Forget the stereotypical Smug Marrieds: it’s divorced women who are having the last laugh, says a liberated Charlotte Pearson.
A friend, 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.
How to Spot a Smug Divorcee
- She’s taken up both running and yoga, and dropped a dress size almost overnight.
- Her flights for Ibiza in August have been booked since January (#girlsontour)
- She can be heard asking which dating app is best for divorcées.
- Her Instagram feed contains a mix of bikini shots and inspirational quotes.
- She hangs out, drinking prosecco – often with younger men.
- She refers to her single friends as ‘my tribe’.
- She favours TV shows with feisty female leads, such as Doctor Foster and The Good Wife.
- She has swapped safe, mumsy labels for fierce French brands such as Maje and Zadig & Voltaire.
- She is debating whether to make the leap from Wilderness to Glastonbury.