that when a woman barely out of school uniform marries a man who constitutes her first major rebellion from child stardom, and spends several weeks getting drunk with him in leery celebration, it’s a starter marriage; the sort that inevitably ends three years later in a flush of mild embarrassment and a promise to stay friends — which, to their credit, they have done.
But the second marriage is supposed to be the one that sticks, the one you go into with eyes wide open after learning from your youthful mistakes, and stay with through thick and thin. Because while to lose one marriage could be regarded as a misfortune, to lose both, to paraphrase Lady Bracknell, looks like carelessness.
Divorce should always be a source of sadness, of course, but given the pain and soul-searching it tends to take to get there, it really shouldn’t be a source of shame.
Or at least, that’s how I felt almost two years ago, when my own second marriage finally juddered to a halt. I had been with my ex-husband for 18 years, and we were happy for several of them. When things became less contented, due to the pressures of stepchildren, financial problems, a failed business and our different approaches to life, we tried everything to maintain the marriage, from therapy to part-time separation to dividing the house in two.
We still loved each other but nothing solved the basic incompatibilities, and back in summer 2014, the wheels finally came off.
Leaving aside the pain, guilt and grief of another major break-up —please, let’s — what surprised me was the shame I felt. It was as though, while one’s first divorce should elicit sympathy, support and messages of goodwill, a second feels like an admission that it’s not the situation that’s gone awry — it’s you.
What was wrong with me, I wondered, that, at 43, I’d already been married, and divorced twice, leaving an emotional battlefield strewn with regrets in my wake?
Why couldn’t I be like other women, who had enjoyed their 20s ‘dating’, then settled down with ‘the right person’ in their early 30s and never looked back, happily progressing through pregnancies, house-buying and anniversaries like the neat levels of a video game?
People do change after taking their vows, they make less effort and their flaws become clear in a way that’s inconceivable during the courtship phase.
While with my second husband, it didn’t feel embarrassing to talk about ‘my first marriage’, even though I was divorced by 24, a single parent living with my two-year-old son. I was quite proud of how I’d coped, I understood the reasons why we’d split up — too young, didn’t know each other properly, an impulsive error due to falling in love. These things happen and nobody was judging, other than a few exclamations of amazement at how many life milestones I’d accidentally ticked off before my 25th birthday. ]
If anything, I felt having been married, become a mother and divorced so young gave me added maturity. I had regrets, of course —I wished my son had been raised by two happy parents in the same home, but I certainly didn’t feel a social pariah.
In Billie’s case, she had no children to worry about when her shotgun first marriage misfired. She was able to pick herself up and carry on unencumbered, but for a few sneering newspaper reports. Now, though, she and Laurence have two little boys, aged three and seven. This isn’t a youthful wheeze hitting the buffers, it’s a sad, grown-up end to a nine-year marriage that looked, on the surface, perfect. Both actors with their feet on the ground, both committed to each other and their children, both humorously open in interviews about the realities of married life — yet despite all that, unable to remain together.
Divorce rates remain low in Ireland. According to the Central Statistics Office, we have the third lowest rate of divorce in the EU. The CSO released the findings last year that revealed 0.6 divorces occurred per 1,000 population in 2012.
In the UK, where divorce is more accepted as part of the cultural landscape, the Marriage Foundation found that around 45pc of first-time marriages end in divorce, and while the odds are better second time around, 31pc of second marriages do still fail. So, across the water at least, there are a great many people in the same situation, battered by a double divorce, but I’d wager that an awful lot of them feel like damaged goods, marked with the big, red ‘failure’ stamp, no matter how blameless they may be.
When my second marriage ended, I lost count of the acquaintances who felt compelled to tell me how well-suited we’d been, why breaking up must be a mistake, and hinted that if only we’d tried harder, it could have all worked out, as if a Hollywood sunset was waiting with ‘the end’ poised to appear in shimmering font across it. We had tried hard. That was the point.
Yet nearly two years on, I still feel embarrassed to admit I have two failed marriages behind me.
Marriage is supposed to be so permanent, so inviolable — two divorces seems flighty, as though I didn’t mean my vows and was just in it for the glory of the wedding parties. But I did. I meant every word, twice. I just failed to understand how much life can change, and how eventually, the depressing horror of another divorce becomes the only option.
I don’t believe that celebrities get divorced easily, either. Despite the widespread belief that they’re idiotic children who get married for the coverage and split up with a noisy tantrum when the interest fades, I suspect it’s a lot more painful than that.
Recently actress Tallulah Riley, famous for her roles in Inception and Pride and Prejudice, split from her husband Elon Musk, the entrepreneur — all the more mortifying because it’s the second time the couple have filed for divorce from each other, reconciling after their first attempt in 2014. It’s pretty clear this isn’t a decision they’ve taken lightly.
Meanwhile, singer Cheryl Fernandez-Versini has just split from her second husband, Jean-Bernard after just 18 months of marriage, allegedly due to his problems with jealousy. It’s entirely feasible that she had no inkling of this before she married.
People do change after taking their vows, they make less effort and their flaws become clear in a way that’s inconceivable during the courtship phase. This period can last up to two years, biologically-speaking, while hormones rage and both parties are still on their best behaviour. Perhaps the longevity of your marriage has more to do with the length of time you dated before tying the knot. In the fast-moving world of celebrity, it can be a matter of months.
And yet despite the stigma, who’s to say two divorces should preclude a third attempt to tie the knot being the charm? Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt still seem happily married, regardless of constant gossipy rumours that they’re on the brink of a split, and despite the two divorces (from earlier marriages to Johnny Lee Miller and Billy Bob Thornton) under her belt.
Nobody gets divorced because it seems like an easy option. Anyone who’s been through the process once will have been bitten hard enough to know that doing it twice, on a whim, would be madness.
So on reflection, perhaps it’s time to change our arched-eyebrow attitude. Divorce should always be a source of sadness, of course, but given the pain and soul-searching it tends to take to get there, it really shouldn’t be a source of shame as well.