Don’t fight over your old CDs… When love ends, walk away with nothing but your dignity
21:17 GMT, 18 April 2012
When I got divorced at the age of 40, my ex walked out of my life with just his clothes and his sky-blue VW Scirocco: he didn’t want any of the other material possessions from our 17-year marriage.
He left behind photographs and gadgets, his beloved stereo speakers, even his prized LPs.
Maybe he left the records because many of the covers had love messages on them, having been presents between us — Joni Mitchell and Dory Previn from him to me, Santana and Eric Clapton from me to him.
Yasmin says she was so devastated at the breakdown of her marriage she could barely muster the energy to eat, let alone go to war with her husband over objects
Today, that record collection sits on a
shelf in my study, a memory of sound now silenced. I am grateful my
ex-husband never asked me to divvy up these remnants of our marriage,
since doing so would have caused my breaking heart to shatter entirely.
I wonder now if he ever regretted leaving so much behind. I don’t know how he feels, because we haven’t spoken for many years. For my part, at the time I could not think beyond the hour, so devastated was I at the breakdown of my marriage. I could barely muster the energy to eat, let alone go to war with him over objects.
It was 1988 when we divorced. My husband was a university lecturer and had been having a secret affair with a student. He confessed to this, then announced he was leaving. A double whammy. In cold, dark January, ten days before our son’s 11th birthday, my husband traded in his old life for a thrilling new one with a young woman with a cascade of blonde curls.
Yasmin with her ex-husband at their wedding at a London venue in 1972
It felt right to give back to him my beautiful Victorian diamond engagement ring and a locket he’d once bought me — a small, dark blue sphere which revolved and glittered like a starry sky, a reminder of nights of happiness.
After all, they were reminders of a love that was, by then, irretrievably lost.
Too many married couples don’t seem to understand this crucial fact when they part — that what they should be mourning is the relationship they’ve lost, rather than the possessions they are dividing. Instead of grieving over their lost loves, they go to war over trifling trinkets. A law firm has revealed that one in five divorcing couples fight each other over possessions such as the family goldfish, or even jars of mustard, spending whatever it takes on lawyers to win ‘custody’ of once-shared CDs, books, cutlery, air miles, Tesco Clubcard points and other items.
As someone who believes marriage should be a cherished institution and not a shareholding company, I struggle to understand what goes through these couples’ minds as they fight over the detritus of their lives. But perhaps my view is naive. Weddings have become bloated festivals of materialism, costing an average of 20,000 each. Distasteful television programmes sell the big day as the ultimate consumer splurge — the amazing dress and big-smile bridesmaids, the sparkling tiara and hired castle, the polished limo and fake tan, followed by a fantasy honeymoon.
Some objects become a currency of memory. People want to hang on to tangible reminders of when they felt happy and safe.
For too many couples it’s all downhill from there, as they bicker all the way to the divorce courts. Last week, my 18-year-old daughter asked me how long I had been married to my ex-husband, the father of her older half-brother.
Seventeen years, I replied, and told her that her father and I have now
been married for more than 20 years. Disbelief crossed her face as she
tried to compute the figures.
You can’t blame her, really. Most modern celebrities stay married for around three years maximum — think Russell and Katy, Scarlett and Ryan, Jordan and Alex. With so much emphasis on lavish ceremonies and the resulting unions so short-lived, perhaps it is no surprise that, when it all ends, couples are reduced to fighting like cat and dog over mere ‘stuff’.
Presenting a series on the effects of marital break-up for BBC Radio 4 recently offered me a disturbing window into these disputes. After the series, I received umpteen emails and letters from warring couples.
Take Samantha, a mother-of-two who has written to me three times, each missive marked ‘confidential’ in capital letters. Still only 30, she wants out of a marriage of which she has grown tired. Before telling her husband she was leaving him, she made a painstaking audit of the household goods, noting their current value.
She tells me she is ‘going mad’ over the possibility that her husband may want a 50/50 split. She has put into storage the biggest and best television set, an antique table and an expensive vase, falsely claiming they were stolen by burglars. She is not the only one consumed by such calculated materialism. Meena, an Asian woman, has sent all her gold jewellery to her parents in India so her estranged husband can’t get his hands on it. Her children, she writes to me, are very upset that she isn’t worrying about their feelings and what comes next.
Heartbreak: Yasmin says if marriage ends you fall, and can be hurt badly
She tells me: ‘They will be OK. He doesn’t want them, they are girls. But my gold, he wants that too much. My daughters will get married one day. All I will have is my jewellery.’
Men don’t seem to behave much better, according to the correspondence I receive. Three of them sold their vehicles, then spent the money fast so it wouldn’t be part of the divorce deal. One of them, Tony, told me: ‘I took her round the South Coast in my BMW. She wants the car. My car. Better a stranger gets it now, not the b****.’
While such behaviour sounds utterly vindictive, relationship counsellors believe the material things couples battle over are, in many cases, expressions of pain and loss — physical representations of a thwarted life.
When you love someone and live with them for years, objects begin to absorb memories and stories. You look at a tatty old cushion and remember the time you threw it at him in fun and the kisses afterwards.
The frying pan reminds you of the time he flipped a pancake so high it stuck to the ceiling. When you fight to keep hold of what, to others, just seems like meaningless ‘stuff’, you are, in truth, desperate to hang on to a happier past — and to hope. Though the person you love is gone from your life, they live on in those things you once shared. I hung on to the last bar of soap my ex used for a year and a half, because it had touched his body.
Perhaps I was hoping he would come back, and that everything would be as it once was. Crazy, I know now, but that small preoccupation illustrated how shattered I was by the agony of separation and lost intimacy. Sometimes fighting for and ‘winning’ the domestic spoils from a marriage gives people security when love dies. When emotions are in chaos, keeping the physical environment intact is a way of retaking control — or, at least, of feeling as if you are. An acquaintance of mine, who is a trainee psychologist, explained this as a process of ‘transference’.
‘Some objects become a currency of memory. People want to hang on to tangible reminders of when they felt happy and safe,’ she said. ‘The fight might be for love itself, a way of saying: “These things still mean so much because they remind me of you, of us, before it went wrong.”’
Perhaps we should sympathise with some of the men and women who pay lawyers so they get to keep trivial items when a marriage ends. They feel grief-stricken and bereaved, and may be traumatised. Newlywed couples walk over the threshold into something they do not understand. Marriage is a mountain — tough, exhilarating, demanding, and ultimately joyful. If it ends you fall, and are hurt badly.
But today, one of life’s most traumatic emotional events — divorce — is too often regarded as no more meaningful than dividing up the surplus stock of a bankrupt business. How unutterably sad for the couples in cases such as these —and for love itself. I am blissfully happy with my second husband, but I will never forget my first marriage, nor cease to feel relief that, when our lives fell apart so suddenly, we managed not to bicker over the silly stuff.