When he said 'I still love you', I just couldn't say it back
Sometimes ending a marriage can be a step towards happiness, writes Catherine Murphy
Lynn (name has been changed) had been married to her husband for 13 years when she decided she wanted out. "He said to me one day; ‘I still love you’ and I couldn’t say it back because I knew I didn’t; that was the real turning point," the 42-year-old says.
“It wasn’t a sudden thing, it happened very gradually through many years of our marriage. In the early days, before we had children, we were absolutely inseparable, we went everywhere together and did everything together, we were almost joined at the hip.
“But when we had kids everything changed, we had totally different styles of parenting. I was stricter than him and he was unsupportive in situations where our parenting styles differed. I often felt it was them against me in the family.” Lynn and her husband tried to make their marriage work for many years before finally separating last year.
“We were on the verge of separating before our second child was born,” she says. “And again before the birth of our third child. But we kept trying. We used to have very fiery rows but then we’d make up and promise to try harder. I genuinely thought it was a phase, that things would get better.”
Lynn and her ex ended their marriage through legal separation and will look for a divorce as soon as they’re legally entitled to. In Ireland, couples have to be separated for four years before they can get divorced. The result is that many Irish couples regularise their position through legal separation.
Like thousands of other Irish people, Lynn was forced to stay longer than she wanted in an unhappy marriage because of the credit crunch. According to recent Irish Court Service statistics, Irish divorce rates have dropped 13.5pc in the past year as a growing number of couples realise they cannot afford to split the family assets and start again.
“Three years ago, we stopped sleeping together. My husband moved out of our bedroom and that was the decision made,” she says. “But we couldn’t afford to go our separate ways, I was working part-time and he couldn’t afford to buy me out of the family home.
“So we had a really awful year trying to live together in the same house as an estranged couple. The rows got so bad that we couldn’t bear to be in the same space as each other. We barely spoke to each other and would talk instead through the children They were totally aware of what was going on and got into the habit of saying; ‘Dad says...’” Finally Lynn returned to fulltime work and could afford to rent an apartment near the family home. She and her husband share parenting duties.
But what expectations do women like Lynn have of life after separation or divorce? Do they feel released or do they, after the initial blush of freedom wears off, wonder if they could have made their marriage last? Do they fully understand the emotional melt-down that marital breakdown can cause for them and the rest of the family?
Some experts say there is a tendency to place personal happiness above all else.
“There’s a real sense that we must be happy at all times” says UK counsellor Sian Blore. “We look for a partner to fulfill us but at the first sign of boredom or danger, we cut and run. We all need to grow up a bit. You shouldn’t look for perfection in a person, happiness is a bonus, not a necessity and you have to know despair to appreciate the good times”
A new UK survey says that 20pc of people regret their decision to get married within the first year. Marriage proves more difficult than they expected and many report that they got married ‘because they had to’ and ‘without being really in love’.
Other experts say women often have unrealistic expectations of marriage. “Their expectations are so high that they set themselves up for failure and disappointment and often they’re not actually very good partners themselves,” says another relationship expert.
“When a marriage is in trouble, women think leaving is the only thing to do,” says Sian Blore.
“But that’s not necessarily the case. Statistically, second and third marriages are more likely to fail because you bring disappointment, failure, guilt and children to your next relationship. I’m amazed anyone survives it. Women also have high expectations of life after divorce.
“They view it as freedom and for a while it is. Then the reality sets in; the struggle to pay bills, the nights in alone or at dinner parties where a woman alone is seen as a spare part or a threat, which is no fun at all.”
“While my life has been totally transformed in the past year, it has also been difficult,” says Lynn. “The most terrible, upsetting part was the effect on the children.
“When we separated, my eldest daughter went through a period of anxiety, she was clinging to me, she’d virtually follow me to the toilet, as if she feared I’d disappear completely. My middle daughter blames me totally; when I’m in the family home she says, ‘you’re not wanted here, I don’t want to live with you, I want to live with my dad’.
“I did have a great rush of freedom. But of course there are lonely nights where you sit in your apartment crying. Friends of mine who are also separated agree, the loneliness is hard to get used to.
“I’m lucky that I have great friends who have been very supportive of my decision. I don’t have a television because I don’t want to end up alone every night watching the box, but I have become a laptop addict.
“Say what you like about them but internet dating sites have been a life-saver for me.
“Friends joke that I’m like a 20-year-old girl starting out with a new apartment and lots of boyfriends. It hasn’t only been about sex or relationships though: I’ve made plenty of friends through websites.
“Ending my marriage was the best thing I could have done and has worked out well. The last year has been one of the best of my life, I have no regrets”.
Another woman felt differently after ending her marriage. “I have to remind myself of how depressed and unhappy I was in the marriage” she says.
‘When I’m struggling to pay the bills, I wonder why I left. Seeing my ex happy with someone else made me really miserable. In retrospect, I wonder if I was too quick to call time on our marriage. I was unhappy but not everyone in the family was, I think now that we could have probably eased ourselves into old age together.”
According to leading family lawyer Eugene Davy, a partner in Hayes Solicitors, people sometimes underestimate the massive upheaval that marital breakdown brings. “They go from a fairly good relationship to being at complete loggerheads with their partner,” he says.
“There’s intense pressure and conflict and people find themselves confronting many crises at once. As well as the emotional crisis of a marriage ending, they face financial problems, moving house, perhaps health problems from the stress and problems with children who have suffered from the atmosphere at home.
“Women often instigate legal separation proceedings because they’re the more dependant or vulnerable spouse, depending on their partner to support them financially. If they feel that support is not forthcoming or has been reduced, they take action.
“I have rarely come across anyone who later regrets ending their marriage. I think Irish people try to hold on to marriage longer, they try to stick it out and usually only leave after a lot of consideration and reflection.
“What people regret is that the marriage broke down in the first place and that they didn’t move quicker to resolve problems earlier.”