Allegra Huston on why breaking up is hard – but sometimes for the best.
It seemed to me an English thing: a married couple sleeping in separate bedrooms, leading separate lives. ‘Pretending’ to be married, as I thought of it when I was in my 20s. I saw it as passionless, unimaginative, conventional, ‘polite’. It appalled me. Life should be focused on romantic love: passionate, exclusive, face to face. If not Pride and Prejudice or Persuasion, then Wuthering Heights.
I also disapproved of such arrangements for ideological reasons. They require money – ideally the kind that just makes its way into your bank account under its own steam – and a house large enough to provide those separate bedrooms; expressions of privilege that offended my egalitarian heart.
Of course that kind of arrangement isn’t just an English thing. It’s very much a French thing and an Italian thing, too. But not, I thought, an American thing. Americans just get a divorce.
I am English and American: American when I’m in England and English when I’m in America, which is where I was when, four years ago, I understood the possibilities of such an arrangement and wanted one for myself. The fact that I wasn’t technically married to Cisco, the father of my child, made no difference to me; I had no intention of ever leaving him.
Cisco and I used to joke that the reason we didn’t marry was so that we could never get divorced. But at my 49th birthday party I realised that I could no longer go on pretending we were a loving couple. He gave a speech to the effect that the best thing about being with me was my wonderful friends. (It sounded better at the time.) Then he kissed me, an ostentatiously long, passionless smooch that was, basically, a mark of ownership. I felt like a fire hydrant.
I had asked for no presents, but even so I received one: an apricot tree seedling from a friend. The tree died. Of course it did. But I had been dead inside for…I didn’t even know how long. A couple of years maybe? Longer than that? I had already articulated to myself that I no longer knew what joy felt like. That realisation shocked me deeply. The name my mother gave me means ‘joy’. She died when I was four and it’s one of the few things of hers that I have. The thought that I was letting her down overwhelmed me with despair.
How had I come to this? The life I’d built in Taos, New Mexico, where I’ve lived for nearly 19 years now, while vastly surprising to the friends who had known me in London was, in my eyes, nearly idyllic. After a chain of coincidences, I’d fetched up in a beautiful and historic town, populated by unconventional people, with an unusual and charismatic man by my side, working hard but on my own terms. We had designed and built a house together. I was still determined that this relationship would endure until one of us left feet first. I am a child of separation and divorce – even that is a simplification. Though I learned to be grateful for it, since I wouldn’t have had the life and family I’ve had without it, I wanted nothing like it for my own child.
For two years I drew floor plans for the new house. It would be U-shaped, with a courtyard in the middle, but which rooms would go where? Master bedroom on one side, children’s wing on the other? (I hoped that once we had more space my stepson would spend the night often.) No – if my son cried in the night I wanted to be able to hear him. All the bedrooms together in the traditional hacienda arrangement of public side/private side? No – we wouldn’t have enough privacy.
Eventually I figured it out: close but not too close, and the master bedroom big enough for a king-size bed. In our old house Cisco had often slept on the sofa but I ignored that fact as I drew my plans. There were excuses: I was a bad bedmate, first because I was pregnant and hot as a radiator, and then because the baby slept in our bedroom. Things would be different in the new house.
Looking back I can see that was my first failure. We should have acknowledged it then: we were lousy housemates. Cisco likes shadow; I like sunlight. He finds the drone of the TV soothing; I find it crazy-making. If we’d built a house in which we could have lived separately and met in the middle, perhaps we would still be together. But we never faced up to the distances that were already growing between us. Since I was a teenager I’d loved to lie in bed designing my house, which of course was built for a ‘normal’ family. Fantasies built over decades don’t crumble easily.
Five years later we moved into the new house, and soon Cisco took up night-time residence on the sofa again since I refused to have a TV in the bedroom. I hated that he slept there, both because it gave the lie to the life I was still insisting to myself I was living and because it made the reality so obvious to visitors, especially when he nailed up blankets over the windows. He could have moved himself and a TV into the guest room but neither of us ever broached the subject. We were drifting apart and we didn’t dare admit it. Irritation and dislike were growing in the dark.
We didn’t fight; we simply began to avoid each other. In summer he busied himself with his white-water rafting company until late at night; in winter he lay on the sofa with bronchitis – it seemed he was sick for three months of the year. Mummified in the headphones he’d settled into because I couldn’t bear the TV noise, he watched endless shows about hoarders and extreme fishing, and I moved my workspace to the kitchen table. I felt trapped there, behind the wall of unacknowledged resentment hanging between us. I’d almost hold my breath as I walked to the front door; it felt like running a gauntlet.
Every day our son made his way through this silent landscape. One day, when he was about ten, his father said to me, ‘He hates me and I’m resigned to it.’ I was horrified: more by the second half of the sentence than by the first. I booked us into family therapy. ‘Of course he doesn’t hate you,’ said the therapist. Well, duh, I said to myself; it’s because his father doesn’t have time or energy for him. But neither did I. We had both sunk into the same gloomy lassitude.
Our son started having behavioural problems at school. On the evening of his first day back after the Christmas break he announced that he wanted to go to a different school. We sat down for a family talk, in which I ended up doing most of the talking. You can’t run away from your problems, I told him. You have to face the reality of the situation, be honest with yourself. If you have issues with other people, you have to find a way of working them out. I was proud of myself: I was being calm, rational, loving but not indulgent. Our son agreed to stay where he was.
‘Good parenting, babe,’ his father said, patting me on the shoulder, at which point my heart thudded on to the floor. I knew in that instant that I was a hypocrite. I’ve always been pretty good at what I call ostrich pose: putting my head in the sand, ignoring realities I don’t want to face. Here I was telling my son to do things I wasn’t prepared to do myself. Suddenly I saw that his problems were caused, at least to some degree, by my refusal to face my own.
The following night, I approached the sofa where Cisco lay. I talked about the elephant in the room that neither of us was acknowledging: the fact that we were not in a romantic relationship any more. But I was firm about one thing: I did not want to break up our family life in the house we’d built. He agreed to adapt the workshop, which had already become his office and ping-pong room, into his living quarters. We’d live ‘together but not together’ – just like those couples I’d sneered at in my 20s, not understanding the lengths to which one will go to protect a family and a dream.
Would I sleep with other people? he asked. I replied that I didn’t know. I had known for some time, with certainty, that I didn’t care if he did. He cared if I did though and after two weeks he broke under the pressure. That must be why I’d forced the issue, he decided, and after taking our son to visit his family for the weekend he angrily refused to return to the house.
The transformation in the house was immediate. My son and I cleaned, we tidied, we took down the blankets shrouding the windows. One night he said, out of nowhere, ‘You know, Mum, since the changes in the house, I think my behaviour has got a lot better.’ Those words – ‘the changes in the house’ – were his favourite shorthand for his dad moving out. Such self-awareness from an 11-year-old surprised and impressed me. It was true: a cloud had been lifted from him. Living in a house with two miserable people had made him miserable, too.
A few months later he put it more vividly: ‘There used to be only one and a half living things in this house,’ he said, meaning himself, a half-alive me and his father deadened on the sofa. ‘Now there are three!’ Meaning him, all of me and Archimedes the cat. ‘I’d rather have mice,’ his father used to say when the subject of getting a cat came up, so once Cisco left I promised my son we’d adopt the kitten he’d been begging for.
Archimedes became, for me, the embodiment of the life force that I was desperate to infuse into the house. When Archimedes disappeared, I’d panic that the coyotes had got him. I was a nervous wreck, living on financial tenterhooks, being barraged by lawyers and writs and motions. But Archimedes always reappeared, bigger and stronger, and after about six months the legal barrage died away (thanks to the efforts of an angelic friend), the iciness thawed, and Cisco and I were back on speaking terms.
Those six months were hard on our son. Cisco and I both wanted to avoid making him a battleground but even so, perhaps inevitably, he became one. The problems at school returned with a vengeance; he became super-sensitive to slights and physical pain, and he had a hair-trigger temper. But as things eased between his parents, they eased in him. Now Cisco and I are warm with each other again, as I always hoped we would be, even if we weren’t together. We have ‘family dinner’ every week or so and we remember why we liked each other in the first place. And our son, who is now 14, has become calm, resilient and funny.
Could I have protected him from the pain he went through? And if I could have, would it have been better for him? Knee-jerk answer: of course it would have been better. But, truly, I don’t think so. I’d told him what to do that night he wanted to change schools; but telling is weak medicine. Children learn from what you do, not from what you tell them to do. When you live together, denying reality and dying inside, you teach avoidance. You teach that misery is an acceptable emotional state.
But could we have kept the family together in the way I used to despise, and have since come to admire, living together harmoniously with partially separate lives? It would have required communication more fearless than we were able to achieve; an ability to adapt to reality rather than try to force reality to adapt to our preconceived notions – our fantasies – of what a family should be.
You may argue with me, and insist that an enduring romance need not be a fantasy. I will answer that those lovers are the lucky ones. We all hope that we will count ourselves among them but, however carefully we’ve chosen, in the end many of us cannot. Then what? I wanted us to stay together for the sake of our child – and I was furious when Plan A failed. I thought I was cultivating stability when in fact I was cultivating misery. But Plan Z – a scenario I never wanted and was desperate to avoid – turned out to be the path to happiness for all three of us.
Allegra Huston, a writer and editor, is the daughter of ballerina Enrica Soma and John Julius Norwich (Viscount Norwich). After her mother died in a car accident, she was brought up in Ireland by the film director John Huston, her mother’s estranged husband. Her siblings include actress and director Anjelica Huston, writer Tony Huston, actor and director Danny Huston, writer Artemis Cooper and architect Jason Cooper. Her book about her upbringing, Love Child: A Memoir of Family Lost and Found, was published in 2009 to great acclaim.
Allegra’s first novel, Say My Name, is published by HarperCollins, price £12.99. To order a copy for £9.74 (a 25 per cent discount) until 17 September, go to you-bookshop.co.uk or call 0844 571 0640; p&p is free on orders over £15. For details of the memoir writing workshop Allegra is holding in Mallorca from 22-27 October, visit allegrahuston.com.