For­get the stereo­typ­i­cal Smug Mar­rieds: it’s di­vorced women who are hav­ing the last laugh, says a lib­er­ated Char­lotte Pear­son

The Mail on Sunday - You - - First Person - PHO­TOGRAPHS VIC­TO­RIA ADAM­SON

Afriend, who di­vorced two years be­fore I did, as­sured me when I was in the throes of post-sep­a­ra­tion de­spair: ‘Get­ting di­vorced is a night­mare, but be­ing di­vorced is great.’ I couldn’t be­lieve this at the time be­cause, from my po­si­tion in the trenches, life as I knew it was crum­bling around me. But, seven years on from my de­cree ab­so­lute, I am happy to say she was right.

Where once di­vorced women were ob­jects of pity – stuck at home feel­ing mis­er­able, while their ex was out pulling younger women – to­day, things couldn’t be more dif­fer­ent. Far from tragic, we di­vor­cées are go­ing to fes­ti­vals, trav­el­ling with friends and tak­ing on toy boys. Dat­ing apps such as Tin­der are awash with di­vorced peo­ple of both sexes, right-swip­ing each other. One of my girl­friends tells me she was reg­u­larly asked if she’d had Bo­tox af­ter split­ting from her ex two years be­fore, she looked so glow­ing and un­lined. In fact, she was just hav­ing some much-needed great sex with some­one she met on­line.

Like al­most ev­ery­one I know, I wel­comed the re­cent news that the law looks set to change to al­low for no-fault di­vorces; a re­flec­tion of the fact that shame around di­vorce is a thing of the past. There will no longer be a need to prove adul­tery, un­rea­son­able be­hav­iour or de­ser­tion (cur­rently the only al­ter­na­tives to a lengthy sep­a­ra­tion). Hal­lelu­jah to that! And stud­ies cited in Psy­chol­ogy To­day mag­a­zine seem to con­firm that women do ac­tu­ally fare bet­ter – emo­tion­ally, if not fi­nan­cially – af­ter di­vorce than men. Be­cause men ben­e­fit more from the ‘pro­tec­tive health ef­fect’ of mar­riage – in other words, we nag them about drink­ing and smok­ing and en­cour­age healthy eat­ing habits – they go into greater de­cline, and slip into ‘old, un­healthy habits’ (which, ul­ti­mately, make them mis­er­able) when the mar­riage ends.

Women, on the con­trary, view a split as an in­cen­tive to be­come health­ier (many re­port sleep­ing bet­ter once no longer shar­ing the mar­i­tal bed, whereas men do not). And emo­tion­ally, men feel more alone: they tend not to forge such deep con­nec­tions with their friends as women do. In short, men thrive more in mar­riage and women – with our knack for main­tain­ing di­verse so­cial net­works – do bet­ter in di­vorce.

In fact, life ‘over the other side’ can be so good for women that it’s of­ten merry di­vor­cées who at­tract jeal­ousy from their mar­ried friends, rather than the other way around. Many of mine have re­marked how ‘lucky’ I am and de­manded to know if I have been on any ‘hot dates’ – hun­gry for the vi­car­i­ous thrill of some­thing that’s a dis­tant mem­ory for them. I’d half thought they might go cold on me – afraid I’d be af­ter their hus­bands (as if !) or fear­ing that di­vorce was some­thing they might catch, like chick­en­pox. I have yet to en­counter any of this and have felt only sup­port from my mar­ried mates. Smug Mar­rieds? I think they were a fig­ment of Brid­get Jones’s imag­i­na­tion. A lot of the time I feel like a Smug Divor­cée.

And there are plenty of us around… Just look at Louise Red­knapp who, hav­ing di­vorced Jamie af­ter two decades of mar­riage, was re­cently seen jet­ting off to Mykonos with a girl­friend to stay in a holis­tic ho­tel that of­fers med­i­ta­tion, mu­sic and art, as well as cock­tails on the beach. Ditto Stacey Giggs, di­vorced from Ryan af­ter ten years, who re­port­edly has a tat­too of four birds with the word ‘free’, dis­play­ing what many of us di­vor­cées know to be true: once that pa­per­work comes through, you re­ally are as free as a bird. Ac­tress Jenna De­wan spoke for many of us when she said, af­ter her split from ac­tor Chan­ning Ta­tum: ‘I feel a sense of joy and free­dom and ex­cite­ment, truly, about a new chap­ter in my life. I feel re­ally open, and I feel hope­ful.’

This re­ac­tion is com­pletely nat­u­ral, says Chris­tine Northam, a se­nior coun­sel­lor for Re­late, who works with in­di­vid­u­als, cou­ples and fam­i­lies cop­ing with sep­a­ra­tion and di­vorce. ‘Lib­er­a­tion from the emotional angst of a mal­func­tion­ing re­la­tion­ship can give you a real rush. Like any­thing, it’s about how pos­i­tively you take the op­por­tu­nity to let go of an un­happy mar­riage.’ Espe­cially if you have chil­dren: ‘That free time you didn’t have be­fore, when your ex-part­ner now has the chil­dren, is a cru­cial breather,’ she adds.

I am not ashamed to say that I have made the most of the week­ends and hol­i­days when my chil­dren have been with my ex and I have been able to fo­cus on my­self. No guilt at not put­ting the chil­dren first and no need to take a hus­band into ac­count. No dirty tea mugs to clear away. No dis­carded news­pa­per sports sec­tions on the floor. How I love burn­ing scented can­dles with

Or­ange is the New Black or The Crown on in the back­ground, rather than b****y Match of the Day.

Best of all, though, I’ve loved the way my so­cial life has evolved since sep­a­rat­ing. Let’s face it, cou­ples’ din­ners are of­ten bor­ing and plagued by anx­i­ety over whether the hus­bands will get on. At gath­er­ings of fel­low di­vor­cées and sin­gle­tons, con­ver­sa­tions are so much more lively and var­ied – we go to art ex­hi­bi­tions, plays and ex­per­i­men­tal restau­rants in dif­fer­ent parts of town to­gether. I’ve run three half-marathons and a clutch of 10k runs for char­ity since the split, most of these in the com­pany of my new sin­gle friends. Not long ago, I found my­self singing karaoke at an 80s dive bar with two di­vorced male friends un­til two in the morn­ing. Some­times be­ing di­vorced feels like be­ing back at uni! And you are once again al­lowed to have male friends with­out wor­ry­ing about your hus­band feel­ing threat­ened.

Dav­ina McCall, who split from Matthew Robertson last year af­ter 17 years of mar­riage, summed up the pos­i­tive im­pact a di­vorce can have on one’s so­cial life: ‘As you get older, you re­alise how im­por­tant friend­ships are. I used to have one best friend be­cause I was so busy with the kids, my mar­riage and ev­ery­thing else, but now I have lots of close friends.’

And then there’s dat­ing. To be able to en­joy the free­dom of sin­gle life with­out need­ing to get the mar­riage box ticked, like first time round, feels like a de­li­cious treat. In my 20s I was al­ways, in the back of my mind, as­sess­ing men as po­ten­tial hus­bands and fathers. I had a timescale. If I was in­vited to a party, I went – be­cause ‘he’ might be there. How dif­fer­ent it is to be sin­gle now, at the age of 44. I don’t have to set­tle. I don’t have to be sen­si­ble. I don’t have to hurry. I could see some­one to­tally un­suit­able or un­mar­riage­able – a toy boy, say, or a com­mit­ment-phobe – and it just doesn’t mat­ter. And if I’m not re­ally feel­ing it, then I don’t have to bother; I can grab sup­per with a friend, catch up on Net­flix or bank a good night’s sleep in­stead. Women, per­haps be­cause they’ve been re­lieved from the du­ties of car­ing for a hus­band and pick­ing up af­ter him, are, ac­cord­ing to re­search, less in­clined to want to re­marry than men. A poll by the Pew Re­search Cen­ter in the US showed that 65 per cent of di­vorced men were open to re­mar­riage, while only 43 per cent of women were. No sur­prise there.

I’m also hav­ing fun put­ting more ef­fort into my ap­pear­ance. Even if I am only go­ing out with other women, I want to try harder. I’ve learnt to walk in heels again, in­vested in a pair of Shu Ue­mura eye­lash curlers and de­cided that it’s worth pay­ing for a good hair­cut every two to three months. I feel 22 again get­ting ready to go out at night. My 12-year-old daugh­ter, who has ap­pointed her­self my ‘stylist’, sounds proud when she says, ‘Mummy, you look pretty.’ It’s a sub­tle change – but one even a child can de­tect.

True, I am more care­ful with money now, and feel the sense of fi­nan­cial re­spon­si­bil­ity more acutely. Most peo­ple (if you dis­re­gard those rare, but highly pub­li­cised, cases in which a woman makes a for­tune by di­vorc­ing a hugely rich man) are made poorer by di­vorce. The same pot of money – what­ever its size – now needs to cover two homes, not one, and a vast amount has of­ten been squan­dered on a pair of ex­pen­sive di­vorce lawyers. There’s noth­ing like see­ing the council tax and util­ity bills deb­ited from my own ac­count each month to re­mind me that my free­lance jour­nal­ist’s in­come is now the only one in the fam­ily, and keep me at my lap­top. But hav­ing to man­age on my own has given me greater con­fi­dence and self-re­spect, and the added fi­nan­cial pres­sure has spurred me on to work harder, some­thing I might not have done had I re­mained com­pla­cently mar­ried.

Chris­tine Northam says: ‘It is a fact that women feel val­ued when we see money that we’ve earned our­selves bounc­ing into the ac­count. Di­vorce can be a great in­cen­tive to have a sat­is­fy­ing new ca­reer.’ One friend of mine – who had a small interiors busi­ness while mar­ried – has grown this since di­vorc­ing, while also re­train­ing as a psy­chother­a­pist and set­ting up a suc­cess­ful prac­tice, mind­ful of the need to earn and keen to give her life ex­tra pur­pose. An­other newly di­vorced friend has just re­turned to a full-time job in ad­ver­tis­ing (the pro­fes­sion she worked in be­fore mar­ry­ing a wealthy man and hav­ing two chil­dren), some­thing she would never have done if she had stayed with her banker hus­band. She’s lov­ing it and has a new glow.

Di­vor­cées shouldn’t get too car­ried away by smug­ness, though. ‘It is vi­tal to prop­erly mourn the end of a mar­riage,’ says Northam. ‘When we marry, we in­vest a lot of hope in it, and that is a big loss to get over. So be kind to your­self. If you’ve re­ally al­lowed your­self to be sad, then you are more likely to be able to grab the pos­i­tives of be­ing di­vorced down the line.’

For those of us with chil­dren, the one gnaw­ing


re­al­ity that re­mains for­ever raw is, of course, the feel­ing of hav­ing turned their lives up­side down. All di­vorced par­ents feel this deep down – no mat­ter how ef­fec­tively you ra­tio­nalise that two happy par­ents apart are bet­ter than two un­happy ones to­gether. But hav­ing done the un­think­able, you’re not help­ing by giv­ing them a sad-sack mother to boot. I am def­i­nitely more fun now. Hav­ing aban­doned the ideal of be­ing a ‘per­fect’ fam­ily – what­ever that is – my daugh­ter, son and I are now a some­times ec­cen­tric party of three. Eat­ing ice cream and watch­ing Mod­ern Fam­ily in bed is not un­usual.

The num­ber one must-have for a Smug Divor­cée, in­ci­den­tally, is a great re­la­tion­ship with your ex: it’s im­por­tant to be po­lite and dis­creet about them at all times. Think of Jen­nifer Garner, who has said of her di­vorce from Ben Af­fleck: ‘The main thing is these kids. You should see their faces when he walks through the door. And if you see your kids love some­one so purely and wholly, then you’re go­ing to be friends with that per­son.’ Or jew­ellery de­signer Jen­nifer Meyer, who de­scribes her ac­tor ex Tobey Maguire as her ‘best friend’.

If you think you can’t man­age this, fake it till you make it: it can be self-ful­fill­ing. Tell enough peo­ple you’re still dear friends and it just might hap­pen, whereas be­com­ing bit­ter is no good for you, your chil­dren or the lines on your fore­head; it puts off other men and places you firmly in the Tragic Divor­cée camp. Be­sides, the ex-wife casts a longer shadow if she is nice ( just look at Gwyneth).

Sur­viv­ing the fall­out does bring a sense of calm and strength. The truth – ironic, but also em­pow­er­ing – is that di­vorce turns many of us into ex­actly the woman our ex-hus­bands al­ways wished us to be: less needy; bet­ter fun (hav­ing a laugh over a glass of wine on a Fri­day night, rather than plead­ing ex­haus­tion and crawl­ing un­der the du­vet); more ca­reer-minded (not count­ing on a man to pick up the bills); sex­ier and bet­ter coiffed, and with a re­ally in­ter­est­ing life to talk about.

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