Life & Culture

Divorce made me smile at strangers

Has the seven-year-itch been replaced by a 20-year variant?


Has the seven-year-itch been replaced by a new, harder-to-scratch, 20-year variant which prompts the female of the species to up and leave a long marriage? That is what author Linda Kelsey found when her own break-up prompted her to uncover some startling research.

"I discovered there had been a seismic shift in the institution," says Kelsey, a former editor of Cosmopolitan. "In just the six years to 2008, the Office of National Statistics estimated the number of divorced women over 45 jumped by a third.

"What makes that significant is that the overall divorce rate has decreased for the fourth year running, so these women in their 40s, 50s and 60s are bucking the trend."

Even balabustas who have dutifully cleaned, cooked and raised large families are not immune to the trend, says Kelsey, who has seen many middle-aged Jewish mothers like herself feel they have had enough: "The causes are incredibly varied, from women not wanting to put up with their husbands' infidelity to not wanting to spend another 25 years of healthy life with a man with whom they no longer feel anything in common."

Like the heroine of her new novel, The Twenty Year Itch, Kelsey did not instigate her own break-up, but acknowledged that a husband going on his own gap year in middle age indicated a marriage on its way out.

"We had been together for 24 years, and although I kept the door slightly ajar, I think I knew we wouldn't get back together."

She believes what she has learned in the past few painful years may be of help to other women facing life alone for the first time in many years:

"I found I had a lot more emotional resilience than I had believed, and I think generally women are pretty resilient.

"I also found incredible support from family and friends. Women friends can be fantastic, and you have to call on them when you need them. If you have treated them well, they will be there for you in a crisis."

It is important to go out whenever invited, says Kelsey, who acknowledges there is a temptation to want to wallow at home with a vodka bottle in front of the television. "Every small step you take into the outside will add to your confidence.

"Prime hosts and hostesses in advance to introduce you to people you have not met before. Or be brave enough to go up to a group at a party: and ask, 'Do you mind if I join you?' Going into a crowded room on your own may seem the most difficult thing in the world, but you will survive."

Another way to build confidence is to take extra care with your appearance, Kelsey discovered: "Treat yourself to an extra trip to the hairdresser, or whatever makes you feel good. I decided to make an effort to put on make-up and look nice even if I was just going out to the supermarket or walking the dog.

"And I started smiling at people - if you do, they smile back. It's said women feel invisible at a certain age, but they don't have to be."

She urges divorcees wondering how they will ever rebuild their emotional lives to seek some professional help. "I discovered divorce recovery workshops," she says.

A lot of parents wait until their children have flown the nest to give themselves permission to leave, but Kelsey, who has a son in his 20s, says: "Forget the myth that older children are less affected by divorce. It can be a bad time to leave when adolescents are forming relationships.

"They are at an age when they feel they have to be 'cool' about a break-up, and they need attention. Talk to them and encourage them to feel free to be angry with you; don't make the divorce a taboo subject."

Kelsey also believes that a new generation of "collaborative" lawyers can take the sting out of splitting up. "Their aim is to take that tooth-and-claw fighting out of the system. In our case we asked a mutual friend with degrees in law and accountancy to mediate for us, and managed to come up with an agreement about the division of our property assets on one piece of paper. We agreed we would not have recourse to each other's pensions or savings, and that we would divorce online and share the cost."

Although she has not yet completed her divorce, Kelsey has met a new man by following her own advice: "I would not have met him if I had not attended the only Chanucah party that I've ever been to.

"But if I had not met a man through friends, I would have had a go at internet dating or put an ad in somewhere. There is no stigma attached to it
anymore, and there are dozens of dating sites and agencies aimed at older people."

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