Welcome to our series, The Divorce Diaries. Today we talk to Zara*, who fell in love with another man… who just happened to be the husband of one of her closest friends. Here’s how they swapped husbands.
In our past instalments over the last year we’ve covered everything from when you’re most likely to divorce to whether they’re contagious to whether being on the contraceptive pill can effect your chances! 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, another who was quite literally ghosted by her own husband and one who had been trying for a baby for a year when he finally admitted he’d had a vasectomy years earlier.
Zara and Liam had been together since high school. It had been a classic case of opposites attract: she’d been the loud, feisty one, who was on her school’s debating team, volleyball team and twice played the lead in the school production. Liam, meanwhile, was the quiet, brooding musician who caught her eye as he strummed the guitar at a party when they were both 16.
“He was the yin to my yang, absolutely,” laughs Zara. “I used to joke about how opposites attract, because, wow, he really was my polar opposite. But he evened me out and calmed down my craziness. I reckon I brought him out of his shell so it worked.”
To everyone’s shock, Zara and Liam went the distance – even when they went off to university in different cities.
But it was having a long-term boyfriend was probably one of the things, she says, that really cemented her friendship with Laura who was in a few of her lectures at university.
They both recognized each other from high school – they’d gone to the same one, but had barely spoken – but something clicked instantly when they sat down next to each other on the first day. When Laura told Zara that she’d recently got engaged, she felt excited – most of the girls she knew were single, or only had boyfriends for brief periods of time.
“Things were easy with Laura,” tells Zara. “Maybe she reminded me of Liam in a lot of ways – she was more reserved and quieter and that gave me more space for my drama!”
From there, for the better part of the next decade, the four of them – Zara and Liam, Laura and her fiancé Joe – were firm friends. When Liam came back home from university he and Zara moved in together, often hosting Laura and Joe at their house. They went on a holiday together. Both Zara and Laura were part of each other’s bridal parties.
Then, Zara felt like something wasn’t quite right in her life. After some soul searching she decided it was time to switch jobs. She’d be thinking about real estate for a while – she had some transferable skills – so she asked Joe about it one night that he and Laura were over, as he’d been an agent for several years.
“I remember feeling so pumped after that talk with Joe,” she recalls. “He talked about the thrill of it and how so much of it was just talking to people. I love people! I love talking! I knew I could and should do it.”
So, after some training, Laura rather quickly found herself working at the same company as Joe, just in a different branch.
“Joe was such a big help those first few months where I was finding my feet,” tells Zara. The two had always been good friends – “Joe is an extrovert, like me,” says Zara – but now they were exchanging multiple messages a day.
These days, when the four friends were together, rather than Zara and Laura spending most of the time talking in the kitchen, it was Zara and Joe.
Then, after nine months on the job, Zara – who was going great guns on the job – was invited to a work conference that Joe was also attending. It involved two nights away.
“Night one was total… debauchery,” tells Zara. “I wasn’t that surprised, because I knew a few of the agents liked to have a few drinks, if I remember right, two of the agents were having an affair, but it was all out in the open when we were away.”
On the second night, Zara was feeling a bit dusty so just had a couple of wines. “I can’t even blame it on the drinking,” she tells. “I was clear-headed. Joe was the same… We talked for hours and… I just had mad feelings for him.”
But when Joe said he’d walk her to her room to make sure she got there safe she felt a “lightning bolt rise up through me”.
“Nothing happened, but I really wanted it to,” says Zara. “He hugged me goodbye, and I felt all this tension afterwards.”
When she got inside she had a text from Joe. “It said, ‘I really wanted to kiss you just then.’”
“This is the part I’m ashamed of,” says Zara. “I went to his room and when he opened the door, I kissed him.”
Zara says that from there, nothing more physical happened between them – they just talked, and talked. The next morning, Joe was flustered and asked her to delete the message on her phone. They talked about all their regret for letting things go too far. But, the next weekend, they met up to ‘talk about work’ and again, felt really strong feelings for each other and talked about it.
Within a couple of months, they had decided that they wanted to leave their marriages and start a life together.
Zara says she agonized over telling her husband… and one of her closest friends that their marriages were over.
“I sound like the worst person ever, I know,” she says. “By that point it was actually Laura I felt the worst about. Liam and I had been together so long, but, we’d stalled. We didn’t have any goals together – we didn’t even talk about kids, or holidays or anything. We owned a house, but only because I told him we were buying it.”
Liam didn’t say a lot when Zara told him the marriage was over. “He asked if there was someone else, so I told him,” she says. “I didn’t want to lie”.
She wrote Laura a long email, which she pushed send on, once Joe had text her to say that he’d also broken the news to his longtime love. She didn’t get a reply.
Zara stayed with another friend for the week, while Joe stayed with his parents. They spoke on the phone, but didn’t meet up. “It felt like it would be disrespectful to hook up so soon, and under other people’s roofs,” she says.
So it came as a particularly big shock, when she went over to the house a week later to talk through with Liam what they would do now – if they’d get lawyers or work out what to do with their belongings together.
“He told me he’d slept with Laura and that he wanted to be with her,” she tells.
Shocked, Zara says her first instinct was to burst into tears. She told Joe she needed some time to process everything.
“I know he said that to me, the way he said it, to hurt me,” says Zara.
She got straight on the phone to Joe as she drove away, but he had quite the opposite reaction.
“He burst out laughing then said, ‘this is brilliant!’ I was pretty upset, but he said it was the best outcome possible.”
Joe even joked about what could happen now. “He said he’d never been a big fan of their house but Laura didn’t want to move so now we could just swap houses.”
But three months later, that’s exactly what happened.
“Laura had joked about it with Joe, and he said, ‘but really, should we?” tells Zara.
It was a complicated few months, says Zara – which sounds like something of an understatement.
“Some days we all got on okay, and other days… there was a lot to argue about, like who cheated on who, or who was gonna keep which wedding gifts,” she says. “We ended up giving a whole heap of stuff to charity. Who wants to sleep in the sheets their ex slept in, or your new partner slept in with your friend?”
But for the most part they managed to be quite amicable – surprising most of the people they knew. Events like weddings and mutual friends’ birthdays were sometimes a little stressful, having everyone watching them, but over time they became a bit easier as the ‘swapped husbands’ novelty wore off.
That is, until a couple of years ago, when Zara heard some news that changed how she viewed her ex-husband and former close friend.
“Joe and I were at dinner with friends and they started talking about Liam and Laura and it was all light and quite funny, but then one of them said something like, ‘I guess it made it easier to move on, knowing that they’d been sleeping together’. And I was like, ‘huh?’ and everyone went silent.”
Zara says it transpired that Liam and Laura had actually been having an affair long before she and Joe developed feelings for one another and acted on them.
“It was such a betrayal,” she says. “Yeah, I probably sound like a hypocrite, but Joe and I were upfront about what happened and didn’t do anything until we’d been separated for quite a while.”
In the fall out, Zara says she’s ended up losing a few friends.
“Some of them just didn’t get it and took sides and it just got awkward,” she tells. “A lot of them couldn’t understand why I was upset about it, when a couple of years had passed.”
Zara says she and Joe have since sold up and moved into a new home of their own, but she knows that Laura and Liam are still living in their old home – where they’re now married and have a baby.
“I don’t regret anything that happened because I ended up with the right person,” she says. “I wish I’d chosen my friends a bit better, but then, I wouldn’t be where I am now.”