Tuesday 16 January 2018

Second Timers: Having another shot at love

Library image. Photo: Getty Images
Library image. Photo: Getty Images

Catherine Dunne

I am at a party. The room is buzzing, fizzing with energy and animation. Sixty, maybe 70 people are crowded together, talking, telling stories, fighting to get a word in edgeways. There is the sound of corks popping, glasses chinking, the occasional burst of raucous laughter. The jaunty banners above the table announce that this is an anniversary -- a special anniversary. Someone taps on a glass. The room falls immediately silent.

Our host begins his brief and witty speech. I take the time to sneak a look around me, curious as ever. People watching: the novelist's disease. I'm also having one of those moments that have recently become all-too familiar -- that small, recognisable whisper of panic. Am I going to be able to remember everyone's name? But right now, that's not important. We are all intent, wishing our hosts well, willing this to be a joyful celebration of a happy marriage.

And then it hits me. Everyone I can see -- in fact, everyone in this room, as it later transpires -- is in a second relationship, including me. Some have remarried, some have not. Some are living together, some are not. Some are sharing a status that they laughingly call 'semi-detached'. But no matter what we call it, each of us has embarked -- with varying degrees of optimism, trepidation or delight -- on the emotional adventure of loving again.

And none of us, not one, is under 50.

Later, I decide to dig a little deeper. I wonder whether this small group is simply a random, accidental gathering of second-timers, or whether it is somehow representative of a wider, deeper truth.

I discover that the 2006 Census recorded 200,000 broken marriages in this country. Those figures show that a seismic shift has taken place in Irish society over the past 20 years or so: marriage breakdown has increased by 500pc. And what I can loosely call my generation, those aged between 40 and 59, are far more likely to divorce than any other age group.

This is not simply an Irish phenomenon; it is reflected throughout Europe and the US. So why so much upheaval in what are traditionally supposed to be the 'golden years'? What is it that makes so many people leave long, apparently stable relationships at such a crucial stage of their lives?

I think it is too simplistic to say, as some commentators do, that people divorce because they can. I don't believe that particular view represents joined-up thinking. Just because something is available does not mean that large numbers of individuals are suddenly, dramatically driven to seek it, particularly since, in this case, it comes at great personal and financial cost.

And let's look for a moment at the other side of that particular coin. We are all aware in this society, either anecdotally or personally, of those of our parents' generation who stayed together because they had to. There was no other option available to them. Ironically, economic circumstances today are forcing many couples into a similar situation -- although divorce is available, it is no longer affordable to so many whose marriages have fallen apart. So they're cornered into re-enacting a kind of grim parody of the 1950s: stay on and suffer.

At this particular party on this particular night, there are as many reasons for the sundering of a relationship as there are people. To paraphrase Tolstoy: "Happy marriages are all alike; every unhappy marriage is unhappy in its own way." A generous observation; a non-judgmental judgement.

For some, there had been an irreparable breakdown of trust. Not necessarily infidelity in the way we normally understand the word, but a lack of fidelity in promises made and not kept, in word given and subsequently broken. For others, there had been the sad realisation that they had grown continents apart, and that there was no longer any meeting of minds, any sharing of priorities.

Children leaving the nest had highlighted another, more fundamental emptiness. And for others still, with advancing years had come the rush of courage that enabled them to tolerate the intolerable no longer.

Which is not at all the same thing as saying that leaving -- or being left -- is easy, no matter how intolerable the unhappiness has become. A lot of words, some wise, some not so wise, have been written about separation and divorce. About how selfish it is; how wrong it is; about how the law makes it too easy to 'walk away'. I have notebooks and diaries from my own post-separation days, dozens of them, each of them giving the lie to how 'easy' it is to be wrenched from the life we have known and trusted.

Hard days had to be endured. Days when I could do nothing other than put one foot in front of the other. Days when moods shifted like water; when pain, loss and loneliness had to be confronted and somehow absorbed, if not resolved.

Lives become very tightly entwined down through the years -- a severing of ties after two or three decades is often brutal in its intensity. Unpicking the threads of a relationship that has spanned some 30 years feels like the unravelling of the self.

So, what helps to pull us back together again? Friendship, for one thing. Work, for another. According to Erica Jong, in her memoir 'Fear of Fifty', she threw herself into a writing frenzy once her marriage ended. When her daughter visited her father at weekends, Jong recalls filling the hours with the creative activity that made her feel that she was remaking her life again, remaking her own self.

There was, too, as she wryly admits, the economic imperative: she was now the only one putting bread on the table. And where once her superior earning power had been a matter of pride, now it was a matter of oppression. Now there was no partner to share the burden.

So what about Afterwards? What happens when the chaos settles, when a new life begins to become established; when, as in my case, an old and well-established friendship begins to change into the beginnings of a new, second relationship?

Happiness happens, that's what.

In common with so many other second-timers, I have had the time to examine my priorities, to sift through them and to find the ones that fit me best. I have rediscovered what contentment is. I revel in easy companionship, in shared pursuits, in quiet moments. I count my blessings.

I have also developed a new way of looking at the world. It can be quite a subversive activity, and a highly entertaining one. There is such an emphasis on youth in our culture that it is easy to forget the richness of interior lives -- a richness that deepens as we age.

I am often amused at how the eyes of younger people glide over us; the white-haired man, the invisible middle-aged woman. 'Positive Ageing' is, for them, a contradiction in terms, and that, perhaps, is how it should be. It's age-appropriate -- that adolescent belief that you will never age, never die, that the world is your oyster and all you have to do is grasp it. And grasp more and more of it.

This time around, I know what works. Intimacy, along with the security that your other half is firmly in your corner. Friendship, a shared sense of humour, a shared love of books, of travel. And a sense of having come home. That a long and difficult journey has finally washed me up on a quieter shore, where I can think, write and simply be.

Here's to the second time around.

Catherine Dunne's novel 'Missing Julia' is out now

Irish Independent

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