Style Sex & Relationships

Thursday 23 March 2017

Love: I've been engaged five times, divorced once ... But I still believe in love

Fiona O'Brien
Fiona O'Brien

Declan Cashin

With St Valentine's Day almost upon us, who better to talk to about the intricacies of love and marriage than a self-styled runaway bride, one-time divorcée, and author of four works of romantic fiction?

"Six engagements and a starter marriage, as I like to say," says Fiona O'Brien, whose latest book is entitled, suitably enough, The Love Book, about three friends who made childhood wishes to St Valentine and the effect this had on their adult love lives.

The author can be light-hearted about her romantic past today, having had the time and space to reflect on her actions. At the time, O'Brien thought she was having fun, but in reality she was locked in a semi-permanent state of what she calls "commitmentphobia".

"I only realised years later, having done a bit of therapy, what was going on," O'Brien says. "Basically my parents' marriage was unhappy. It was hit by tragedy when my mother had a brain haemorrhage that left her paralysed down one side of her body.

"Part of me was craving love and security by getting engaged to these guys, and they genuinely did mean something to me. But another part of me was subconsciously screaming that I didn't want to risk marriage because the first one I ever knew was so difficult.

"So I would get engaged, and the more the engagement went on, the more panicked I'd get. I would get out of it, and be confused and upset, and repeat the pattern all over again."

After school, O'Brien, who grew up on Ailesbury Road in Dublin 4, went on to study languages in UCD, but dropped out after a year when her father died suddenly, and she became responsible for caring for her mum.

She got a job in an advertising agency, and it was at this stage that O'Brien got her first marriage proposal. She was in her early 20s, and it was to her childhood sweetheart. "That's the closest I got during those first engagements: we got within two weeks of a wedding," O'Brien recalls.

The next engagement was to another man in Dublin, but O'Brien broke off the relationship to live in London. "I think that engagement was about escaping the situation at home where I was caring for my mum," O'Brien explains. "But instead of getting married I escaped to London."

Whilst living there, O'Brien had two more engagements. "Each relationship was for two-three years, but I would have gone rapidly from one to the other," she says.

The fifth engagement was with an American man living in New Orleans. "I went over there for a while, but it didn't work out," she says. "There was a personality clash, and I'm a bit of a home-bird too."

O'Brien laughs at the suggestion that there must have been something exceedingly "marriageable" about her. "Looking back I think I was very shy and demure, and this might be an awful thing to say, but I think some men find that appealing," she says.

"In my defence, I took the romances seriously, and I was very good to the men. I wasn't flirtatious or playing the guys off of one another. Growing up with an invalid mother, I think I was groomed to take care of people. I suspect that men found that attractive."

But surely her family and/or friends must have expressed concern when she kept hopping from one engagement to the next? "Not for the first two," she laughs in response.

"When you're young you don't really reflect on anything in your life. You get caught up in romances and fun. I kept thinking it would never happen again, but then another man would propose."

However, on the sixth engagement, O'Brien finally went through with it. Why then, and why that guy?

"I think everything just lined up," she replies. "The timing was right -- I was 34 -- and I was in love with him. He was successful and attractive. The marriage only lasted for two-and-a-half years. He was a lovely guy, but we were both making each other miserable."

O'Brien says that she's still in contact with most of these men from her past.

"A lot of them are married now, and we'd exchange emails at Christmas or on birthdays," she says.

"It was so long ago that you can laugh about it now or talk about it without awkwardness."

She left her advertising job in 2001 (when she was in her mid-30s) to write full-time, and six books later, O'Brien says that she's "extremely happy" living alone in Sandymount with her dog. "It took me a long time to realise that that's the thing that works best for me," she says.

"I have terrific friends, and certainly I date and have relationships, but for me it works better if I live alone. My own sense of peace and personal space means a lot to me."

That said, O'Brien says that she hasn't been so burned out by love as to be closed off to the idea of falling for someone again.

"Experience has taught otherwise, but part of me is an incurable romantic, and thinks there is somebody out there," she says.

"I think most women are romantics, despite what we say. All the heterosexual woman I know would like to meet someone and fall in love, if they're willing to admit it."

Could she imagine marrying again?

"I never say never, but I wouldn't think it likely," she replies. "It would have to be someone very special."

The Love Book by Fiona O'Brien is out now, published by Hachette.

Irish Independent

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