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22 January 2020

Turns out I’m a poet of mature disappointment. Especially on national Divorce Day

My amusement at finding myself soundtracking such a happy day coincided with my becoming hooked on a podcast about unhappy couples.

By Tracey Thorn

I’d never heard of Divorce Day until this year, when I became a part of its soundtrack. It falls on the first Monday after 1 January and is said to be the day that sees a massive surge in the number of couples filing for divorce. The Metro newspaper ran a piece entitled “The Ex Factor”, offering a “break-up misery playlist” in honour of the day. And there I was, with my song “Oh! The Divorces”, being described as “a poet of mature disappointment”.

I took that as a compliment, assuming it meant that I am good at chronicling the ups and downs of later life, not that my mature work has been disappointing. The song itself is about watching friends break up, and apparently there is a lot of that happening at this time of year. We all know how much I love Christmas, but even I can admit that it’s stressful – and for couples in trouble, having to spend all that time together, cooped up indoors in bad weather and poor afternoon light, with fractious children and crotchety relatives, must be the final straw.

The organisation Relate offers tips to couples over Christmas and one of them is, ahem, to avoid alcohol. I guess drunken arguments are always more extreme, with everything appearing more black and white at the bottom of the bottle. Add in the temptation to make life-changing New Year’s resolutions, and it’s easy to see how Divorce Day falls when it does.

My amusement at finding myself soundtracking such a happy day in the year coincided with a moment when I had just become hooked on a podcast about unhappy couples. It’s Esther Perel’s Where Should We Begin, which consists of recorded sessions of couples therapy.

Perel is a psychotherapist, famous for books such as Mating in Captivity and The State of Affairs, who has also branched out into TED Talks. In these she explores the tension between love and desire, between having and wanting, between the need for security and closeness and the need for freedom and distance.

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She’s based in New York and the recordings come complete with the background noise of the city, jackhammers intruding into frank discussions about fidelity and betrayal. The conversations are startling and often very moving, and Perel’s empathy is huge. She understands that many of us are trying to live in a way we never have before – what used to be the economic arrangement of marriage having evolved into our current model of a lifelong passionate relationship – and that we are all trying to figure out how to make it work.

The sessions are fascinating for the same reason that we read novels or watch films – to get a glimpse of other people’s lives. We get to see the insides of their messy heads and realise that we are not alone. They, too, have had thoughts we’ve had, said things we thought unsayable.

And it’s partly sheer nosiness that keeps me listening. These two, for instance, have been dating for a while; he’s the type who wants to save the world but she’s the type who likes a holiday and a martini. In the end Perel comes to the conclusion that he’s the more selfish of the pair – and I agree. Then there’s these two who are only young and are struggling with his diagnosis of a serious illness, but, oh wait, it turns out he also has a porn addiction and has secretly spent all of their savings on video games.

And these two were married to other people, had an affair, broke up, got back together, and now each worries that the other will be unfaithful. Through it all Perel stays calm and non-judgemental but cuts to the jugular with the incision of her comments. No, she says, of course you can’t trust him – why would you?

I wrote in “Oh! The Divorces” that it’s always the ones you least expect. But I’m older and wiser now; I expect it of anyone and everyone. We are all equally fragile, equally complex, equally likely to fuck up. It’s so tempting to always put forward our best lives in every Twitter post, every Instagram story. Easy to forget that no one is really that interested in our moments of triumph. We’re all fascinated by other people’s failure, which looks so like our own. l

Next week: Kate Mossman

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This article appears in the 22 Jan 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Power to the people