I was slightly nervous WhatsApping her. My former mother-in-law is a wonderful woman, but I haven’t spoken to her since divorcing Matt and I was not sure how any message would land. I wondered what had been said behind closed doors; whether I’d still be considered part of the family, or if the message would remain unanswered. Being ghosted by a woman I’ve known for 17 years would be a strange place to sit.
But I had a wonderful photo of her granddaughters at the nativity to share and thought it was worth any possible friction if it simply meant she had the memory. I was also holding on to wonderful memories of Christmases with us all in Lyme Regis, long pub lunches on random Sundays, along with banal little moments of pottering in the garden with “Bobop and Nana” – and to cut off bluntly felt odd.
I’m relieved to say that the response was warm, kind and appreciative. I suggested that I’d send photos from here on in whenever they popped up. It was a small bridge across what my anxious mind feared would be choppier waters.
Friends and family are often overlooked in the divorce process. A 17-year relationship gathers many mutual mates. Whether a separation is acrimonious or not, there’s a natural division of comrades along the way.
Telling people was the hardest part of the separation process. Responses ranged from “I’m not surprised” to genuine devastation. One friend started crying instantly. Even though I told her everything was OK and it was truly a positive decision for our family unit, the tears cascaded. I held her, wondering if our decision had triggered something about her own marriage; few would admit it but when a couple separates, it holds a brutal mirror up to their own relationship. I know when friends told me they were divorcing, part of me was jealous of the bravery it had taken to make such a seismic decision. To know when to get out remains a seemingly impossible juncture.
For this friend, it was partly grief at the thought of dinner parties without both of us there; the confusion of knowing who to invite to what without causing rifts. Debrett’s Guide to Etiquette probably doesn’t have a section for the recently divorced and how to socialise without rocking the boat. And it’s a horrible feeling wondering who is going to lean in more to me or Matt. Who gets to “keep” who in the friendship circle is something I couldn’t labour on for too long.
A month after separating, Matt and I decided to have a dinner party with our closest friends to anchor the group. To let them know we are still capable of being in the same room even if not bound by a “till death do us part” contract. While it felt good in theory, the reality was uncomfortable. Neither of us was sure how to be around the other. The familiarity of the family home combined with a physical distance made it awkward for us and there was an elephant in the room: the fact that we were simply not together, a reality even the best salmon en croûte couldn’t paper over.
Perhaps the most warming moment was with our mutual friend Steve. I had lunch with him shortly after divorcing and he laid down the detail of his own separation, which gave me an open door to speaking about the weight I felt untangling my own relationship, kids, mortgage, finances, house, home and hamster called Ziggy. It was a safe space to grieve and be held by someone who had been through it all before. Little did I know Matt had a similar lunch with him. The poor guy unwittingly became a friendlier extension of our relationship counsellor. And that’s something I’ve had to bear in mind. They are mutual friends and so it’s unfair to test any loyalty in the quagmire of irretrievable breakdown.
But a few weeks later, Matt called for an administrative catch-up about secondary schools for our eldest. He added at the end that he’d spoken to Steve and that he’d said how kind we were both being to each other despite the pain of marital breakdown. It was an unspoken rule that Matt and I wouldn’t use our friends as dumping grounds for our relationship woes. It comes back to the initial agreement we cemented to lead with “kindness, decency and respect” at every turn – however much of an angry or frustrated subtext.
There are a few close girlfriends who know every detail of why we aren’t together anymore. But I don’t labour the points, because what’s done is done and I know Matt feels the same. There will be birthdays we might cross paths at, christenings we’ll both attend. And while we aren’t a couple, we can still be friendly – even if not really friends – in our wider circle. But there is a shift. I feel pangs of sadness seeing Instagram photos of close friends with Matt. And I know he feels the same in reverse.
It still feels strange seeing memories on Facebook popping up from years gone by where we’re arm-in-arm at a friend’s wedding. Or sunbathing on Hampstead Heath for Steve’s 40th. There was a photo at my youngest’s christening where all our friends and family were gathered. I didn’t know then that it was the last time that that configuration of brilliant humans would be united under one roof, united by us.
But as we both move on with our lives it gets easier. The hardest bit was at the beginning, where it feels like a pack of cards has been chucked on the floor and I didn’t know who would stick or twist.
I’ve made peace with the fact that it’s an ever-evolving process of leaving behind a blueprint that I thought would be forever in favour of a future of possibility. And I say this as I’m about to send a photo of my youngest at school assembly to my former mother-in-law. It isn’t the future I imagined while walking down the aisle with all our friends and family smiling on. But there is hope of a very happy ending.