Welcome to our series, The Divorce Diaries. In our past instalments over the last year we’ve covered everything from the effect of lockdown on divorces to whether they’re contagious and have now spoken to dozens of women – including one whose husband announced he was leaving her to have an open relationship with a 19-year-old and another who was quite literally ghosted by her own husband.
If you have a topic you’d like to discuss, share your thoughts, experience or advice about, drop a line to [email protected] with ‘Divorce’ in the subject line. All stories that are published will win a Dermalogica BioLumin-C Moisturiser, valued at $119!
This week we talk to Anne* who always felt that something was off in her relationship, and surprised herself when she finally said the truth out loud – a moment that changed her family’s life forever, for the better.
Anne could barely believe her luck when the Bill, the most popular guy in school, invited her on a date to the movies.
Everyone knew Bill. He was 6’2”, handsome, held the record for the fastest 200m and 400m in the pool, was captain of the cricket team, plus, nobody could ever say a bad word about him because he was so darn nice. He’d make a run for it, every time the last school bell rang for the day, down the road to his little brother’s primary school, where he’d hoist him on his shoulders to walk him home.
At 17 – in the seventh form – he was two years ahead of Anne, but they’d met a lot through her older brother who was in the same year as Bill. But she still got a fright as he ran up to her after school one Friday, in a mad hurry and asked if she was free the next night to go to a movie with him and a group of friends.
“Well, it was quite a shock,” says Anne. “But how could I say no? It was very flattering, because everyone in my form had a crush on Bill, so I immediately said yes. I didn’t even know what the movie was!”
And with that, Bill said he’d pick her up at 6pm and he was off to pick up his brother.
The date – with four other couples – “was lovely” says Anne. So it led to another group date, and another, and another. Then Bill asked her out for a date, just the two of them and asked her if she’d be his girlfriend.
“I mean, can you imagine?” says Anne. “It was like a movie, being the 15-year-old girl who gets the guy that everyone wants to be with. I couldn’t believe my luck.”
When the year finished up and Bill left for university, everyone assumed the two would eventually break up, but instead they constantly exchanged letters and phone calls and Bill returned home as often as he could.
“One of my most vivid memories is Bill coming to my school ball in sixth form – my last year at school,” says Anne. “You should have seen the look on everyone’s faces. Everyone’s jaw dropped when Bill came in.”
When Anne was 18, Bill proposed and the pair married when she was 21 and he was 23. They went on to have three children together – with Anne giving birth to their last child when she was 29.
For the most part it was a wonderful marriage – Bill was a kind, caring man who had somehow only got better looking with age – but, there was something a little off about their relationship, and Anne could never quite put her finger on it, nor did she really want to.
“I don’t know exactly how to put it, but no, there was something that wasn’t quite right the entire time,” says Anne. “Of course I never really said that to anyone because I didn’t want to break the spell, but I did say to my bridesmaids the morning of our wedding that I wasn’t sure that Bill truly loved me – he seemed to be more in love with the idea of having a wife. They told me it was wedding day jitters and what a wonderful man Bill was and how lucky I was and I never opened my mouth about it again.”
But those feelings never went away for Anne. Their relationship felt real, but it also sometimes felt like they were playing house, or play acting being a husband and wife. They’d go to dinners, celebrations or work events together and Bill would be so keen to “show her off” to everyone. “Here’s the woman I’m always talking about,” he’d say to people, or Anne would meet someone new and they’d tell her how much they’d heard about her from Bill.
It always struck her as a bit odd, because she’d never heard anything about them. And really, there wasn’t a hell of a lot that Bill did talk to her about.
“I always felt like there was some distance between us,” she says. “I mean, there was definitely physical distance because he’d work long hours and go away for work – and he was always out playing golf or some sort of sport. But there was an emotional distance too. He was, at heart, an emotional, sensitive man and we’d have some great conversations, but sometimes, a real wall was there, like he had something to protect.”
As her kids went off to school, Anne started thinking more about her future and with Bill’s help she went back to school herself to study accounting.
“Something inside me made me think I should make sure I could stand on my own two feet,” she says. “I knew that Bill was the kind of man who would always look after me, but I also wanted to feel like I had some control on my destiny.”
At first, Bill was surprised Anne wanted to work and let her know she didn’t need to, but she was adamant and so he encouraged her. By the time all the kids were at high school, Anne was working full-time and loving it.
But her relationship was feeling more and more distant.
Which is why she wasn’t terribly surprised when one weekend, while their youngest was away (their eldest two had already left for university), when she came home from the supermarket to find Bill in their bedroom in tears.
“I knew in my gut right away that our marriage was ending,” she says. “I knew someone hadn’t died, I knew he hadn’t cheated on me, I just knew there was something bigger going on.”
Bill continued to sit there crying and Anne came in and sat next to him.
She told him she could think of two reasons why he might be crying. “I said, either you have cancer, or you’re gay,” she tells. “It actually surprised me a bit when I said it, but I think I had felt it deep down for years and maybe knew all along.”
Bill turned his head quickly and looked down at her through tears and said, “How did you know?”
She quickly clarified that he was talking about being gay and that he didn’t have cancer, then told him that she didn’t really know until that very moment but at the same time, she had always known.
And so began the most honest conversation the pair had ever had. He admitted that he’d always been gay, but had refused to believe it. He said he felt that if he did everything right – was the perfect student, the perfect athlete, the perfect husband, the perfect employee, the perfect son, the perfect father – then maybe he wouldn’t be gay.
“His parents were very, very religious,” tells Anne. “And we grew up in a small town during a time when being gay wasn’t accepted. He was trapped, he couldn’t tell his friends or family. And then people must have been wondering why on earth this popular, handsome guy didn’t have a girlfriend, so he started inviting me out.”
Anne says people often say things to her like, “you must have felt so betrayed,” but she didn’t.
“I felt so very sad for Bill,” she tells, her voice catching. “I felt so sad that he had made himself keep up this incredibly exhausting façade and denied his true feelings. And I felt so very guilty and ashamed that I’d allowed that to happen. I’d turned a blind eye to all the signs, and left him to suffer all those years.”
“I said to him that night, ‘How are you ever going to forgive me?’ but he said, ‘How are you ever going to forgive me?’ I don’t know how it unfolds for other couples, but we sat there that night and cried and talked for hours.”
By the end of it, she says, she’d lost her husband, but had gained a true best friend.
She wasn’t surprised by the timing of it all either, it had been bubbling up for a few years, but now, both his parents had passed away, and their nest was almost empty. Their youngest was in the lead up to her final school exams, so they agreed to wait until she was finished to tell the family. Their eldest found it to be very difficult and had – and still does have – a hard time processing it.
“Our two youngest couldn’t have cared less,” she tells. “Our youngest said, ‘Well, duhh. I wondered if you were ever going to tell me!”
In the six years since, Bill and Anne have never been closer.
“Our relationship is truly better than ever,” she tells.
They still spend a lot of time together – often joined by Anne’s new husband or Bill’s partner. “Bill doesn’t scream it from the rooftops, he’s very reserved still, but it’s wonderful finally seeing him happy,” she says. “I mean, our children made him very happy and we genuinely did have a lot of happiness in our marriage, but he is entirely himself now, which is a different kind of happy.”
Anne says she’s sure her story is very different to a lot of women who go through the same process, but she says her story has also taken a different path.
“I’ve met a couple of women who have discovered their husband or partner was actually gay and they have so much bitterness and feel so betrayed,” she says. “They get in touch because I think they want to lean on someone who has been through the same thing. But that wasn’t my experience. All of the signs were there in our marriage and I ignored them, intentionally. Bill was never unfaithful, I have no doubt of that. He wasn’t living a double life. He was suppressing who he truly was, and I was his co-conspirator in that process. I’m just as to blame.”
Of course, it hasn’t all been plain sailing and she did go through a period of deep grief – she lost her husband of two decades. But the pair went to counselling together and had frank, open discussions every step of the way. “I needed some time to really get my head around it,” says Anne, “but then we discussed it ad nauseum!”
Anne says she’s not proud of things that happened during her marriage, but she couldn’t be prouder of their relationship now.
“No one can believe it when I tell them that I’m spending the weekend with my husband and my ex-husband,” she says. “But I still love Bill immensely and he and my husband get on like a house on fire.”
“I wish I’d had the courage to face up to reality sooner, but, I thank the heavens that we finally did have that conversation and that we have had so much love and respect for each other that we have been able to evolve our relationship into what it is today. I will always be proud of our family.”
*names have been changed.