Inquiries about divorce rise in January. But even if you’re only wondering what life would be like without your partner, it’s bad for your marriage.
What would your life be like if you got a divorce? You’d re-do the house, which you’ll keep. Have time off from the kids when they’re with your ex. You’d join a luxe gym — or start going to the one you’re already paying for — and get fit. You’d feel desirable again. Get some attention. Instead of humdrum glad-that’s-over intercourse, there would be new, hot sex.
Even if you are not experiencing serious problems in your marriage, you are likely to be surrounded by people who are — especially if you are in your forties or fifties. The 11-year itch typically kicks in when women are 43 and men 46. Even if you’re not in one of the 42 per cent of marriages that end in divorce, you might start fantasising about what it would be like. Dreams of holidays without fighting over the sat-nav and launching yourself on Tinder are harmless, you might think, but it could be dangerous for your marriage.
The number of people making inquiries about divorce tends to rise in January
This time of year, when we are reviewing the state of our lives, is when divorce fantasists might let their imaginations go wild. The number of people making inquiries about divorce tends to rise in January. In 2016 the relationship charity Relate experienced a 39 per cent increase in calls in that month and expects the same this year. A recent study by the charity found that 9 per cent of partners at least occasionally consider divorce or separation and, says the Relate counsellor Barbara Bloomfield, “We suspect the real figure is higher.” Indeed, American research puts it at 25 per cent. There are many of us out there who are like Sarah Jessica Parker’s character, Frances, in the hit HBO series Divorce. She has a handsome spouse, sweetly difficult teenagers and a large suburban house, but is stubbornly convinced that her divorced friend is better off.
The 2015 National Divorce Decision-Making Project in the US, which set out to understand how people consider this option, found that one in four spouses has thought about splitting in the past six months (nearly half hadn’t mentioned it to their beloved) and another quarter have entertained thoughts on divorce in the past. Women were more likely than men (27 per cent v 22 per cent) to have had recent thoughts of divorce.
Dr Alan Hawkins, a professor of family life at Brigham Young University, in Utah, who led the research, says the UK is similarly afflicted: “It may be impossible not to think about divorce in our cultures, where we have high rates of divorce. We do know there is a contagion effect, so if someone in your social network divorces, especially someone that you’re fairly close to, you are in a higher risk category for divorce yourself.”
He adds: “It seems to make people stop and think, ‘I thought they were fine, and what about me? What about this problem we’ve never been able to solve?’ Those kinds of thoughts can organically emerge in people’s minds.” Yet, says Dr Hawkins, 53 per cent of the 3,000 respondents’ thoughts about splitting were “pretty soft — they’re not frequent, they don’t want a divorce, they want to work on their relationship to make it better, they’re actually pretty hopeful about the future of their relationship. For many, I don’t think those thoughts are signalling an impending demise.”
Indeed, it emerged — bizarrely — that most were “fairly happy” with their spouse. Although 47 per cent were more “serious thinkers”, 21 per cent of them admitted they didn’t “really want a divorce”. And 90 per cent had not taken legal action.
This comes as no surprise to the psychotherapist Wendy Bristow, who says that often, divorce fantasising is frivolous, along the lines of “I could get my hair done, sleep through the night without him snoring, spend a load of money on shoes without him complaining”. The divorce fantasist is often so swept away by their fabulous vision of the post decree nisi life, they have the gall to confide in the person who has gone through it.
If you’re feeling resentful, it’s common to think, ‘If I left him, he’d be sorry’
Emma, 47, eight years divorced, finds it particularly crass: “My friends say, ‘Oh you’re so lucky, you don’t have the kids this weekend.’ When often, my children go to their dad and I’ll sit, sobbing, at the bottom of the stairs. It’s like a bereavement, or as if the empty nest has been prematurely imposed on me.”
None of this occurs to the divorce fantasist, fixated on re-living their freedom years except with more money (so they imagine), and keen to punish their spouse for years of emotional crimes. This can, Bristow notes, be a helpful self-soothing outlet. “If you’re feeling hurt or resentful, it’s common to think, ‘If I left him, he’d be sorry.’ ”
But this brattish, blue-sky thinking does nothing to improve the marriage and is likely to damage it, because the reality of splitting — of what they might miss, or their shared responsibility for any marriage difficulties — rarely occurs to the divorce fantasist. Emma, still emotionally bruised, says some friends see her situation as an excuse to whinge about their “awful” husbands: “It’s like they’re almost willing me to urge them to separate.”
Bristow explains: “If you’re not that happy, it’s easy to think of extreme solutions rather than the middle-ground solution. So when somebody gets divorced in a friendship group, people can say unhelpful things, because they’re thinking, ‘Ooh, I wouldn’t mind being back out there again.’ ” However, she adds: “Divorce is fantastically painful, difficult, destructive and isolating. A whole way of life is ripped apart and destroyed. People don’t tend to fantasise about that side of it.”
Yet, says the family psychotherapist and counselling psychologist Dr Andrew Cornes: “At some point, everyone, and I do mean everyone, fantasises about what it would be like not to be in a relationship. All effective relationships are premised on making sacrifices and compromises, so it’s natural to imagine being free.”
He describes it as “a kind of continuum. If your fantasies become very powerful, and overwhelming, you’re much more likely to act on them.’’
Dr Cornes believes that “a divorce fantasy occurs when something has been lost. Be it a loss of intimacy, connection, affection, love.” The loss might not even directly relate to your partner but, adds Bristow, often when “people aren’t happy with their lives in general, or dissatisfied with their job, they make it all about the fact their spouse stacks the dishwasher in an annoying way”.
However, says Dr Cornes: “It’s different to fantasise about what it would be like to be free for a while and able to go on holiday when you liked — and also to fantasise about being out of the relationship.”
Bloomfield agrees: she advises making “a distinction between the desire for freedom and to keep hold of yourself as an individual, and the desire to get away from a situation or person”.
Bloomfield cheerfully admits to “thinking about divorce, being on my own, all the time” — but emphasises that this is not “about getting away from my other half” but about reminding herself of her “personal freedom and self-actualising potential”, an “incredibly useful” exercise. “There is a sense in which we can feel limited, or even annihilated by a relationship.”
A divorce fantasy is often a call for a need to make changes within your relationship, which is, says Bloomfield, “much more likely to last if you’ve got your own life, your own beliefs and difference from your partner”. There is, she adds, “very rarely any sex” in the classic companionate relationship, “where people do everything together, because there’s no grit, there’s no difference, there’s no excitement”.
However, if your spouse is the “oppressor” in those fantasies and you dream about running away from him or her, your situation may require more urgent attention.
It is a call for a need to make changes in the relationship rather than escape it
Then, says Bloomfield, “it’s valuable not to get stuck at the level of shallowness. Reflect on what your fantasies are trying to tell you. Is it, ‘Time to be brave, get out on your own for a week or two?’ Or is it that you’re trying to run away from a deeper relationship with your partner, and maybe that’s what you need to attend to?”
As Bristow says: “If there are cracks in your marriage, fantasising about buying a new leather skirt and trying out dating apps if you left him is no substitute for tackling problems in reality — which is difficult, boring and hard work.”
This work will involve taking your share of the blame for problems in your relationship. Couples counsellors suggest having an honest (but not brutal) exchange about what behavioural tweaks would bring you closer.
Bristow says: “We tend to deny our own part in our problems. But if you can take responsibility — and in a marriage responsibility for every problem is 50:50 — that can start to shift.”
Dr Cornes adds: “Spend less time fantasising and more time focusing on what it is like to be in the relationship, and, especially if you have kids, prioritise your time together.”
He says men and women have some typical behaviour in long-term relationships. “Often, men are guilty of being physically present but emotionally absent. Women, on the other hand, often need to be more direct and less ambiguous when communicating their needs to their husbands.”
He suggests that instead of dreaming of a life on your own as an escape route from your problems, why not have a joint fantasy of your future. “Re-evaluate your dreams, goals and interests as a couple if it’s possible that what hooked you up can continue to keep you together,” he says. Beware of idly taunting your spouse about a solo future: “It’s incredibly unhelpful for that [divorce] fantasy to become a conversation.”
Bloomfield says it could be productive to explore one another’s single fantasy futures as long as it is handled with extreme sensitivity. What you should both be trying to discover is how you can help one another’s dreams to come true as a couple. In the context of an intelligent, non-hostile conversation, asking: “If we weren’t having the life we’re having now, what might be an alternative life for you?” or “Is there anything you’d like to do?” is a way into thinking about changes. It certainly beats: “Something’s wrong and we need to deal with it!”
“We all fall into ruts,” says Bloomfield. “And ruts are what cause some divorces.” Start a dialogue in which you explore options about what you might do — together or separately. “It’s very sexy to be listened to.”