I met Tom in London, November 2000. It was quirky and serendipitous, the kind of meet-cute that might happen in a film. After spotting that a house on my Victorian terraced street was home to some good looking blokes, not a dissimilar age to me (then 23), I put a note through the door: “Stop watching TV and come & meet us in the pub next Thursday. Kings Head, 9pm, be there, from the girls up the road.” (Girls plural, so that I didn’t sound like a stalker).
The note now sits in a frame on the wall of my family home. Because Tom, my husband of 15 years, was one of the four out of five housemates that rocked up to the Kings Head that Thursday night in Tooting.
We clicked immediately, and six months later I was cohabiting with him in the house of boys. Beforehand though, I declared: “If we move in together, we’re getting married and having three kids. That’s the deal.” And, somehow, even though his parents had divorced and he “didn’t believe in marriage,” Tom agreed.
We wed in 2005 in two legs: the first at Wandsworth Town Hall and the second at the Anglican church in Ibiza. And we do now have three kids: Rafferty (nine), Fox (seven), and Liberty (three).
So far, so good. Tom and I have had our ups and downs, like any relationship, but we’ve got through them. On the whole we’ve been solid. You see, I have always – always – believed in marriage for the long haul. My parents have been married 50 years this year! Raised in a happy, churchy family, I never questioned marriage for life as a concept.
And I used to dream of the set up I have now: handsome husband (talented too, a music producer); gorgeous intelligent kids; a family home (no small thing; we rented for years before buying in Somerset four years ago) and a great career, where I work for myself, running Blog and marketplace, Selfish Mother.
But by the time we celebrated our 15th wedding anniversary this month, my opinion had started to change. Of course, lockdown has presented its own unique set of strains. According to the Office of National Statistics, 39 per cent of people who are married or in civil partnerships now report high levels of anxiety, compared with only 19 per cent pre-pandemic, and many experts are predicting that the past three months in close confinement will lead to a surge in divorce.
If anything, Tom and I have actually been arguing less than we did before, because we’re barely spending any time together at all. Like ships in the night, we pass the baton of childcare and work at lunchtime each day, before eating, sleeping and repeating. We feel more like colleagues than a couple, on the treadmill or running the small business of a family, as well as our actual business on top - getting through each day functionally in a well-oiled machine, day after day.
But now lockdown is easing, old issues are resurfacing, and we’re looking for answers to a questioning of our marriage that had already begun.
Because, though we communicate brilliantly, we do also argue a lot, and witnessing arguments isn’t healthy for the kids. Because, despite being a stellar team, the fizz and sparkle of early marriage is gone. Because, although the concept of an open relationship feels too naff – too Seventies, fondue-and-hot-tubs for either of our liking – we find other people attractive, and after 20 years together, perhaps we both need to explore who we are without each other.
Marriage brings lots of wonderful things, but the expectation of ‘foreverness’ can feel like a pressure cooker. About a year or so ago, while I was on maternity leave after having our daughter, Tom came on board to help with my business, and stayed on board. When I returned, we soon had a frank conversation: “if we carry on working together like this, it will lead to divorce.”
We were both shocked, at first, as the d-word hung in the air. But once it was verbalised, it began to lose its sting. What would my life and my children’s lives be like if Tom and I weren’t married? And asking that question, led to another question: why is there so much stigma around the subject?
Growing up, the word ‘divorce’ was whispered by my parents in hushed, sad tones. Even today, people love to jump on; piously hauling other people’s splits over the coals. As if to divorce means there must have been something tragically wrong with the whole relationship from the start.
But what if two people have an amazing time together and simply decide, after a while, that they’d like to try something else? Why can we not celebrate marriages for what they were while they lasted, instead of deeming them ‘failures’ when they end?
I’ve started to wonder if marriages shouldn't be more like mortgages: sign up for a fixed-term contract that you review after a set period of time. You might renew it or you might decide to sell up completely. But can you imagine moving house and people brandishing your time in that home a failure? No, we simply look back on the happy memories, which led us to our new pad.
Signing on the dotted line, with a couple of clear-headed caveats, isn’t a completely foreign concept – prenups, of course, feature tight time spans, and in the book, The New I Do: Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists and Rebels, therapist Susan Pease Gadoua and journalist Vicki Larson revealed five-year ‘starter’ marriage contracts were allowed (and, interestingly, rarely dissolved) in ancient Japan, and a two-year version was proposed by lawmakers in millennial Mexico.
Perhaps, as well as time-specific contracts, the very idea of modern marriage could have a rethink.
“When you own each other, something peculiar happens,” said acupuncturist, healer and counsellor Wendy Mandy recently on Russell Brand’s podcast. “I’ve seen amazing couples deteriorate because the architecture they live in is destructive.”
For 40 years, Mandy has researched the lives of indigenous tribes in Africa and South America, who live communally rather than in nuclear set-ups.
“The great Hollywood dream where you’ve got the house with the 2.2 children and the picket fence has now unfortunately overwhelmed the world, but before that you had a collection of people, such as a village, where there were lots of roles to rely on," she explained. "The classic co-dependent relationship, which unfortunately most families are [now] based on, can start eating each other alive, as they spend far too much time fulfilling all the roles which used to be shared communally.”
It has never been more apparent how many other people we need in our marriage, than since we’ve been forced to live without them in lockdown. Certainly, I know that parenting our three children feels so much less stressful when my parents, who moved 15 minutes down the road a few years ago, were able to pop over and form a four-adults-to-three-children ratio. As they’re both in their mid-seventies, their grandparenting has had to be done via Zoom, of late, and their absence has been felt.
When I posted a picture on my Instagram feed recently of a crazily messy Lego-strewn lounge, and asked for people’s tips for keeping it tidy, one woman advised “Get divorced! Not joking, I have half the week to tidy it up.” Would life feel so stressful if our set-up was less formulaic, for instance, if we each had half the week off parenting and more time to ourselves?
The idea that Tom and I could co-parent (as the wonderful team we are) while also respecting each other, giving ourselves our own space, and raising balanced children, makes me feel curious and free.
It looks like it is possible to be blended and happy; from celebrity examples such as Gwyneth Paltrow, who famously ‘consciously uncoupled’ from Chris Martin in 2016 – but posted a heartfelt tribute to him on Father’s Day last week – to broadcaster Cherry Healey, who recently posted on Instagram: “One of my biggest passions is for women to feel free – free from societal expectations that we must be a mother / married, and that divorce means we are broken – when in fact it often means that the woman is experiencing more peace.”
Tom and I haven’t come to a decision, but we have mapped out how we might do things if we did land on the side of divorce. Paradoxically, I feel that we have a stronger, more honest relationship than most people I know, in even being able to bring up this subject. I am writing this article with his blessing, which shows what a good friend my husband is to me. And knowing this gives me strength, whatever we decide to do.