Three weeks before I married my first husband, I realized that I did not love him. I was definitely not in love with him, in fact I was not in the least attracted to him. So I went home to mother. But instead of receiving tea and sympathy, I was given a short, stern lecture and sent packing: “You cannot pull out of the wedding now. You’ll break Michael’s heart. Marriage has nothing to do with romance and sex: it’s about loyalty, endurance and working as a team. I wasn’t in love with your father when I married him but love grew. Grow up.” You see, I was twenty-seven years old and from my parents’ point of view on the threshold of permanent spinsterhood, and, after a series of fandangos with unsuitable men, Michael was a desperate parent’s answer to a prayer. To fill you in, we had only known each other three weeks when without so much as a by your leave Michael took it upon himself to drive up to the family seat and beg my father for my hand. And he had come fully prepared with a diamond ring for me, two dozen red roses for my mother and a litre of Aberlore for my father. They were impressed.
Sadly, my mother was wrong. In my case love didn’t grow. Three months after tying the knot I had my first black eye, courtesy of my husband who turned out to be an alcoholic con man. We lived in marital misery for four years – the only blessing proving to be the arrival of our son, James.
But I had learned a valuable lesson: in affairs of the heart, trust your heart.
Enter husband number two. He was absolutely my choice. I was knee-wobblingly in love with him; my parents loathed him on sight. Thirteen months after meeting we were married. The wedding was everything I had dreamed of and my husband, Simon, all that I wanted. We not only shared a passion for each other but for astrology. In fact, so determined were we that this marriage would last forever, the wedding was set on a day when the planets and signs were effectively in grid lock. Nothing would tear us apart.
Ten years and two sons later the grid lock revealed its limitations. All that passion had blinded us to the painful fact that we were completely incompatible. Opposites may attract but they can’t live together. (All right, I know you want to know: he was a Capricorn and I an Aries – earth and fire, chalk and cheese.) It took an agonizingly long time for us to divorce, and the shadows we cast lingered for years like Nosferatu on the walls of our separate lives.
But I had learned another thing. Go with your heart but don’t let your marriage become a straight-jacket.
Around the time Simon and I were divorcing, Princess Anne married Timothy Lawrence. I remember reading a somewhat scathing article in one of the broad sheets in which the journalist referred to this second excursion into matrimony as the triumph of hope over experience. The inference being that anyone with half a brain wouldn’t dream of getting hitched again. But in my book if you haven’t got hope, well, you haven’t got a hope.
Whatever the statistics show – and we all know there are statistics, statistics and damned lies – subsequent marriages have the distinct plus of being built on the foundations of what-went-wrong-before-and-must-not-be repeated: you come into another marriage with a clear understanding of both the frailty and the robustness of love. Perhaps, more importantly, every relationship is different: each time you put two people together you create a new recipe – some of the ingredients may be the same but what you end up with is a whole new dish. Relationships are organic things: they evolve out of the strengths and weaknesses of each person, the way partners grow individually and as a couple, and the events that befall them. We’ll talk baggage in a moment.
Despite the acrimonious end to my second marriage I had not given up on love by a long chalk. Neither, apparently, had my boys. One morning I found the three of them pouring over the magazine, Private Eye, highlighter in hand. “OK, Mum. We’ve found what you need: handsome, fit, intelligent thirty-five-year old seeks feisty and attractive lady 25-35 for mutual pleasure.” Yes, lovely. I’ll be right there. Would you mind if the children brought along their X-box? The three of them had decided that I should not be alone, and since I had not made a lot of progress providing them with a resident father figure I had to be helped. Thus, when, all by myself, I met my New Yorker, Jerry, and brought him home to England for their perusal, they welcomed him as if he were Father Christmas. And Jerry for his part was just as enthusiastic about them. Obviously, this was a serious plus, and I can honestly say that in the twelve years we have been together we never had a falling out over the boys, and they have never fallen out with him. In fact, the family is the linchpin of our marriage.
Which brings me on to baggage. Very few subsequent marriages have this kind of blessing: step families can be the ruin of many an ecstatic merger. I have friends who literally tore out their hair dealing with the shenanigans of disenfranchised offspring, although love triumphed in the end in most cases. Clinging on like a barnacle to the marital rock has its merits, and so does obeying the rule, least-said-soonest-mended. But there is other baggage: the ghosts of partners past who lurk in dusty corners and materialize at inopportune times. Which second and third-timer hasn’t had a memory lapse in an unguarded moment and called the spouse by the forerunner’s name? When my Jerry addressed me as ‘Trudles’ the war of attrition that followed was not a pretty sight.
I know that there are partners and exes who all get along brilliantly but mine aren’t among them. Fifteen years down the line Simon and I sustain a stiff and awkward relationship; Jerry and he are always polite. My first husband never met my second, in fact Michael died not long after my marriage to Simon. I have met Jerry’s first and third wives – number two, with whom he had been passionately in love, hasn’t seen or spoken to him for thirty years – but we do not socialize. So I envy couples that manage a warm and thriving relationship in the wake of divorce and I believe it is an ideal to strive for, especially for the mental and emotional health of the children. I wish we had done better.
The most damaging sort of baggage, however, does not have flesh and bones: it resides in the unconscious mind. When any kind of betrayal is involved in the demise of the previous marriage – and there is always a betrayal of hopes and dreams and often of trust and fidelity – the fear of history repeating itself can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. All right, patterns do repeat themselves and most of us fall for a certain ‘type’ but no relationship is a clone of another and much of what we deem to be same duck soup is in fact a result of our own mind set and a projection of our own fears and failings. So, the best thing we can do when we gird up our loins and go into the marital breach for a second and third time is press the delete button and eliminate those fears.
Now that I have reached the age of wisdom – some years before my bus pass but my bikini days are behind me – I can safely say that a second, third and fourth marriage has as much of a chance of turning into a happy-ever-after story as a first, if not a better one. You’re not a deeply inferior person because your marriage failed yet you had the temerity to marry again and bring your inadequacies to yet another union. Experience is the best teacher and sometimes you do indeed have to kiss a lot of frogs before you find a prince.
Of course, my third marriage has not been a dream. Jerry and I have faced many serious obstacles, including his failing health, financial meltdowns, and the refusal of my ex to allow the boys to live in the US, which put the Atlantic between us for weeks at a time and saved British Airways from bankruptcy. We’ve had many knock-down-drag-out rows but they don’t last long and when I see him across a crowded room and realize that I fancy him to bits, it’s the best thing in the world. We both know where we went wrong before and despite our fears that we may be unlovable and certainly imperfect, we have found ways of accepting the good, the bad and the ugly in ourselves and in each other. We are both resilient and independent enough to survive on our own but life is infinitely warmer and sweeter because we share it together.
So three cheers for third marriages – rumours of their short shelf lives are grossly exaggerated – and if anything happened to Jerry and me while I wouldn’t be signing up to number four in a heartbeat I won’t have lost my will to love. Now, I wonder… fit and intelligent thirty-five-year old seeks… I wonder if he’ll be happy to let me keep my Zimmer frame on the porch.
Original version: edited version appeared in Woman&Home in 2007