Readjust To Life After Divorce Essay

Widows and Divorcees in Later Life: On Their Own Again, edited by Carol L. Jenkins. Binghamton, NY, Hawthorn Press, 2003, 192 pp., $39.95 (cloth), $24.95 (paper).

Widow to Widow: Thoughtful, Practical Ideas for Rebuilding Your Life, by Genevieve Davis Ginsburg. De Capo Press, Cambridge, MA, 2004, 222 pp., $15.95 (paper).

As life expectancy increased over the 20th century, the normative sequencing of major life transitions also shifted. For example, increases in longevity allowed for new leisure opportunities and created a stage of life called retirement. “Emerging adulthood” is the life stage that developed after young adults delayed their transition to adulthood by attaining higher levels of education and pushing back the age at which they marry and bear children. Of particular interest to this essay is the emergence of another life phase I am calling “late-life singlehood.” Late-life singlehood results from the dissolution of marriage, either through widowhood or divorce. It typically occurs after one has spent the majority of his or her adult life in a marital relationship.

It's A Girl Thing

Gender differences in life expectancy, coupled with the fact that women marry men older than they are, mean that women are more likely than men to experience late-life singlehood. As shown in Table 1, the vast majority of males remain married throughout their lifetimes. On the other hand, only 56% of women age 65 to 74 are married; and less than one third are married by the time they reach age 75. Today, women can expect to live an additional 19 years past age 65, suggesting that this phase of late-life singlehood occupies a significant proportion of the contemporary female life span.

Although spousal loss is a very common occurrence in the female life course, stress scholars claim that widowhood is one of the most distressing of all the life transitions (Holmes & Rahe, 1967). This essay reviews two books that explore the specific challenges older women face as they enter and occupy this unique phase of the life course. Unlike the psychological focus of traditional bereavement research, the two books reviewed in this essay consider a broader range of adjustments that women face upon the dissolution of marriage. In addition to psychological distress, older women also encounter social, economic, health, and behavioral consequences after spousal loss.

Widows Versus Divorcees

One of the books, Widows and Divorcees in Later Life: On Their Own Again, is a thematic collection of peer-reviewed articles exploring the various challenges older single women encounter. The volume, edited by Carol Jenkins, was simultaneously published as a special issue of the Journal of Women and Aging (Volume 15, Issue 2/3), perhaps explaining why it seems somewhat disjointed and fragmented when reading it cover to cover. While the editor attempted to synthesize the diverse articles with a short introduction and a concluding chapter, the book still reads more like a collection of journal articles than a well-integrated monograph.

That being said, Widows and Divorcees in Later Life offers nine stand-alone articles that address some of the most important issues older women face. Using a variety of theoretical and empirical approaches, the authors discuss topics such as the increased risk of hospitalization after widowhood (by James and Sarah Laditka) and the retirement prospects of divorced women (by Barbara Butrica and Howard Iams). Other topics addressed in the book are how older widows maintain their independence in light of chronic illness (by Jenkins) and how spirituality and religion can offset the stress associated with spousal loss (by Scott Michael, Martha Crowther, Bettina Schmid, and Rebecca Allen). Nearly all of the authors discuss the importance of family members and friends as a means for support and understanding to the single older woman. Taken together, this collection of loosely related articles provides an excellent overview of some of the most common challenges faced by single older women.

An additional strength of this edited volume is its attention to cultural and ethnic diversity. Across many of the individual articles, the authors suggest that a woman's experience of spousal loss is a reflection of the historical time and cultural location in which she lives. For example, James McNally provides a comparative analysis of widowhood and family support in the North and South Pacific. Maria Cattell discusses the history of widowhood in African cultures. Jacqueline Angel, Nora Douglas, and Ronald Angel explore the long-term care arrangements of Mexican American widows, while Karen Glaser, Emily Grundy, and Kevin Lynch examine the living arrangements of widows in England and Wales. A final article by Dorothy Ruiz, Carolyn Zhu, and Martha Crowther discusses African Americans' experiences as custodial grandparents. These articles underscore the fact that although single older women face a common set of challenges, the individual experience is dependent on the historical and cultural context in which it occurs. Most notably, social policies and normative expectations influence what types of challenges an older widow or divorcee may face and what types of support she may receive.

Although the title of this compendium is Widows and Divorcees in Later Life, the book is largely an exploration of how older women cope with late-life widowhood, not divorce. Of the nine total articles, only one article (by Butrica and Iams) addresses the late-life implications of divorce. An additional article (by Glaser et al.) includes both widows and divorcees in a single analysis; however, the authors lump the widows and divorcees into a single category of “nonmarried.” Given how common widowhood is in later life (refer back to Table 1), I was not surprised that the articles emphasized widowhood more than divorce. However, I was disappointed that the book did not explicitly compare the experience of widows and divorcees.

Although both widowhood and divorce mark the end of a marital relationship, widowhood begins when a loved one dies. Divorce begins when both spouses sign a legal document. It is critical that we as gerontologists begin considering questions such as: Are older widows and divorcees subjected to the same types of stressors and adjustments? Do divorcees fare better than widows (or vice versa), under what circumstances, and why? Comparative analyses that tease apart the differences and similarities between widowhood and divorce will allow practitioners and policy makers to address the variety of needs of the older single woman.

Practical Ideas for Widows

The second book, Widow to Widow: Thoughtful, Practical Ideas for Rebuilding Your Life, focuses exclusively on how women cope with widowhood. The author, Genevieve Davis Ginsburg, has skillfully crafted an easy-to-read self-help guide for bereaved women. The book blends humor, emotion, and everyday experience to provide practical and compassionate advice for widowed persons. Published as a hardcover volume in the late 1990s, it was recently released as a paperback.

The author, who is a widow herself, aptly describes the many challenges widows face. In a series of very short chapters, she details the expected and unexpected emotions that arise after spousal loss, as well as the practical decisions women must make after the death of their spouse. She suggests that spousal bereavement “is the most profound of all emotional experiences,” yet she encourages women to embrace the unique opportunities that are afforded by this devastating and often unwanted event. She provides sage advice for women who are making the very routine, yet overwhelming, decisions associated with being a widow—such as when to empty the closets and drawers of the deceased, how to respond to all the sympathy mail received, removing a wedding band, eating alone, dating, and paying bills. She even included a chapter on how single older women can achieve sexual gratification and one entitled “Yesterday a Wife, Today a Mechanic.” Ginsburg's attention to both the emotional and practical dimensions of widowhood makes her book one of the most thoughtful commentaries on widowhood that I have read.

Widow to Widow is intended to be a self-help guide for the bereaved; the author calls it a “support group between covers.” In spite of this, the scholarly merits of this book should not be overlooked or minimized. Ginsburg, a marriage counselor by training, has directed a program called “Widowed to Widowed Services” in Tempe, Arizona, since 1977. She drew upon the countless stories of the women she counseled to develop recognizable and common experiences to which all widowed women can relate. As a result, she has created an eloquent and rich narrative account of what it means to be widowed and what it takes to rebuild one's life after widowhood. The accessibility of her language and depth of her understanding provide an element of truth and clarity that is often lacking in the empirical analyses of bereavement. In this regard, I found Ginsburg's book to be an impressive piece of qualitative scholarship. It allowed me, as a bereavement scholar who has never experienced bereavement personally, to gain a better understanding of the challenges and opportunities that widows confront. It broadened my perspective and provided a series of research questions I had not yet considered.

Although written for very different audiences and for different purposes, these two books touch upon some of the most important issues related to late-life singlehood. The former book provides an ideal set of articles that could be used in a university course on women and aging. The latter provides a thoughtful and practical guidebook that could be given to the recently bereaved. The remainder of this essay will briefly explore four common themes that emerged from both texts.

  1. Spousal loss requires many layers of adjustment.

  2. Spousal loss, although emotionally distressing, can lead to personal growth and new opportunities for the single older woman.

  3. The stress of losing a spouse can be offset by various forms of social support.

  4. Even though spousal loss is a common transition in the female life cycle, each individual will exhibit a unique pattern of adjustment.

Multiple Layers of Loss

In order to understand the myriad challenges women face upon spousal loss, it is necessary to understand what was actually lost when the marriage ended. For some, the end of marriage means the loss of an intimate life partner, confidant, or friend. For others, it may represent the loss of a handyman, mechanic, or financial advisor. For most women, it is some combination of the above. The true nature of a woman's loss depends on the history of the relationship with her spouse. In the case of late-life singlehood, that relationship may have a very long history, spanning many decades of her adult life.

When two persons initially enter a marital union, they publicly vow to love, honor, and cherish one another. They also begin to function as a unit or team. For example, one spouse may prepare dinner, while the other washes the dishes. The husband may work for pay, while the wife stays at home with the children. Couples allocate daily tasks in order to capitalize on each spouse's strengths, while not duplicating either's efforts. In theory, the couple is more efficient and productive than either spouse could be alone.

When marriages come to an end, either through death or divorce, this well-oiled machine breaks down. The surviving spouse becomes responsible for all the tasks of daily life, including those that were previously managed by her late (or former) spouse. She must do this while also grieving the loss of an intimate personal relationship. The goal of a single older woman is not to restore her previous life but to rebuild her life so that it reflects her new reality as a single older woman. Adopting Ginsburg's terminology, the biggest challenge faced by a newly single woman is the process of “uncoupling” where she must evolve “from one half of a couple to a whole person.”

A popular theory called the Dual Process Model of Coping (Stroebe & Schut, 1999) explains that bereaved persons oscillate between loss-oriented and restoration-oriented coping tasks. Loss-oriented coping allows the bereaved to come to terms with the emotional grief of losing an intimate life partner, while restoration-oriented coping allows the bereaved to rebuild daily activities and social relationships that were disrupted by the death of the husband. Bereavement, therefore, has been redefined. It is not merely pining for the deceased spouse; it is a multidimensional process of adjustment in which the bereaved must address the social, psychological, financial, and instrumental losses associated with the end of a marriage.

Good Grief

While some women exhibit intense and prolonged distress, others display remarkable resilience and personal growth following the loss of their spouse. As a result, bereavement scholars have begun to explore the positive outcomes, rather than simply the negative outcomes, associated with spousal loss (Carr, 2004). As a clinician, Ginsburg reminds women that widowhood is an “opportunity to discover the person buried under so many layers of daughter, wife, mother.” She encourages women to think of widowhood as “selfhood” and to enjoy the time they can devote to their own personal needs. Late-life singlehood is often a time for self-discovery, renewal, and reflection.

The single older woman often exhibits increased confidence and self-esteem as she rebuilds and becomes more comfortable with her new life as a single woman. For example, the woman who never mowed the lawn or completed her own taxes (because her husband used to do these tasks) will feel tremendous pride when realizing she is capable of performing these routine tasks. She may experience a sense of personal growth because she knows she does not have to depend on others for her daily survival. In other words, that which does not kill her only makes her stronger.

You are not Alone

Social support is one factor that buffers the negative effects of spousal loss. Friends, family members, and neighbors often provide the single older woman with various forms of emotional and instrumental support to help ease the difficult transition. Friends who have lost their husbands provide empathy and understanding to the single older woman. Family members and friends, who are likely to be mourning the loss as well, may assist with chores or errands. They may provide financial assistance or alternative living arrangements. They may provide diversion from sadness or a reprieve from loneliness. Widows receive so much social support that Jenkins concluded the single older woman is “NOT on her own again.” She is surrounded by friends, family members, and neighbors who are concerned about her well-being and are willing to assist wherever needed. The support, whether perceived or received, helps to offset the tremendous loss she feels.

Research finds that adult children provide a significant amount of support for their widowed and divorced mothers, sometimes even coresidential living options. However, in highly mobile societies like the United States, children are often geographically dispersed from their mothers, forcing them to rely on technology, such as telephones and computers, to bring them closer to their children. Furthermore, as more couples remain childless, a greater percentage of older women will face this difficult transition without the support provided by adult children. To offset these demographic trends, the single older woman may rely more heavily on peers and mutual-help groups, such as Ginsburg's “Widowed to Widowed Services,” to find support and understanding. During 2003, nearly 9,000,000 elderly women were widowed, and approximately 1,700,000 women age 65 and older were divorced (U.S. Census Bureau, 2005). Surely, an older woman experiencing spousal loss will find comfort in the fact that so many of her peers are experiencing the same difficult transition. The commonality of the experience will bind single older women together.

Every Woman for Herself

Although women may experience similar types of stressors after spousal loss, an important theme in bereavement research is that no woman will experience the dissolution of marriage in exactly the same way as another woman. This assumption is in sharp contrast to the traditional stage theories, which claim that the majority of bereaved persons will experience the same set of symptoms in a similar sequence (Kübler-Ross, 1969). The books reviewed in this essay suggest that the duration, course, and patterning of adjustment is dependent on individual risk factors, such as demographic characteristics (age, gender, socioeconomic status), whether the bereaved had previous mental health problems, the quality and duration of the marital relationship, the availability of social support, and the nature of the death. As demonstrated by the analyses presented in the Jenkins volume, grief is also dependent on the cultural and historical context in which it occurs. The confluence of these factors creates a unique grief experience for each individual.

In conclusion, the two books reviewed in this essay provided a backdrop from which to discuss the most important trends in contemporary bereavement research. The Jenkins volume reminded us that late-life singlehood may result from divorce, in addition to widowhood. This is a particularly important distinction to consider because it is likely divorce will be more common among future cohorts of older women. The Ginsburg book, which provided a deeply personal account of widowhood, revealed insight and practical suggestions that could only come from firsthand knowledge of being widowed. Taken together, these two books, which were written for very different audiences, summarize some of the most critical issues in bereavement research. Both books emphasize the multiple sources of stress that follow spousal loss, the notion that not all grief may be bad for the single older woman, the importance of social support, and the individuality of the bereavement experience. Although late-life singlehood is among the most common transitions in a woman's life, it is also one of the most difficult transitions a woman will face.

Table 1.

Marital Status of the U.S. Population by Sex and Age, 2003.

Age Distribution (%)
Never Married Married Widowed Divorced 
    45–54 years 10.8 73.8 1.0 14.4 
    55–64 years 5.8 79.3 2.2 12.8 
    65–74 years 4.6 77.6 8.8 9.0 
    75+ years 3.8 70.2 21.5 4.4 
    45–54 years 8.7 70.4 3.1 17.7 
    55–64 years 5.6 66.5 10.4 17.4 
    65–74 years 3.4 56.1 29.4 11.2 
    75+ years 3.9 30.8 59.2 6.1 
Age Distribution (%)
Never Married Married Widowed Divorced 
    45–54 years 10.8 73.8 1.0 14.4 
    55–64 years 5.8 79.3 2.2 12.8 
    65–74 years 4.6 77.6 8.8 9.0 
    75+ years 3.8 70.2 21.5 4.4 
    45–54 years 8.7 70.4 3.1 17.7 
    55–64 years 5.6 66.5 10.4 17.4 
    65–74 years 3.4 56.1 29.4 11.2 
    75+ years 3.9 30.8 59.2 6.1 

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The Gerontological Society of America

Recently my husband and I separated, and over the course of a few weeks the life we'd made broke apart, like a jigsaw dismantled into a heap of broken-edged pieces. "The new reality" was a phrase that kept coming up: people used it to describe my situation, as though it might represent a kind of progress. But it was in fact a regression. A plate falls to the floor: the new reality is that it is broken. I had to get used to the new reality. My two young daughters had to get used to the new reality. But the new reality, as far as I could see, was only something broken. It had been created and for years it had served its purpose, but in pieces it was good for nothing.

My husband believed I had treated him monstrously. This belief of his couldn't be shaken: his whole world depended on it. It was his story, and lately I have come to hate stories. If someone were to ask me what disaster this was that had befallen my life, I might ask if they wanted the story or the truth. For me, life's difficulty has generally lain in the attempt to reconcile these two, like the child of divorce tries to reconcile its parents. My own children do that, forcing my husband's hand into mine when we're all together. They're trying to make the story true again, or to make the truth untrue.

In the mornings I take my daughters to school. We spend the evenings mostly alone; I feed them and put them to bed. Every few days they go to their father's and then the house is empty. At first these interludes were difficult to bear. Now they have a kind of neutrality about them. It is as though these solitary hours, in which for the first time in many years nothing is expected or required of me, are my spoils of war, are what I have received in exchange for all this conflict. I swallow them down like hospital food.

Call yourself a feminist, my husband would say to me, disgustedly, in the raw bitter weeks after we separated. He believed he had taken the part of woman in our marriage, and seemed to expect me to defend him against myself, the male oppressor. My husband said he wanted half of everything, including the children. No, I said. What do you mean no, he said. You can't divide people in half, I said. They should be with me half the time, he said. They're my children, I said. They belong to me.

Once I would have criticised such a sentiment severely, but of certain parts of life there can be no foreknowledge. Where had this heresy gestated? If it was part of me, where had it lived for all those years, in our egalitarian household? Where had it hidden itself? My mother liked to talk about the early English Catholics forced to live and worship in secrecy, sleeping in cupboards or underneath the floorboards. To her it seemed extraordinary that the true beliefs should have to hide themselves. Was this, in fact, a persecuted truth, and our own way of life the heresy?

It has existed in a kind of banishment, my flesh history with my daughters. Have I been, as a mother, denied? The long pilgrimage of pregnancy with its wonders and abasements, the apotheosis of childbirth, the sacking and slow rebuilding of every last corner of my private world that motherhood has entailed – all unmentioned, wilfully or casually forgotten as time has passed. And I was part of that pact of silence: it was a condition of the treaty that gave me my equality, that I would not invoke the primitivism of the mother, her innate superiority, that voodoo in the face of which the mechanism of equal rights breaks down.

Call yourself a feminist, my husband says. And perhaps one of these days I'll say to him, yes, you're right. I shouldn't call myself a feminist. I'm so terribly sorry. And in a way, I'll mean it. She wouldn't be found haunting the scene of the crime, as it were; loitering in the kitchen, in the maternity ward, at the school gate. She knows that her womanhood is a fraud, manufactured by others for their own convenience; she knows that women are not born but made. So she stays away from it, like the alcoholic stays away from the bottle. So I suppose a feminist wouldn't get married. She wouldn't have a joint bank account or a house in joint names. She might not have children either, girl children whose surname is not their mother's but their father's, so that when she travels abroad with them they have to swear to the man at passport control that she is their mother.

My father advanced male values to us, his daughters. And my mother did the same. What I lived as feminism were in fact the cross-dressing values of my father. So I am not a feminist. I am a self-hating transvestite.

I remember, when my own children were born feeling a great awareness of this new, foreign aspect of myself that was in me and yet did not seem to be of me. It was as though I had suddenly acquired the ability to speak Russian: I didn't know where my knowledge of it had come from.

To act as a mother, I had to suspend my own character, which had evolved on a diet of male values. I was aware, in those early days, that my behaviour was strange to the people who knew me well. It was as though I had been brainwashed by a cult religion. And yet this cult, motherhood, was not a place where I could actually live. It reflected nothing about me: its literature and practices, its values, its codes of conduct, its aesthetic were not mine.

So for a while I didn't belong anywhere. I seemed, as a woman, to be extraneous. And so I did two things: I reverted to my old male-inflected identity; and I conscripted my husband into care of the children. He gave up his law job, and I gave up the exclusivity of my primitive maternal right over the children.

Ten years later, sitting in a solicitor's office, my maternalism did indeed seem primitive to me, almost barbaric. The children belong to me – this was not the kind of rudimentary phrase-making I generally went in for. Yet it was the only thought in my head, there, with the solicitor sitting opposite. I was thin and gaunt with distress, yet in her presence I felt enormous, rough-hewn, a maternal rock encrusted with ancient ugly emotion. She told me I had no rights of any kind. The law in these cases didn't operate on the basis of rights. What mattered was the precedent, and the precedent could be as unprecedented as you liked.

She told me I was obliged to support my husband financially, possibly for ever. But he's a qualified lawyer, I said. And I'm just a writer. What I meant was, he's a man. And I'm just a woman. The old voodoo still banging its drum. The solicitor raised her eyebrows, gave me a bitter little smile. Well, then he knew exactly what he was doing, she said.

For a while I cleaned incessantly, a maternal Lady Macbeth seeing bloodstains everywhere. The messy cupboards and cluttered shelves were like an actual subconscious I could purge of its guilt and pain. In those cupboards our family still existed, man and woman still mingled, children were still interleaved with their parents, intimacy survived. One day I took everything out and threw it away.

Summer came, clanging days of glaring sunshine. I could no longer sleep; my consciousness filled up with the lumber of dreams, of broken-edged sections of the past heaving in the undertow. At the school gate, the other women looked somehow quaint. I saw them as though from the emptiness of the ocean, people inhabiting land. They had not destroyed their homes. Why had I destroyed my home?

My children have been roused from the unconsciousness of childhood; theirs is the pain and the gift of awareness. "I have two homes," my daughter said to me one evening, clearly and carefully, "and I have no home." To suffer and to know what it is that you suffer: how can that be measured against its much-prized opposite, the ability to be happy without knowing why?

You know the law, my husband said over the phone. He was referring to my obligation to give him money.

I know what's right, I said.

Call yourself a feminist, he said.

What I need is a wife, jokes the stressed-out feminist career woman. The joke is that the feminist's pursuit of male values has led her to the threshold of female exploitation. This is irony. Get it? The feminist scorns that silly complicit creature the housewife. Her first feminist act may have been to try to liberate her own housewife mother, and discover that rescue was neither wanted nor required. I hated my mother's unwaged status, her servitude, her domesticity. Yet I stood accused of recreating exactly those conditions in my own adult life. I had hated my husband's unwaged domesticity just as much as I had hated my mother's; and he, like her, had claimed to be contented with his lot. Why had I hated it so? Because it represented dependence. But there was more to it than that, for it might be said that dependence is an agreement between two people. My father depended on my mother, too: he couldn't cook a meal, or look after children from the office. They were two halves that made up a whole.

My notion of half was more like the earthworm's: you cut it in two, but each half remains an earthworm, wriggling and fending for itself. I earned the money in our household, did my share of the cooking and cleaning, paid someone to look after the children while I worked. And my husband helped. It was his phrase. I was the compartmentalised modern woman, the woman having it all, and he helped me to be it, to have it. But I didn't want help: I wanted equality. In fact, this idea of help began to annoy me. Why couldn't we be the same? Why couldn't he be compartmentalised, too? And why, exactly, was it helpful for a man to look after his own children, or cook the food that he himself would eat? Help is dangerous because it exists outside the human economy: the only payment for help is gratitude. And did I not have something of the same gratuitous tone where my wage-earning was concerned? Did I not think there was something awfully helpful about me, a woman, supporting my own family?

And so I felt, beneath the reconfigured surface of things, the tension of the old orthodoxies. We were a man and a woman who in our struggle for equality had simply changed clothes. We were a transvestite couple – well, why not? Except that I did both things, was both man and woman, while my husband – meaning well – only did one.

So I was both man and woman, but over time the woman sickened, for her gratifications were fewer. I had to keep out of the kitchen, keep a certain distance from my children, not only to define my husband's femininity but to appease my own male values. The oldest trick in the sexist book is the female need for control of children. I perceived in the sentimentality and narcissism of motherhood a threat to the objectivity that as a writer I valued so highly. But it wasn't control of the children I was necessarily sickening for. It was something subtler – prestige, the prestige that is the mother's reward for the work of bearing her offspring. And that prestige was my husband's. I had given it to him or he had taken it – either way, it was what he got out of our arrangement. And the domestic work I did was in a sense at the service of that prestige, for it encompassed the menial, the trivial, the frankly boring, as though I was busily working behind the scenes to ensure the smooth running of the spectacle on stage.

Sometimes, in the bath, the children cry. Their nakedness, or the warm water, or the comfort of the old routine dislodges their sticking-plaster emotions and shows the wound beneath. I gave them that wound, so now I must take all the blame. I wounded them and in this way I learned truly to love them. Or rather, I admitted it, admitted how much love there was. What is a loving mother? It is someone whose self-interest has been displaced into her children. Her children's suffering causes her more pain than her own.

Yet it is I who am also the cause of their crying. And for a while I am undone by this contradiction, by the difficulty of connecting the person who acted out of self-interest with the heartbroken mother who has succeeded her. It seems to be the fatal and final evolution of the compartmentalised woman, a kind of personality disorder.

In the mornings the sun streams through the windows into the half-empty rooms, like sun falling on a ruin. The water mutters in the pipes; the boiler grumbling cholerically in the basement. One day it finally falls silent; the dishwasher breaks, the drains clog, the knobs of doors and cupboards come away unexpectedly in the hand. There is the sound of dripping water, and a dark stain spreads across the kitchen wall.

A man comes to look at the spare room. His name is Rupert. The clocks have gone forward and now the evenings are long and as blank as paper. People stay out late calling and shouting, music pouring from open windows, cars honking in the dusk. I wander through the dark house, checking the locks on the doors and windows, for it feels as though the outside is coming in. I wonder whether we will be safer with Rupert in the house or more at risk. There is a space here, a male declivity in the shape of my husband. Vaguely I try to fit Rupert into it. I imagine him fixing the drains, the door handles.

Rupert brings his iron and his humorous posters, his suits. My husband comes to collect something while Rupert is in the hall and the two of them shake hands. "Pleased to meet you," they both say.

Most marriages have a public face, an aspect of performance. A couple arguing in public is like the body bleeding, but there are other forms of death that aren't apparent on the outside. People are shocked by cancer, so noiseless and invisible, and by the break-up of couples whose hostility to one another never showed. You were the last people, a close friend said to me, the last people we expected this to happen to. And this friend, like some others, went away for fear it might be catching.

The first time I saw my husband after our separation I realised, to my surprise, he hated me. I had never seen him hate anyone: it was as though he was contaminated by it, like a coastline painted black by an oil spill. For months black poisonous hatred has flowed, soaked into everything, coated the children like the downy heads of coastal birds are coated in tar. I remember how towards the end it felt like a dam giving way by degrees, the loss of courtesy and caution, the breakdown of civility and self-control: these defences seemed to define the formal core of marriage, of relationship, to articulate the separation of one person from another.

Most evenings now Rupert and I meet in the kitchen. He is always in: I go downstairs and there he is. One evening he opens a bottle of wine and offers me a glass. Upstairs the children lie asleep in their beds: I imagine them there, like people sleeping in the cabin of a ship that has sailed off its course, unconscious of the danger they're in. Rupert sloshes more wine into our glasses. He tells me I'm doing a great job. He tells me we're in the same boat, in a way. After a while I say goodnight, and go and shut myself in my room.

I book our summer holiday, the same holiday we always take, to a much-loved familiar place. I tell my husband we can split the holiday in half, changing over like runners in a relay race, passing the baton of the children. He refuses. He says he will never go to that place again. He thinks there is something ruthless and strange in my intention to revisit a place where once we were together. Great if it doesn't bother you, he says. I say, you want to deny our shared history. You want to pretend our family never happened. That's about right, he says. I say, I don't see why the children should lose everything that made them happy. Great, he says. Good for you.

Rupert is gone in the mornings by the time I get the children up for school, and in the evenings I avoid him. I stay in my room. My daughters and I do not leave home very often. For a while I thought that going elsewhere created possibilities of consolation, even of recovery, but I have discovered that every welcome is also a form of exposure. It is as though, in other people's houses, we become aware of our own nakedness. At one time I mistook this nakedness for freedom, but I don't any more.

It is my mother's 70th birthday party. The youngest person sitting down to lunch is two, the oldest – my grandmother – 92. There has never been a divorce in this clan. Other than myself, of the many assembled adults only my grandmother is without her mate. My grandfather died when my grandmother was in her 60s: for nearly 30 years she has lived without a husband. When I was younger I thought she must be relieved to be alone, after all those years. Though I had loved my grandfather I saw it as a liberation. It never occurred to me either that she might have remained alone out of loyalty to the familial enterprise; that she might have been lonely, but continued to play her part for the sake of her children; that she might have understood, as I did not, that the jigsaw is a mirage, not a prison. It is not to dismantle but to conserve it that strength is required, for it will come apart in an instant.

My sister comes to stay and we take our children to the swings. Later, at the train station, she says to me: you have to learn to hide what you feel from the children. They will feel what they think you feel. They are only reflections of you.

I don't believe that, I say.

If they think you're happy, they'll be happy, my sister says.

Their feelings are their own, I say.

What I feel is that I have jumped from a high place, thinking I could fly, and after a few whirling instants have realised I am simply falling. What I feel is the hurtling approach of disaster. And I have believed they were falling with me, my daughters; I have believed I was looking into their hearts, into their souls, and seen terror and despair there. Is it possible that my children are not windows but mirrors? That what I have seen is my own fall, my own terror, not theirs?

I can't eat, and soon my clothes are too big for me. As a family we would eat around the kitchen table, but now I carry my daughters their supper on a tray. The table is covered in papers and books and electricity bills. I remember our family meals as a kind of tree, nourishment. I ask my children what their father feeds them. Takeaways, they say. The tree is dead for him, too, then. He was once an extravagant cook, a person who made pastry and boeuf bourguignon.

A friend comes to visit. I say to her, all my memories are being taken away. I don't go near the photograph album any more, don't look at the art books I once loved, don't listen to the music or read the poetry that have been my life's companions; don't walk on the hills I walked with my husband, don't contemplate foreign trips or visits to interesting places. And I don't eat, for fear that nourishment will hurt me with its inferences of pleasure.

At a party in London I meet Z. A room that is too warm and full of people. I had to walk around the park across the road for an hour before I could bring myself to go in. I don't want to talk; I have nothing to say. I feel like a soldier come back from a war, full of experiences that have silenced me.

X calls. Our conversation is like chewing on barbed wire, like eating ground glass. Our talk is a well that has been poisoned, but all the same I drink from it.

Every week I drive for 45 minutes along the coast to see Y. I sit in the armchair. Y sits in a beige leather swivel chair. I say, I don't ever want you to tell me that I think too much. If you say that I'll leave.

It is strange to discuss my marriage in this room; its neutrality is almost chastising, makes the story both more lurid and more sombre.

Z comes to see me. We take a walk in the countryside. He is quiet, nervous, taller than I remembered. He seems different every time I look at him. I don't know him. He is mysterious.

As we walk we talk. In our conversation I keep missing my footing. I'm used to talking to someone else. Z walks quickly; I have to run to keep up. He says, narrative is the aftermath of violent events. It is a means of reconciling yourself with the past. I want to live, I say. I don't want to tell my story. I want to live. Z says, the old story has to end before a new one can begin.

That night I call X. I don't know why I call him. I just want to talk, like a climber trapped in a snowstorm on a mountaintop calling home. It is rescue she hopes for. Perhaps she just wants to say goodbye. The roaming itch that drove her away from home, away from ordinary satisfactions, remains mysterious even as it devours her in that cold and lonely place. She calls what she left, calls home.

X answers. Our conversation is like chewing on razor blades, like eating caustic soda. Our talk is a well that has been poisoned, but all the same I drink from it.

I say to Y, marriage is civilisation and now the barbarians are cavorting in the ruins. Yet we find ruins exquisite, Y says. He seems to suspect me of nostalgia. People overthrow their governments and then they want them back, I say. They evict their dictator and then they don't know what to do with themselves.

Y raises his eyebrows at the word "dictator".

I tell him about the walk with Z. If I was looking for a new dictator, Z didn't get the job. I tell him of the way I showed him around my house, bought flowers, made him a beautiful lunch, like a small country advertising itself for invasion. Is it male attention I want, or male authority?

Is there a difference? Y says.

Z attended to my vision but he wouldn't take possession of it. He backed away and was silent.

X talks. X is a talker. He is like a well signposted museum: it's easy to find your way around, to see what he chooses to display. There are new things there now, new people, new opinions, new tastes in evidence; the old ones have been taken down to the archive, I suppose. But he doesn't like me to visit, doesn't want to talk to me any more. I keep inquiring after what is no longer part of the collection. X furrows his brow, as though he has difficulty recollecting it, this past to which I insist on referring. As soon as he can, he shows me out. The big institutional door, so reassuringly heavy, closes in my face.

Z comes to the house with a bag of tools. He fixes the broken shower, the pipe that leaks water into the kitchen wall. Are all these pieces of paper bills, he says. I don't know, I say. I don't want to open them. I want to live. Z opens one and reads it. He raises his eyebrows, gives a small smile. It's a speeding fine, he says.

I go with Z to the cinema and when we come out I say something about the film he doesn't understand. I feel, suddenly, that I've lost my power of communication. The loss feels as tangible as if I'd boarded an aeroplane and flown to a country whose people didn't speak my language, nor I theirs.

Z lives alone. In my own house I charge from room to room, like a dynamo. I'm trying to keep the house alive. Sometimes it feels that the real house has gone but the children don't know, don't realise that I'm behind the curtain like the Wizard of Oz, frantically turning knobs and adjusting microphones to keep the illusion going. In Z's flat I don't move. I become aware of myself, too close, like a stranger sitting down right next to me in a train carriage full of empty seats.

Z waits for the cloud of the cinema trip to pass over. He cooks, runs a bath, gives me a book to read. He says, sometimes for you the saying is a kind of working out, like doing a sum on a bit of paper. You can't always expect people to grasp it. But I want you to know what I mean, I say. So do I, he says. I want to know what you mean. It's late at night, too late to run away from something whose nature I can't in any case discern. It's just a shape in the darkness, understanding or its opposite, I can't tell.

In the neutrality of Y's consulting room the whole bloodstained past has been unravelled, but of Z very little is said. I find that I am protective of the silence around Z. The old war can be turned into words, but a living silence ought not to be disturbed. Things might be growing there, like seeds under newly ploughed earth.

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