The image of a divorcee has undergone something of a transformation in recent years. Gone is the picture of a woman who’s been through the emotional and financial wringer, someone who — without her husband and the security of marriage — loses both her confidence and her identity.
Rather, it seems to me that a pernicious modern stereotype has developed — where divorced women merrily fly off to yoga retreats, surrounded by fist-punching girlfriends on an empowered journey of self-discovery.
If the first description isn’t fair or accurate, the second certainly isn’t. But I was reminded of it last week when I read Simon Mills’s piece in the Mail lamenting the lot of the divorced man.
‘Women just seem to do divorce better,’ he concluded, reflecting on recent research that middle-aged men living alone after separation have an increased chance of early death.
As a divorced woman, the headline caught my eye. I was sitting in my parked car, frazzled, checking work emails on my phone before unloading the supermarket shop in the dark, while refereeing a sibling squabble, yelling at the kids to wipe their feet and noticing that yet again I had failed to put the bins out, much less taken five minutes for myself at any point that day.
So you’ll forgive me if I don’t quite buy the idea that Simon presented, of women sailing through divorce, their emotions and stress levels entirely unscathed.
The reality is so very different. Divorce is grim. When there are children involved, it is gut-wrenching and painful.
A long-lasting, loving marriage is the life most women like me want, so the dissolution of that bond is truly awful. I don’t know a single woman who hasn’t viewed her divorce as agonising — a very last resort. I know that it was for me.
Of course, there are always two sides to every story. No doubt the decline of Simon’s marriage was a typically complicated, emotional situation with both parties bearing some blame.
I truly sympathise with them, because that was certainly the case for me and my ex-husband, the former Olympic rower James Cracknell, when we divorced a year ago. That and the fact we never quite overcame the effects of the life-changing brain injury he had suffered.
After Simon Mills wrote that men suffer more than women following separation, mother-of-three Beverley Turner (pictured), who split from James Cracknell, gives a female perspective
When we separated in 2018, eight years after James’s cycling accident, my mind was full of worst-case scenarios about the impact of such an irreversible ending: what would be the short and long-term effects on our three children, Croyde, now 18, Kiki, 12, and Trixie, ten?
What was I teaching the kids about relationships? Who would I be without my significant other-half of almost 20 years?
But, dare I say it, perhaps it is the contemplation of these huge issues that prevents mothers descending into the vat of self-pity described by Simon after he left the family home?
In the whirlwind of separation, I spent so much time worrying about the children, the grandparents, the in-laws, the change to weekly schedules and making ends meet financially that there was no time for narcissistic navel-gazing.
Simon wrote that when collecting his children at ‘her (our) house, I was dour and uncommunicative, shoulders sloping, complexion wan. Yet I saw no sign of weakness, regret or doubt in her discussion or demeanour’.
Of course you didn’t, man! Get a grip! On doorstep handovers we soon-to-be ex-wives are too busy checking the kids have pyjamas, clean socks and worrying about whether they will use a toothbrush when they’re with their dad.
Even with amicable child-sharing arrangements (which, thankfully, I have) the lion’s share of responsibility still lies with Mum.
I am also always aware that the kids are taking their cues from me; it is less ‘putting on a brave face’ more ‘don’t be scared — I am OK, therefore you will be, too’.
Perhaps once the children had gone, it was then that Simon’s ex-wife sat with a coffee and reflected on the monumental changes to their lives.
I certainly had my moments of contemplation and grief at what we had all lost, reminiscing about our hilarious honeymoon in an American campervan and the wonderful births of our children.
Family: Beverley Turner with her three children Croyde, Kiki and Trixie pictured in 2020
James and I had such an exciting life together — perpetual over-achieving Olympic gold-medallists may be exhausting, but they’re never dull — and I remember preparing myself for that loss.
But, like me, Mrs Mills then probably returned to the ironing pile or her email inbox, relieved to tackle tasks without constant interruptions from the kids.
After marital separations, men may have time to wring their hands in regret. Women are too busy wringing out the school uniforms, and tackling the Sisyphean domestic duties required to keep family life motoring along.
For once the finances have been divided, ‘luxuries’ such as childcare or cleaners are often the first to go. That was the case for me.
A few months before James had his accident in 2010, the combination of his professional drive and my on-going support meant we were in a great position financially and chose to employ someone to help pick up the slack domestically — a woman whom James would later describe as ‘Bev’s surrogate husband’ in Touching Distance, the book we wrote about his recovery.
But our divorce meant the loss of ‘both’ my husbands because finances no longer allowed for such assistance.
What about the seemingly businesslike attitude that Simon says his wife displayed after their divorce?
The image of a woman showing no signs of remorse does ring true to me — not because we are heartless, but because the decision to cut ties with our spouse is never taken lightly by mothers.
We chew it over for months — sometimes years — imagining our new life and picturing whether we will sink or swim.
Consequently, by the time we’ve stormed out of the divorce mediator’s office (as James and I did, having failed to come to a peaceful resolution at an early stage in our separation), women have mentally already reached the island on the other side.
Pictured: F1 presenter Beverley Turner marries Olympic rower James Cracknell in 2002
Because by the time divorce is a possibility, we have already cried over every disagreement and disappointment; despaired at the predictability of social occasions that turned sour and holidays endured rather than enjoyed.
Each miserable occasion lays yet another sad stone that slowly builds the bridge towards us leading separate lives.
Men, more commonly, have not had time to process the earthquake. Even in those marriages that women deem intolerable, some blokes seem to contentedly muddle along from golf course to office, oblivious that their wife is Googling divorce lawyers.
Do we have a higher bar for happiness? Or are men just not taking our requests for affection, time and connection seriously until it is too late? Most likely it’s a combination of both.
Simon then surmises that a divorced man’s mental health diminishes as he eventually ‘drinks too much, pigs out on bad food’.
I find it hard to sympathise. Oh for the joy of such gastronomic abandon! There were days in the middle of my divorce, when lawyers’ expensive emails were being exchanged like bullets, that I longed to drink too much, to loll among empty bottles of Picpoul de Pinet, rising from the sofa only to answer the doorbell to a delivery of Thai green chicken curry. What bliss!
But mums must remain clear-headed for the school run and are too busy beating ourselves up if we don’t prepare something home-cooked and healthy for everyone.
Because all the emotions mothers are haunted by in married life only become magnified as a single parent. Worries for our children, guilt at perceived domestic missteps, it all becomes ever more heightened when it’s just you keeping the home fires burning.
Pictured: Olympic Gold medallist James and presenter Beverley after James’ accident
So forgive me for chuckling when Simon said that the divorced man ‘has trouble sleeping and works erratically’. The single mother knows nothing of sleeplessness as she crawls into bed and falls into a restless slumber filled with nightmares about her teenagers failing exams. All too soon the 6.30am alarm goes off, she takes a deep breath and starts all over again . . .
The social circle of the divorced male is said to ‘constrict to sad, single-digit reach’. But in my experience this happens long before a wife has packed up her husband’s underwear drawer.
Married couples whose social lives are not primarily organised by the woman are as rare as hen’s teeth. Maybe men need to take a bit more responsibility for their friendships while still married?
I’m stereotyping here, but women often have book groups, supper clubs or school-gate pals who will ask them for coffee.
Those activities are fun, but are mere conduits for the story-sharing and emotional housekeeping that goes on besides. They’re a tonic when you’re happily married, but they become a life raft when you’re not.
I have my netball team (the aptly named Trouble Shooters), and although they needed me to play in Goal Defence, I also needed them to hear me banging on about the complexities of child maintenance over an occasional post-match glass of wine.
I found that even on the most difficult days — when the kids were anxious and James’s lawyer was treating the settlement like an Olympic final in which there could be only one winner — a 40-minute netball match (or what psychologists call a ‘flow-activity’, in which you ‘lose yourself’) was therapy.
My ex-husband, meanwhile, didn’t fit the stereotype of the ex-husband retreating into Mills’s ‘loneliness’. He was busy going back to university at the age of 46, rowing in a team of twentysomethings and meeting the 36-year-old who is now his wife.
And good on him for that — winning the 2019 Oxford v Cambridge Boat Race may have been an extreme version of a ‘flow activity’, but many blokes could take some inspiration from James when it comes to carving out a full, challenging and rewarding life.
Simon’s definition of the divorced male as ‘in every way, living in reduced circumstances’, does not apply here. It only rings true for the man who has given up; the man who is waiting for someone else to fix his existence — possibly like the ex-wives fixed, well . . . everything before.
Ultimately, every person who has been through a divorce, male and female, is faced with an identity dilemma, one which is tough to resolve and, as the recent health survey proves, can have serious physical manifestations.
I am certainly still working mine out. Yes, I now have a fabulous new partner whose support is boundless, but my happiness is not his responsibility.
And contrary to public opinion, divorce does not necessarily signal a complete overhaul of day-to-day life for most mums.
I am fortunate still to live in the family home, but am so busy lurching from day to day that I have no time — or headspace — to carry out much-needed repairs to a house that failed to evolve as the children grew up.
So the playroom has deteriorated into a dumping ground, my ex-husband’s ‘gym’ (the biggest room in the house) lies cold and unused — and yet I still can’t quite get in gear to tackle it all.
We live with the threadbare 15-year-old carpet, kitchen cupboards without doors and broken toilet seats because I simply don’t have the bandwidth to tackle the scale of everything that needs renovating.
Plus, despite a satisfactory financial split, the future monetary uncertainty that accompanies being unmarried renders me nervous of such a significant outlay.
It’s all too easy for divorced dads to view domestic family life through rose-tinted spectacles, even as they live every day with spontaneity and freedom. But for the ex-wives still at the helm, lying awake waiting to hear a teenager’s key in the front door at weekends and managing screen-time, friendship issues, dentists, hair appointments and parents’ evenings, it can feel totally overwhelming.
It’s amazing when you think about it — divorced mothers do all this and we still outlive the dads.