MANTALK: Starting over


There is a guy I know. He’s newly divorced. Or should I call him a ‘separatee’? Things weren’t working out and they decided to try a trial separation.

Trial separation is this new thing in modern marriages where you separate for anything between three to six months. There is counselling and all that, and you agree on financial obligations – you know, will you still be paying rent when you aren’t living there?

After that, you decide if you still want to stay together, or whether life was so much more fun without your spouse that you prefer it stays that way.

So anyway, after two months of my guy moving out, they decided this thing was dead in the water, so they shook hands and called it a day. Now he finds himself living in a servant’s quarter where I recently went to visit him.

His new abode is this place with a window that you can’t see through because it’s high up, and outside this window is a tree with branches that scratch the glass when it’s windy.

His landlord in the main house is a UN guy who is hardly ever in. The chap has a large green garden with a gardener who, when I visited, was pushing a lawnmower across the lawn.


My friend has a small side gate from which he accesses his small unit and weekends, like this weekend I went to visit him, I found him washing clothes outside at the outside laundry area, wearing shorts and an old t-shirt and looking more haunted than I have ever seen him.

He said he loves washing his own clothes because when he started living alone, he got those day girls who wrecked most of his shirts. His former help knew how to take care of his shirts.

He said he was happier. That the marriage was toxic and it made him “bleed in the heart.” (I liked that, “bleed in the heart”.) It lasted only five years before it went to the cleaners and the result was a lovely kid with his father’s eyes.

But he admitted that the most difficult part was adjusting to this new life. “I feel like I live in someone’s house,” he said, “and that one day they will come back and claim their space.” He feels like a stranger in his space.

Like he doesn’t belong. Everything feels hired; the bed, the TV, the seats like a temporary safe house for fugitives. He was used to going back to a house with noise and the smell of onions.

Now all he smells is disappointment. He could move to a bigger house but big spaces make him feel lost. (This is man code for “lonely”.) I asked him to draw me the trajectory of separation/divorce and that was an interesting conversation.

It starts with guilt, he said. The most excruciating part is his kid. Three weeks into the separation he thought he was going to lose his mind, he said. He felt like he had deeply disappointed his child. It’s something that shakes you.

Going home to no sound of a child feels weird. Like an echo in your soul, kind of thing.

Then you feel free, where you are just glad that you are out of that union and you can do whatever you want. And so you do, you go you do – you go out and you sit in a bar and you drink without worrying that someone will question why you have shown up at that hour, and no one will ask who you were with. Bachelorhood brings with it a horde of women, like a rotating door.

You can pick and choose and you can take them to your little hovel and have your way with them and when you get tired of one you can pick another and another until one day you will realise that they just make you “emptier and emptier” (his words).

My pal said that the most peculiar thing about women is that they want to believe what they want to believe. That when they ask him why his marriage ended and he tells them it ended because of him, they will make excuses for him.

They say, “Oh, no, she was wrong to do that, or this.” They want to believe that you were the good guy and it doesn’t matter what you say, they will always look at you as the victim and they will want to fix you. He said it becomes meaningless, especially when you realise that you will get the same challenges with them that you had with the ex.

“Then maybe it’s you that you need to fix,” I offered and he stood there, leaning on his sink made of slab, water running into a basin behind him and him squinting against the sun and accepting this fact with a jolting realisation.

Later, as we sat in that bedsit, drinking whisky from a plastic cup, the branches outside squeaking against the window, I asked him if separation has worked for him so far (seven months in) and he said in some ways, it has worked for him because a “bad marriage changes the person you are.” But it has disorganised him: “You spin and spin and spin, like a Coke bottle.”

Now he’s getting his bearing. Reconciliation is off the table. He said when you leave a bad marriage you promise yourself that you will take time before you settle down again, but at a certain age you find it hard to live like a bachelor.

So he seeks someone to date and perhaps settle down with. “It’s like childbirth, the labour can be manic but women will always forget how bad it was and get another baby.”