I’m a bastard. No question. The facts speak for
themselves. On a Monday night in May, two years
ago, I told my wife of the affair I’d been having for six
months. By Thursday of the same week I was gone. I
had left my 13-year-old marriage, my nine-year-old
son and my eight-year-old daughter for a woman five
years my junior. What a bastard.
Since leaving I have, inevitably, found myself in
conversation with many other bastards. In fact we’re
quite a club. We seem to have unerring radar which
picks each other out at work, at parties, or in idle
chat with strangers. We all tell our tale with an oddly
matter-of-fact air. It’s the same kind of tone with
which soldiers relate war stories. To those who’ve
never been in battle, the matter-of-factness of
military men is incomprehensible; it’s as if soldiers
have been to a place so incomprehensibly traumatic
they have entered another plane – one of stunned
serenity. And so it is when listening to the leaver
But what’s striking, as they unfold their tales, is that
they’re not bastards at all. This should hardly come
as a surprise since truly terrible people are few and
far between. Yet why is it we’re so eager to
stigmatise the leaver, and to damn them without a
thought? Even though marital break-up is common,
and even though “two sides to every story” is as well-
worn as any cliche, we still seem to want to promote
the idea that relationships fail because one person is
In the case of my own marital break-up, my wife
managed to carve a whole new career out of the
seemingly indisputable truth that my departure
made me a bastard. Although not a journalist by
trade, she began a weekly column in the
Independent entitled “Beloved and Bonk”. Under the
pen name Stevie Morgan, she told the tragicomic,
Posy Simmondsesque tale of how her once-decent
hubby became a reckless cad – leaving her standing
in her wellies in the lanes of Devon for a younger,
more beautiful metropolitan mistress.
After the column came the book. There was clearly an
appetite for the claim of a woman, not known to any
reader, that her husband left her just because he had
been turned soft in the head by the sensual blend of
bright lights and sweeter skin.
Needless to say (though of course the whole point of
being a bastard leaver is that you don’t get to say it)
the reality was a little different. During our marriage
my wife had been repeatedly unfaithful, and
permanently unhappy. Often she would conjecture
that we’d be much happier apart. When I began
working in London, she insisted we move from our
home in Bristol to Devon. When I protested that I
would see less of her and the children, she replied
simply: “So?” She refused to celebrate our 10th
wedding anniversary on the grounds that “there was
nothing to celebrate”. Later, we both confessed to
having fantasised about the other dying so that we
could be with the children, but be rid of the marriage.
When I sat down to tell her of my infidelity on that
fateful Monday evening, I was meaning to tell her the
affair was over, and that I was sorry. But even as I
tried to do so, I realised something had happened –
something fatal to our marriage. In my new
relationship with someone else, I had experienced
emotions and seen possibilities I never knew existed.
Never mind whether my relationship with this new
person continued or not, I knew I would never feel the
same again about what a marriage could be.
At that moment I knew I had, as a matter of decency
and honesty, to leave. I knew I couldn’t repair my
unhappy marriage because, through my new
relationship, I had met myself – and I wasn’t the
person who should be with my wife. And so it was
that, even if my new lover had refused to take me, I
would still that week have left my wife.
I knew this would take some explaining to other
people. And I was prepared for strangers, or even
acquaintances, to chorus: “What a bastard!” What I
wasn’t prepared for were the responses of some of
my friends. I thought the shock of my departure
would prompt concern to find out what had really
been going on. And when, within four months of me
going, and even as she began her weekly column, my
wife had a new live-in partner, I thought everyone
would accept the change as best for both of us. But
no – I had left, and to take that action is the
unpardonable sin. People I had been close to for
years shut me out.
Since talking to other leavers, I realise this
experience of rejection is typical. Yet what’s most
striking about almost any break-up, when you really
go beyond the basic facts of the matter, is that there
are no villains. Break-ups almost invariably involve
two good people who find themselves in a muddle.
Lost in that muddle they may do cruel things; but the
really nice man or woman who you were great friends
with last week doesn’t become an utter bastard
Tony Parsons argues that the person (and more
particularly the man) who leaves is to a small degree
brave, but to the greatest extent a coward. I would
claim the reverse. Leaving is cowardly because it is
likely to be the precipitous termination of something
that should have ended more amicably, mutually and
gracefully some time before. By leaving, one person
blows a whistle on all the unresolved issues of a
relationship, and says: “I’m off.” It is also
conspicuously the case that few men simply leave –
they almost always leave for someone else.
But leaving also takes enormous courage. Anyone
who leaves a long-term relationship has had to ask
some pretty profound questions about themselves
and what they want from life. They’ve had to make
equations out of present misery and potential future
happiness, and back their hunch that they have the
right answer. They have to know what they want in a
way few would ever choose to confront.
When I found myself in the kitchen telling my
darling, innocent children, who trust me and love me,
that I was going to leave, it was like watching myself
draw a sharp blade across their skin. To think of that
moment makes me cry to this day. It’s not something
nice people do because they suddenly don’t care. It’s
what nice people can find themselves doing because
they feel they have no choice. At that moment, they
may be making calculations about the future
happiness of everyone in the room. Who are they to
play God like that? But equally, how can they not,
when they know the central relationship is dead?
I think in their hearts even those who shout “bastard”
know the reality is very different – and that’s
precisely why they shout so loud. There’s nothing
quite so intimidating as a person who knows their
mind. We fear their self-knowledge might be
contagious. And we fear that, infected by self-
knowledge, we or those we love might also feel the
need to change course dramatically. Since almost all
of us fear change, it’s no wonder so many reject the
one who leaves – the personification of change.
The other evening I was talking about all this with a
friend – a fellow bastard. I was saying how, the more
divorce stories I hear, the more convinced I am that
few who leave their marriages are truly villains. “If
you’re looking for the villains,” he said, “look at the
ones who don’t leave.” To some degree I think he’s
right. We can all think of couples who are still
together but who are locked in a mutual dance of
unhappiness, bullying or blankness. Their marriages
have become self-imprisonment in which both are
suffering but neither has the honesty to confront
their own misery and try to improve their life by
When we marry someone we really, really do want it
to be for life. Ask the leaver bastards – almost all of
them would say they would much rather their
marriage had worked out. They didn’t want it to fail.
Its failure will have cost them dear; when they leave,
they leave behind a home, memories, old friends and
routines. They’re likely to find themselves feeling
naked, dispossessed and exposed, short of money,
friends and a past. It’s like pressing the delete key on
a whole chunk of life. To a large extent we are our
past, and when we walk away from our past we walk
away from a part of ourselves. It’s a little suicide.
That was the choice I made: to commit a little suicide
in order to be free of a relationship in which I was
dying. It was the most frightening thing I’ve ever
done. But I’m glad I did it. What a bastard.
The first instalment of the divorce diary of ‘Stevie
Morgan’, as published in the Independent
My husband has just left me, so the dog has begun
to chase the chickens again. She has caught the
sparks from the thunderbolt that has struck us all.
This has meant that at moments of highest drama –
Me: “Don’t you remember making love in the shower
when we had a flat full of guests?”
Him: “I never liked that green paint in the bathroom”
– we have to break off so I can scream myself hoarse
at the bottom of the garden amid squawking fowls
and a boxer with neon eyes.
It is the sort of thing we would have laughed
ourselves silly over a few weeks ago, but there seems
to have been a bit of a sense-of-humour failure since
Beloved came home and announced his imminent
departure to be with Bonk in a Notting Hill love-nest.
It’s all in a perfectly noble cause, mind you: Personal
Growth – his – and as he so very generously says,
mine too. Sweet, really. I spent my first night of
personal growth lying face down on our lawn chewing
grass and keening into the worm casts. I have been
doing lots of similar enhanced development work
every night since.
Sadly, Beloved finds my reactions a little
embarrassing. Having been brave enough to break
free from the constraining shackles of marriage, he is
standing in a shiny new world washed clean of all the
cloying shards of years of wasted past. So when I
finally lost it yesterday, and smashed our entire
dinner service (very neatly in a skip) and sliced up
my arms for good measure, he was tight-lipped. He
told me tersely to change my trousers because the
children would be upset if they saw the blood. Later
he asked if there was anything that “sparked it off”.
At moments like this, headlines flash before my eyes
– such as “Aliens stole my husband”. Is this the same
man who used to balance peanuts on his nose for my
entertainment and do walrus impersonations? Of
course, those were the days when M&S boxers were
acceptable and he was happy to cycle to work looking
a total nerd in one of those back-to-front helmets.
Nothing much short of Paul Smith and Calvin Klein on
his botty these days, and precious little peanut
balancing since he became a weekly boarder in
London and could officially say he was a film director.
Not a great deal of smiling, either. Do you ever see a
film director smiling? I blame it on the nasty
corrupting world of freelancedom where they drink
testosterone with egomania chasers.
London media freelanceness did for Beloved, poor
lamb. He rediscovered the joys of single life, this
time not as a poor student but as a grown-up with
serious dosh, glam job and a Clerkenwell flat.
Coming home to a wife who knows her chickens by
name and worries if the wind will snap her
rudbeckias must have begun to seem a pretty
unattractive option. I mean, compared with giving
Bonk a once-over against the glittering backdrop of
the City skyline…
So I’m coming to terms with it all by thinking of it as
a style decision. A country wife and kids just didn’t fit
with Beloved’s Criterion dinners and Armani trews.
Like wearing wellies to the Baftas.
So what man would fit my new style? What exactly
does match a divorcee with two kids and a rudbeckia
fixation? Well, let’s put it this way – ain’t no point
ringing Alan Rickman and telling him I’m finally free.
Something more countrified might be suitable and
more accessible. I’ve never really fancied anything in
tweeds but after 20 years of regular delightful
bonking and now two weeks without, I may have to
lower my standards.
Or would it be simpler to have a sex clause in the
divorce settlement agreement? You know, the cost of
the mortgage, the Aga service and two sessions
every month. I’ll have to ask the lawyer. Watch this
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