The dilemma My wife recently left her iPad on our bed. When I picked it up to move it I saw a message on the screen saying that she is arranging a solicitor to help her divorce me. This was a shock in itself, but when I saw the reasons why I was devastated. She is claiming she is the victim of mental and emotional abuse – which is news to me. No one in my household has been getting on terribly well over lockdown – including our kids – but I put this down to the close proximity everyone found themselves in. As far as I know, me and my wife have got on well and talk to each other when we’re upset. We have had ups and downs – I suffered from severe depression at the turn of the year as I was drowning in debt – but we appeared to be over the bump. Sex has been infrequent, but still happened relatively regularly. I can somewhat get my head around her wanting to be happy elsewhere, but I can’t stand the thought of being called an abuser. I’m scared as I find people automatically believe the testimony of a lady in these matters. I really don’t know what to do or where to turn.
Mariella replies A mediator? It’s obvious that there is a major chasm between your understanding of your relationship and your wife’s. I can’t make a judgment on who is right and who is wrong, and the accusations she makes are serious but, in light of your apparent bemusement, it makes it all the more essential that you two have a civilised conversation about what is going on. That’s where mediation is imperative – Relate (0300 0030396; relate.org.uk) would be a good place to start.
Separating may be, as you say, almost comprehensible, but to go from living together to court battle in one seamless move certainly suggests there are issues that have failed to register. Abuse is a word that is in danger of losing its potency. It’s applied to such a broad range of circumstances these days that it really could do with closer scrutiny and more precise definition. I appreciate you don’t like the accusation and it certainly doesn’t put you in a good light. The best way to address it is to take a long hard look at your own behaviour and to try to understand your wife’s point of view.
If you think you’re innocent and she thinks you are guilty then your individual positions are way too polarised for a heart to heart to bring you closer. And if your wife feels bullied and emotionally abused it’s really important for both your sakes that such a conversation takes place with a professional counsellor or witness.
Mediation allows someone outside the marriage to try to defuse a potentially toxic situation. I have only your word for the inaccuracy of her accusations and you’ll definitely need more than that if you want to defend yourself. However, feigning ignorance and defensively declaring that the wider community will “believe the testimony of a lady” won’t serve you well. There is more sympathy and broader understanding these days for victims of abuse and I’m sure you can appreciate why. There’s not a line in your letter professing love for your wife or regret for the impending demise of your marriage. I appreciate you’ve had a shock, but if your relationship is in the sort of shape you describe, shouldn’t your first reaction be one of heartbreak and sadness? You really need to do some self-scrutiny and delve into what has happened, both recently and historically.
And before you even sit down with someone else, try to listen to your wife’s side of the story. No one is blameless in a break-up and you will have to understand and shoulder your share of the blame if you can’t mend what’s broken.
I’m often surprised by the big choices that are made within relationships by one partner while the other has no awareness of the underlying issues. Recently I heard of a man who was dumbfounded when his wife of a decade walked out – and then that she’d been consulting her lawyer for six months prior to her departure.
Another couple I know separated because the husband declared that he’d “only” been 75% happy. Am I wrong to think that’s a pretty good level of contentment after 20 years?
I don’t think of myself as a compromising sort of character (sadly my friends and family would probably agree), but the exception for me is in matters of the heart where it seems the most important quality.
That’s why it’s so essential that you seek mediation. Examine your behaviour and try to work out the best possible scenario for the future, and in particular your joint responsibility for your children. Your version of events has a degree of credibility, as otherwise what would be gained in writing to me? You do sound genuinely surprised by your wife’s initiative and so I have to ask you to think a little harder about what could be driving her desire to separate. It’s not enough to say lockdown was difficult, but that you thought everything was fine. That’s only half the story and a relationship won’t survive without both partners being allowed their narrative freedom.