Why are married couples afraid of the newly divorced?

"For some couples, I sensed my new state was perceived as dangerously contagious."

"For some couples, I sensed my new state was perceived as dangerously contagious." Photo: Stocksy

There were these photos I had put on-line. And yes, the shadows were long and my son, in that instant that the picture was taken looked quite pensive, and the tenderness of the baby shoot of asparagus in my garden suggested a kind of vulnerability, but they were also the images of the last of spring.

The light, the green growth, the cycle and ritual. I was feeling contentment. And that was unusual for last year, I felt it worth noting.

It was a perfectly mundane weekend spent cooking, bike riding with the children, doing home repairs, watching a film and planning for Christmas. But it was different, because for the first time in three years I felt completely at home in my life.

I have not been longing for change or adventure – there is plenty of both when your life relationship comes to an end, and you follow that up with a few more relationships and break-ups. I have, instead, craved contentment. I thought that fixing or solving or finding or knowing would ease my mind but by the end of last year I finally saw that it was about comfort with self, and that this therefore wouldn't be located outside, but within.   

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I didn't come to this realisation gracefully. I simply exhausted all previous skills, and while waiting for something else to appear made the discovery that waiting was actually the answer.

And then I found myself very comfortable in my own company and not in a detached or fearful way but in a way that was excited by solitude. When I attempted to express this epiphany to people I learned many will tell you they love time to themselves. Yes, yes, I want to say, I do too. But time you choose to spend alone is different to time you're forced to spend alone. Missing your children during the nights they're with their father is not the easiest backdrop for 'me time'.

So, this contentment I was feeling was significant and I marked it online accordingly. But to some, I was told, it didn't appear that way. My photographs of the last of spring looked wistful, lonely even, apparently. They suggested regret, a discomfort with being alone, and maybe a declining ability to cope with the load.  

It came with genuine concern and also the hint of a sad, dark confession of sorts, I knew that, but all the same it made me feel suddenly exposed. Was this contentment of mine not so much hard-won as fraudulent?

It was one of those moments when I am reminded that people can have strong feelings about divorce and single parenthood. The creation of nuclear families is partly symbolic and so too, of course, is the destruction of them. Broken homes, failed relationships. The terms allude to an unwillingness to keep trying, to settle, to work at it, to sacrifice, to maintain stability, and to believe in greater goals than your own. It is both patriarchal and capitalist work ethic disrupted.

For some couples, I sensed my new state was perceived as dangerously contagious. They became particularly nervous whenever they found themselves griping about their partner to me. This topic had once just been letting off steam, but look where I had taken it. To others, my undoing was a pitiful state. But the concern often seemed close to blame.

A surprising number of people asked me if I regretted the situation, which seemed incautious of them, because what if I did regret it? I decided it must have been one of those questions people found too urgent to contain. Their need for my answer to both confirm and deny their fears betrayed them.

But as I settled into single parenthood I found myself acquiring a new circle of friends and acquaintances who, like me, were freshly alone.  Though I have spent most of my adult life in long term relationships, these new single mother friends seemed familiar to me. They were not unlike my mother and her friends when they first divorced. In a strange way, it felt like returning.

We shared impromptu dinners together with our children, compared co-parenting stories, exchanged scandalous dating stories, and swapped financial planning tools and tips for lying awake worrying in the middle of the night. There was contentment among these women but like me, it was still a fragile place.

I found them adventurous, even exciting company. They were celebrating freedom from extra housework burdens or, at least, arguments with husbands about it, and they all seemed to be exploring dormant spiritual, sexual, academic, travel or career interests. Even their anger was invigorating - it made their humour bold. 

If your co-parenting schedules overlapped so that both of you were without children on the same weekend then you could live like teenagers. Riding bikes until you collapse in exhaustion or to nearby coffee shops for lazy breakfasts. Listening to one another's music finds until very late and sleeping over. There were no children to interrupt you, no partners to negotiate time with; it could be disorientatingly luxurious.

The men I met were less familiar to me. Single fathers, divorced men, they hadn't been as much a part of my childhood folklore. I became intensely curious about their stories. For they all came with back-stories; past loves, sometimes great loves. These were men lost, men restarting, men working on themselves. They were men as I'd rarely encountered in such numbers before – introspective, humbled, paused. 

There were also some men who had churned through an endless series of relationship but they were less contemplative and less interesting to me. Although nearing the end of their thirties they, too, had their doubts by now. It was the men coming from big relationships I found asking the most difficult questions of themselves. And for the first time ever, they were talkative.

In their places, so spare and new to them with four plate, four cups and two sets of sheets, their confessions came in abundance. Their mistakes, their weaknesses, their secrets, the things they would change about themselves. They joked about self-loathing becoming a hobby.

But they were playful, too. You cannot be that stripped down without seeing absurdity.

They talked a lot about parenting, as single fathers they were more involved now. They cooked for you, too, and learned vegetarian recipes. Occasionally, when we slipped into roles too domestic for us there was a strange nostalgic tenderness that overcame them. I was always surprised and always tentative.

They, like my women friends, had faced something terrible and hard and important. Some things could not be fixed, some things shouldn't be settling with, some things were valuable in spite of not lasting.

The season has changed again since I took those photos of spring. It has moved from summer to autumn and my contentment has grown. It is like Ecclesiastes 3:1, as a single mother friend recently told me. To every thing there is a season. A time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up.

By next spring I will face new challenges and they may be more about holding on to some solitude than finding peace with it. If that is the case, let me be as brave and reflective as the newly divorced.