What I take away from this is that you can talk about “no fault” as much as you like, but, trust me, everyone, absolutely everyone, is keeping score from day one – even if they don’t know it yet. Bill will have a list just as long as his wife, including, “she wrote a mean literary exposé about my surplus mucus”. He may even secretly relish being publicly humiliated, because – and I can’t be alone in observing this – a sense of martyrdom comes a close second to sexual ecstasy in many a spouse’s range of private pleasures.
My own husband nurses his stigmata, which can be relied on to suppurate over a wide range of marital irritants. Heavy lies the burden of a man who daily cooks three separate dinner dishes for four family members, though we never asked him to, and three of us point out we’d all be happy with fish and chips. Then there’s his hourly lament about rising at dawn to see our boys off to school. “I’m so exhausted,” he moans, sometimes lying on the kitchen floor for effect. So, I am duty bound to point out that he’s never slept well and that he volunteered for this task, “because I’d be wide awake, in any case”. And that, because he’s retired, he can go for a nap at midday, no problem.
Of course, there’s the undisputed cross to bear that’s being married to me. I’m like the lilies of the field: I toil not, neither do I spin. If, by toiling, you mean dusting, polishing, scrubbing floors, doing laundry and the Sainsbury’s run. I’m often away for work, ignore bills, run up fines and own so many frocks and shoes, there’s no room for our children. I also write about my husband in his columns; he’s Bill without the fame and book advance.
But my husband knew all this from the beginning and is never contented unless life turns out as badly as he’s always predicted. If you think I’m exaggerating, let me relay this anecdote: I once met a former work colleague from my spouse’s bachelor days in the 1980s. This man told me there was an office joke about him that went as follows. Question: “Who is sleeping with the deputy editor?” Response: “I don’t know, who is sleeping with the deputy editor?” Answer: “No one – for who would share a bed of nails?”
But then I’ve noted many – if not most – marriages break down into saints and transgressors, headteachers and juvenile delinquents, judges and criminals. These roles are hammered out early on and there’s little space over the decades for an overhaul of your marital reputation. Nor, perhaps, would either party wish it. I worked out long ago that it’s pretty great to have a husband who’s a domestic god. If the price I pay is being deemed a miscreant and mopping up a little martyr’s blood, then the transaction’s surely worth it? Equally, he’s accepted the bargain of being spliced to a domestic slattern, who agreed to be the wage-slave and has squeezed out two babies. That’s equal to a century doing dishes, isn’t it?
I’ve also noted those who jettison their marriages to reverse roles often come to regret it. We’ve all seen former reprobates looking miserable in the hairshirts of their second marriages.
The Edwardian novelist Arnold Bennett was one of the first writers to scrupulously focus on the complex, push-pull emotions of marriage, in his Clayhanger Trilogy (1910-1918), which follows the on-off courtship of printer’s son Edwin Clayhanger and bluestocking Hilda Lessways. What’s quietly revolutionary is the fact the final book in the series, These Twain, picks up and follows the couple after their wedding. Most previous novels had used marriage as the grand finale to love stories, whereas in real life, we veterans know it’s only the start.
In the first chapter, the reader is privy to Edwin’s paradoxical thoughts about his new wife, who is characteristically late for supper: “He felt that if he forgave her, if he dismissed the charge and wiped the slate, he was being false to the great male principles of logic and justice.” Clayhanger desperately wants to berate his 35-year-old spouse, but can’t because of “her shameful power over him, of which the unscrupulous creature was quite aware”. He asks himself: “Is she magnificent? Or is she ordinary and am I deluded?” Which married person hasn’t thought that most days over the breakfast table?
Bennett gleefully skewers the reason people end up contracted to individuals who will delight and frustrate them in equal measure: “The strong magic of his passion had forced destiny to render her up to him, mysteriously intact, after all.”
Aficionados of marriage will surely believe the strong magic of our passion is what propels the best of us to the altar. While crushing disappointment is what drives us to divorce lawyers. But I can’t help feeling passion should still have its due, in the shape of a meticulous hand-written litany of faults, spanning the entire marriage – a sign both parties cared enough to note them. I’d then suggest a ceremony where the parting couple take it in turn to read out trivial offences (a new parlour game) until the judge falls laughing from his chair. This would be deemed an “equal-fault” divorce, and I bet it would prove wildly popular. Heather Havrilesky, for one, would approve.
Judith Woods is away