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Unhappily married? You’re not alone

The marriage between Tini Owens and her multimillionaire mushroom farmer husband, Hugh, doesn’t sound like one that most of us would relish. She tried to divorce him last year, but was told by a judge that she couldn’t, because they hadn’t lived apart for five years. Now she has asked the court of appeal to overturn that ruling.

Hugh had, according to evidence supplied by Tini, constantly berated her about a year-long affair she’d had, rowed with her in an airport shop, criticised her to the housekeeper, avoided speaking to her during a meal in a pub – and asked her to pick up bits of cardboard from the garden.

But the accusation of “unreasonable behaviour” was thrown out because the judge decided the grounds were too flimsy. This is a very odd conclusion – the judge essentially told poor Mrs Owens she must stay married to a husband she no longer wants, until enough time has elapsed for his agreement to no longer be required. Yet I don’t entirely blame the judge; he was just upholding laws requiring a couple to have lived apart for at least five years if one party opposes the marriage’s dissolution.

The letters I received as an agony aunt showed me the vast range of behaviours in a marriage that some people are prepared to put up with – and not put up with. One reader and her husband hadn’t spoken to each other for five years – and used their son as an intermediary. But neither wanted to divorce. Another woman put up with her husband having countless affairs. Miserable as such marriages might seem to us, for those couples they were good enough.

On the other hand, one man wrote to say he wanted to leave his wife and children just because he’d spotted her kissing another man while drunk at an office party. No matter how she grovelled and apologised, he couldn’t accept it.

I would guess the problem in the Owens’ marriage is not so much that one behaved entirely unreasonably to the other; it is that they have different expectations of marriage. A man of Hugh’s age, 78, a man who’s done national service, a man who may have seen his own father behave in the same cavalier way to his mother as he behaved to Tini, just doesn’t see the problem. Marriage for him is for life, even if his wife did have an affair.

She, on the other hand, is looking for warmth and compatibility. She described to the court feeling “unloved”. And as she can’t get the warmth she needs from Hugh, at 65 she understandably wants to move on.

Tolstoy said: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” But he was wrong. Happy – or happyish – families can be very different. They range from being comfortable and loving to those in which both partners feel that the upside of being married only just outweighs the downside. Unless behaviour is intolerable by any person’s standards, how can a judge rule on it?

If one partner spends the night gambling away the family savings and yet the other can tolerate this behaviour, then the relationship could be regarded as OK. Not happy, but bearable. We’ve all witnessed married friends behaving in a way that we would find unacceptable. They argue and bicker so much that we wonder how they can stand each other. But we don’t know what each partner gets out of this. Who knows, perhaps it’s a weird kind of foreplay? After they’ve had a good public snipe, they may go back home for glorious sex. To outsiders it’s a mystery how the relationship works, but somehow it does.

And we’ve all seen relationships break up when one or other of the partners “reforms” their bad behaviour. A woman complains bitterly about her alcoholic husband but finds living with him sober too much to bear.

Sometimes dysfunctional relationships totter on because partners’ behaviour resembles what they each experienced as a child. Although the protagonists may not exactly enjoy it, at least it reminds them of the security of being at home.

As for Tini feeling “unloved, isolated and alone”, is this grounds for divorce? Who hasn’t had a row in an airport shop? A silent meal? I’ve sat through hundreds. In Tini’s position, another woman might tell Hugh to pick up his own cardboard and laugh at his grumpiness.

I don’t know what the appeal court will decide about the Owens’ marriage, but as judge James Munby pointed out this week: “It is not a ground for divorce if you find yourself in a wretchedly unhappy marriage – people may say it should be.”

I don’t – because it’s often too difficult to say whether the petitioner is being made unhappy by the other person, or whether she or he is the sort who finds insult and cruelty in every breath their partner takes.

I started off by saying the Owens’s marriage isn’t one that most people would relish. But on reflection, who am I to say? I’ve met too many people who can happily shrug off behaviour I find wretched, to judge.