Why I (and, I suspect, many separated women) regret divorcing
By Jane Gordon
Last weekend, at a family wedding in the country, I was overwhelmed by an emotion that has, in the last year, become only too familiar to me.
Sitting in a stifling marquee, listening to my cousin Sally's husband making the traditional father-of-the-bride speech, I was overcome by a feeling that was part envy, part guilt and part regret.
My cousin's marriage, which has lasted for 25 years, is by no means perfect - what marriage is? - but against the odds, she has achieved something that is now, and always will be, beyond my grasp.
A lost life: Jane Gordon with her husband and son in 1999, before her divorce
As I looked at her sitting happy and radiant at the top table, laughing uproariously at her husband's far from funny jokes, I realised that, in a world that has horribly devalued the institution of marriage, she was reaping the benefits of putting the love and security of her family first, before any disagreements she might have with her husband in the rough and tumble of daily life.
Watching her united with her husband on such an emotional occasion reminded me sharply of exactly what I had lost - but had no idea I was losing - seven years ago, when I got divorced from my husband, the father of my three children, after 25 years together.
Our relationship had broken down, I can now see, not because of any petty irritations such as his lateness or my untidiness, but because we had both moved irrevocably away from each other.
In the past few years of our marriage, I was more absorbed in my children and my career than I was in my husband while he, feeling increasingly isolated, simply switched off.
It's a scenario that will be familiar to many couples. But how many of them choose to separate, and how many have the gumption to stick it out?
The trouble is nobody tells you the truth about divorce. They tell you it's a 'difficult' experience, and it's generally accepted that the process sits somewhere near the top of the ten most stressful life events.
But in the main it is regarded by society as a necessary evil. A milestone which, in an age when two in five UK marriages will fail, millions of us will go through at some point in our lives.
Indeed, in many ways, divorce is given a more positive spin in our confused modern world than marriage is.
The drawbacks of divorce are believed to be mostly either financial - as if the splitting up of the spoils of a life together were the very worst part of the process - or the fallout experienced by the children.
Little is ever said about the longer-term effects of divorce on the couple. No one ever points out that the repercussions of a marital split will reverberate down the timeline of your life forever.
This week, the Conservatives published a report commissioned by Iain Duncan Smith which proposed a three-month 'cooling off' period for couples considering divorce.
But the idea that couples would be ready to rethink their break-up after such a short period is unrealistic.
Change in family dynamics: Jane and her family before the divorce, now special occasions involve jugging the needs of her step family as well
As I have discovered the hard way, it is only now, seven years after I received my decree nisi, that I am starting to realise the gravity of what I have done.
If it has taken me this long for the seismic shockwaves of divorce to really hit home, how are warring couples expected to take an informed decision about separation when they are in the midst of the rows, the tension and the recrimination that so often accompany the death throes of a marriage?
It is only now that I am experiencing something akin to the seven-year 'itch' of marriage; the seven-year 'ache' of divorce, a regular recurrence of the emotion I experienced at that recent wedding - a pang, a regret for what has gone for ever.
There is much in my post-divorced life that I am grateful for and happy about. I have gained a new partner and two stepchildren, and our 'blended' family is more harmonious than anyone could have expected.
My ex-husband, who is a media consultant, has 'moved on' to a perfectly ordered and elegant bachelor apartment and a social life (with a series of ever-younger girlfriends) that is the envy of his old married friends.
On the surface, we have 'come through' our split relatively unscathed. But however contented I might be with my new partner Robin - and he with me - we realise that our relationship is, well, somehow second-best.
Our true loyalties lie not with our new 'blended' family, but with our own biological children and the ex-partners from whom we were both amicably divorced.
The important occasions in family life which I used to love - birthdays, Christmas and so on - are now difficult, trying times.
They are unsatisfactory no matter how hard we try; whether my partner and I attempt - as we have on several occasions - to unite our new and old lives or agree to simply be apart for the 'sake' of our children.
Still going strong: Jane admires women like Cheryl Cole who can get past their husband's infidelity for an enduring marriage
Now, for example, we spend Christmas apart - each ensconced with our children and ex-partners - which causes huge tension between us and has made us both dread the annual celebrations.
When my husband and I parted, my view of divorce was simplistic. I believed in the notion of divorce as a clean break and imagined a 'fresh start' would solve all my problems.
It wasn't a decision made lightly, but I had no idea of the true complexity of unravelling a life that had been led in tandem with someone else for more than 20 years.
It was the death of my parents, within six months of each other in 2008, that was the catalyst for my change of heart.
At my father's funeral, my brother made a moving address about the formidable achievements of an extraordinary man. He concluded that the greatest achievement of all was his remarkable partnership - over 60 years - with my mother.
The fact that I had not been able to give my own children the security that I had taken for granted shamed and upset me almost as much as the loss of my adored parents.
My children hadn't lost their parents when my husband and I divorced, but they had lost their family home and the continuity of family life that makes the journey from childhood to adulthood so much more comforting and secure.
It was at that funeral that I first experienced the feeling - part envy, part guilt and part regret - that has haunted me ever since.
With my new partner sympathetically sitting by my side and my ex-husband (who shared so much of my family history and yet had somehow been edited out of it), standing in the gallery, I truly understood what I had lost.
And there have been countless other moments in the past year when I have experienced similar feelings.
Last month, I attended a dinner party thrown by a close female friend whose own marriage had shifted perilously close to the edge of divorce, shortly after mine did, because her husband had an affair.
At the time of my break-up, my view of other people's marriages was as skewed as my view of my own, and I viewed her reluctance to divorce in a cynical way - imagining that her main motivation was her fear of losing her status as a married woman.
But I now see there was a much more selfless reason for her tenacity. Because a marriage, however imperfect, isn't just important in the happy moments of life - a child's graduation or wedding for example - but also in the bad times.
Shortly after my friend and her errant husband were reunited, he lost his high-flying City job and he now admits that it would not have been possible for him to recover from that (they started a successful new business together) without her love and support.
Their relationship has changed - my friend admits that she is still wounded by his infidelity - but losing her trust in him for a time is nothing to what she would have lost had she gone ahead with her divorce.
Back then, I couldn't understand her ability to accept his behaviour. But now I have nothing but admiration for the way she was able to take a longer view of her own marriage.
Indeed, I have a similar sense of admiration and envy for a handful of other still-married friends whose relationships I had viewed somewhat cynically because they displayed such open animosity towards each other.
I do two? Jane is unsure whether she will marry her new partner due to the scars left by the failure of her first marriage (file photo)
A good marriage - I now realise - is dependent upon the ability of both partners occasionally to be selfless and to compromise.
It is, of course, ironic that divorce has strengthened my belief in marriage. But then the years haven't just changed my view of divorce; they have inevitably blurred my memory of the reasons for our split.
Somewhere in my new home there is a large brown envelope filled with the reasons why we parted, duly noted down by lawyers, but the passage of time has made those mutually exasperating irritations seem petty.
In 2002, they were real and seemingly insurmountable. Had someone told me the truth about divorce then - explained exactly how, in the years ahead, it would impact on my life - perhaps we would still be together.
It is impossible to go back, but at the same time my divorce makes it difficult for me to move forward.
Maybe one day my new partner and I will marry, but the impact of our break-ups - he divorced several years before me - has so far prevented us from making a legal commitment to each other.
Our mutual fears that re-marriage will somehow invalidate our original families, and his concerns about the financial loss he would endure should our marriage subsequently break down, make the notion of a wedding unlikely.
But my divorce hasn't just had a major impact on the likelihood of re-marrying. I worry, too, that it has affected my children's view of marriage.
Will the repercussions of my break-up not only reverberate down the timeline of my life but also the timelines of my children's lives?
My daughters were 19 and 22 when I divorced and my son, who lives with me, was just ten.
Seven years on, my daughters are both much more focused on their careers than their love-lives, and show no sign of settling down in the way that my cousin Sally's daughter - several years younger - has done.
The long-term effects of my divorce, then, may not only deny me the opportunity to be a bride again and thus, in some way, legitimise my new relationship in the eyes of the world.
But they also could prevent me from being the mother-of-the-bride and - ultimately - a grandmother.
To paraphrase William Congreve's famous quote: 'Divorce in haste, repent at leisure.'