I found myself surprisingly disturbed as I listened on BBC i-player to Roisin McAuley’s absorbing BBC Radio 4 documentary, Leaving Mr Wrong (available until Mon, Feb 21st). In fact, it would be fair to say that it really hit me between the eyes how marriage has changed since I was born.
My mother, and most of her generation, would never have dared challenge their husbands. It was socially unacceptable (and therefore unthinkable) to divorce. But as the BBC documentary pointed out, babyboomer wives now seem to be walking away from their long-term partnerships in droves, often leaving their husbands flabbergasted, hurt and lost.
It is a subject close to my heart, since I have also talked about this in my new book Sex, Meaning and the Menopause (coming out in June).
However, listening to Roisin’s interviewees explaining why they left their husbands (reasons ranging from falling out of love, boredom, lack of trust, fed up with being ignored, and one wife being incensed by the amount of time her husband spent on the golf course) was made all the more poignant because a long-time friend has taken the same step only a few days ago, 35 years after I was bridesmaid at her wedding. Rather close to home.
I will never forget the moment when Clare (names and details have been changed), then aged 21, clapped eyes on the Moroccan waiter who was to become her husband.
And, my goodness, she fought for him. Her family were appalled, her friends cynical. And immigration was after him. She ignored her family, hid him in her flat for several weeks, managed to procure a marriage licence for them both, and then married him, with me acting as their witness. His British residency followed soon after. And, soon after that, their first child arrived. Now, that is what I call love.
Like any pair who have slogged their way through decades of togetherness, Clare and her husband had their fair share of problems. But, for me they were always a given. A couple who had beaten the system, faced their sorrows, and appeared stronger for it.
So it was very sad to learn that Clare, now in her late fifties, had had enough. ‘I don’t need a man’ she told me on the telephone. ‘I’ve had enough of him sitting in front of that blasted football, and running up debts on his credit cards. It does my head in. I just want some peace and quiet.’
‘Are you sure about this?’ I asked. ‘Is there nothing that you can both do to save your marriage?’
‘Absolutely nothing,’ she said in the same resolute tones that I remember when her parents tried to talk her out of the marriage in the first place. ‘I don’t love him any more. And I’ve told him so.’
Even though I knew there was nothing more to be said, my once-bridesmaid’s heart did go out to her 65 year-old husband. But of course, as the women taking part in Leaving Mr Wrong made very plain (and, I know myself from leaving my first husband after only seven years of marriage), there is no hope of resurrection when love dies as completely as that.
Clare is now going through the mess of separation and divorce, and, boy, is her once-adoring husband bitter and angry. Similar to the one man that Roisin interviewed for her the radio documentary, he had no idea of what was coming.
Although some men do unquestionably ask for it, I actually feel quite sorry for these once-upon-a-time-Mr-Rights. Rather than curling up into comfortable retirement and older-age companionship, they are thrown back into life, often with little clue of what went wrong, or how to start again.
While self-liberated menopausal and post-menopausal women are pursuing later life on their own terms, their ageing ex-spouses will be desperately searching for a second and usually younger wife, willing to love and care for them.
It just goes to shows how different men and women’s needs can be as we grow older.