Wednesday, August 19, 2009
It's Never too Late for Love...
How I was happier alone for 20 years... then something magical happened
By Juliet Nicolson
Last updated at 10:24 PM on 18th August 2009
Until this summer, when I became a bride for the second time, I had been a divorcèe for nearly as many years as I'd been a wife.
I married for the first time 32 years ago, when I was 23. He was my first proper boyfriend, we'd met five years earlier and my father had encouraged the match.
It was a big, white traditional affair, with 200 guests and a three-tiered cake covered in sugary-pink rosebuds.
Yet even as I said my vows, a tiny doubt was niggling at me. Although I loved the man beside me, something about the 'foreverness' of it all seemed, even then, like an unrealistic goal.
After five years, my first daughter was born, followed by the second three years later. When, after 18 years of marriage, my husband and I divorced, I vowed I would never walk down the aisle again.
Our parting held no drama: we simply realised that the marriage wasn't working. However, the divorce and its after-effects had made me miserable. The failure to sustain the relationship had left me profoundly unconfident. Never again did I want to expose myself to such levels of self-blame.
Also, I felt that a dating, man-preoccupied mother would never be able to give her daughters the stress-free home they deserved. So I remained single, celibate and (in many ways) happy.
Over the next decade-and-a-half, something rather strange happened to me. On the surface I thought I had it all: independence, two girls to whom I was devoted, a rewarding writing career, a loving family, wonderful friends.
Emotional commitment, let alone another marriage, did not sit easily with the stubbornly independent person I became. Deep down, though, I didn't want to risk making any more mistakes. I didn't believe I would ever meet anyone with whom it wouldn't go wrong.
Gradually, I withdrew into myself. I was lonely, but I wouldn't admit it. I focused on being a good mother to my children. It was an intensely happy, girlie existence and I truly believed that I would never love a man, or need a man's love, again.
Very occasionally, I accepted an invitation from a potential suitor to dinner or the cinema; but if I sensed so much as a kiss in the air, I fled for the safety of my own front door.
During the day, when the girls were at school, I threw myself into my writing. At night, I simply stopped going out. Dinner parties left me feeling like an outsider, so I turned down invitations. Instead, I reached for the television remote control and blotted out the emptiness.
I convinced myself that what I liked best was to be alone, immersed in a new novel or watching an episode of Coronation Street while tucking into a bar of chocolate. After all, I knew from my own experience of marriage that aloneness was infinitely preferable to unhappy companionship.
In retrospect, it was a pretty unhealthy existence. And I knew I was unhappy. I used to dread opening a newspaper and seeing pictures of celebrities in new relationships in each other's arms.
But I also asked myself what on earth I had to offer a man. My ex-husband was happily re-married, had two lovely new daughters, but I, more than a decade after the divorce, felt unmatchable. I had no sense of self-worth.
While the girls were around, it was possible to convince myself that I was coping well. The girls' happiness seemed to be enough to bring me happiness.
But then one autumn, a few years ago, they both left home together - one to go to university, the other to boarding school. The house was empty and I couldn't pretend any more. I really was alone. I was closing down - vanishing into my own loneliness and with no idea how to find my way back.
One sorry episode sticks in my mind. Friends offered to come round to cook for me and found, in my oven, the mouldy remains of the very quiche they had brought round several weeks earlier on a previous cheering-up exercise. Alarm bells were ringing, but still I didn't do anything to change my situation. I remained terrified of embarking on a romance that would backfire.
Then I got a telephone call, asking if I would help research another writer's memoirs. I found I enjoyed it and I was good at it.
'I was closing down - vanishing into my own loneliness and with no idea how to find my way back'
Physically, the research took me out of my house. Psychologically, I felt needed again - not just as a mother, but as an adult with something to contribute. Feelings of self-worth started to return. I felt as if I had suddenly turned a corner.
At the same time, my friends were more worried than ever about me living all alone. One, in particular, took me in hand.
'Make sure you accept the next chance to go to a party,' she instructed. 'Wear something that suits you - green is a good colour. And invest in a lipstick.'
I'll never forget her final warning: 'Brad Pitt is not going to ring the doorbell unprompted.'
Not long afterwards, an invitation to a book launch party arrived. In order to silence my friend's persistent urging, I reluctantly went.
I had my hair cut. I bought some new, towering black suede high-heels and paired them with a favourite old skirt covered in pink hibiscus and green fronded palm trees.
As I applied my lipstick, I had an inkling that something was going to happen that evening. Maybe it was wishful thinking. Whatever the case, I felt like an apprehensive child on her first day of nursery school as I nervously tottered into the party at a house in Kensington. And then, 30 seconds later, I saw him. He was standing on the other side of the room and he was looking at me.
Our eyes didn't so much meet as lock. It was one of those across-a-crowded-room heart lurches that happen only to teenagers. Apparently.
The next thing I knew, a friend who had witnessed this little display had me by the elbow and was steering me across the room towards him. I think I spoke first.
His name was Charlie. He was ten years older than me, very good-looking, a former diplomat now working as a public relations consultant. Like me, he'd been married before and had grown-up children.
'Our eyes didn't so much meet as lock. It was one of those across-a-crowded- room heart lurches.'
It's a corny line, but it really did seem as if there was no one else in the room. We talked for ages, and at the end of the party he gave me his card.
When I got home, I emailed my brother, who also knew him, and asked for his opinion. 'Nicest man in the world,' was the reply that pinged back.
So I emailed Charlie: 'I really liked meeting you. Would you like to meet up for a cup of tea?'
Looking back I can't believe how bold I was - but he agreed. We met in a little cafè in London and it went really well.
I was wearing a much-loved and ancient pair of Vivienne Westwood pirate boots, even though Charlie later admitted that he thought they were the ugliest pair of shoes he had seen in his life.
For our next date, we met for lunch. And after that for dinner. Eventually I introduced him to my father, and to my daughters, who were delighted that I'd finally met someone.
Instant attraction: Juliet met Charlie at a book launch in Kensington where they talked all night
Gradually, I could feel my scepticism about men dissolving and my trust in love increasing. It was a very slow process, but Charlie did not rush me.
And he was lovely to me: he cooked for me, he noticed what I was wearing, he even laughed at my jokes. Above all, he listened to me.
Inevitably, there were complications. We both had a past, we both had children with feelings to respect, other individuals in our lives to treat gently. All this had to be taken into account.
Cautiously, we got to know each other. The complications ebbed and flowed. By now, I was living in the country and Charlie was in London. We'd meet at weekends. For a long time, we lived the compromise, the LAT life - Living Apart (but in so many ways) Together.
Families on both sides took time to adjust to this new relationship. For so long, my daughters had been used to having me to themselves. And they were protective of me. In the early years after my divorce, they had seen enough tears.
They were not keen on seeing any more. But the love between us continued to deepen. Charlie made me feel cherished and listened to. He also shared my belief that to maintain a successful relationship, you must allow each other space.
As a writer, I still sometimes needed to be alone. But then there came a day last year when we were walking along the cliffs on top of the South Downs in Sussex, within sight of the Seven Sisters. And Charlie sensed that this was the moment to ask me the question that I instinctively knew he had been waiting to ask me for a while.
And it was a question I, too, had begun to long for. He fumbled in his pocket and brought out a beautiful diamond ring which was made in 1911 - the year in which the book I had just finished writing was set.
He said: 'I was rather hoping that one day you might agree to marry me.'
I said: 'Are you asking me now?' And he said: 'Well, I am.' And so I said: 'Then I will.' Six weeks ago, we married. It could not have been more different than my first wedding. The practical register office procedure was followed by a service in a 15th-century Sussex flint church in front of friends and family.
On the morning of the wedding, I wore my lucky skirt - the one with the pink hibiscus and green fronded palm tress I had worn the night I met Charlie. For the ceremony, I changed into a dress I designed myself - cream lace over pale green silk.
Standing at the door of the church, a 55-year-old bride waiting to walk up the aisle to Charlie, is, along with the births of my daughters, one of the most profound experiences of my life.
We promised to love and cherish each other for ever, and I felt that I had never before spoken aloud words that felt truer. As I looked at Charlie, I realised that tears were glinting in his eyes as well as my own.
Afterwards, we walked through the cornfields back to our home and had a party that seemed to effervesce with celebration. During the speeches, I confided to a mass of smiling faces that this was a day beyond my wildest dreams.
It's taken me a long time to get here, but what I have learned more than anything is the wonderful revelation that I am in charge of my own life, and in charge of what I choose to do with it.
'When I got home, I emailed my brother. "Nicest man in the world" was the reply he pinged back.'
Before, I had allowed my own paralysing lack of confidence, and belief that I could never be pretty enough/ funny enough/ loveable enough to make any man commit himself to me above any other person in the world, to dictate my aspirations.
At last I realise that I can do nothing, or I can do something. I used to believe that 'doing nothing' was somehow being imposed on me by some kind of outside force. But it wasn't.
Now I realise that I am - and we all are - able to change our own circumstances if we choose to do so.
Sometimes it's difficult. You need to be courageous and believe that it doesn't have to be like this. Sometimes, you just have to change your own attitude. Look for the good, rather than dwelling on the bad. It's how I try to live my life now.
A week or so after our wedding, our vicar told us that during the party he had been taken aback by the number of couples of all ages who had approached him to talk about the wonderful institution of marriage.
Many of our guests were in tears, and afterwards several said they'd like to renew their vows. One special girlfriend of mine has fallen in love with someone she met at our wedding.
Perhaps this is the biggest surprise of all - that it is possible, at any age and at any time, to find someone to cherish and to love. You must dare to dream. Always be hopeful.
Most importantly, you have to remember that Brad Pitt won't knock on your door unprompted. If you want to meet him, you'd better get out there and find him.
Sometimes I wish I'd known how wonderful and 'easy' being in a relationship is - and then I would have done it years ago. Then again, perhaps it's only like this when you find the right person.
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