If you are an ABBA fan, you will recognise the song title in a flash: a big hit from 1979 in almost the last phase of ABBA's existence as a performing group. The two men (Björn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson) and the two girls (Agnetha Fältskog and Anni-Frid Lyngstad) had found love together; but the marriage of Agnetha Fältskog and Björn Ulvaeus had already failed, and they were lately divorced. The song is about divorces in general, but has clear and poignant resonances with their own. I have always been amazed that Ulvaeus and Andersson were able to write it so soon after the divorce, and, even more so, that Agnetha Fältskog found it in herself to sing it so expressively.
I have seen the 2007 interview with Ulvaeus, in which he denies that divorces really do have a clear winner and loser, in the way that the song lyrics suggest. I'm glad he has denied it, because in my personal experience divorce is a tragic mess with nobody coming out of it well. Oh yes, you may be able to 'do it in a civilised way', and have a 'fair settlement', and 'get your freedom to move on', but there are subtler effects that change your life forever. I am sure that every divorced person will agree that nothing is ever the same after a marriage collapses, especially a first marriage.
It happened to me a long time ago, with separation in the New Year of 1991, and the divorce itself following in 1996 after five years of frustrating delay.
A--- had left school after taking her A-Level exams, and in 1990 went to New Zealand for a year. She had been the glue that kept the marriage intact, and all those bubbling irritations under control. Left alone, W--- and I quickly began to annoy each other. There was nothing specifically in contention. It just became obvious that we were not now suited, and that love had gone. It was so hard to be jolly at Christmas 1990, and then even harder to welcome in the New Year. We were both sincere and sensitive people, and we hated living a lie. Almost with relief, we agreed to separate. That done, there was an immediate illusion of peace. We had called a truce, and could relax a bit.
But actually our lives were merely on hold. Unless we came together again (and I for one never considered doing that for an instant: I knew we were right to part) all the bother of a legal process would have to be set in motion. Not only that: the physical effort of selling the marital home and dividing our shared possessions seemed daunting.
If one partner was inert about facing up to this, or just positively unwilling to co-operate, then the partner anxious to begin divorce proceedings (myself, in our case) had to wait a full five years. So it was. It was a very long time. Too long. The relief of living apart, and not bickering every night, and having some freedom, turned in the end into a test of endurance that fostered resentment and impatience. Not a good way to finally end something that had started rather well in 1982.
However, in 1996 we achieved legal closure. The divorce settlement simply split the equity in the house, and divided our jointly-owned personal possessions fifty-fifty. We didn't actually have to fight it out in court. The court merely gave its approval to our negotiations. We ended up with the same for each. We both took away some furniture and £18,000 cash. We kept our own cars. We both still had reliable jobs, so no maintenance was in question.
My £18,000 was enough for a deposit on a house elsewhere in Sussex - where I wanted to be. W--- had a lower income, but could afford to buy a flat in London - where she wanted to be. We were therefore both still able to be householders, both able to be independent, both free to make a fresh start. A--- coped magnificently with the marriage failure and its fallout, and developed an ongoing relationship with me. It was a civilised outcome.
But the experience left a lasting mark. In the years that followed I often thought about my former marriage. I grew to see more clearly why it had come unstuck. I came to see how I'd been inadequate for the challenge involved. I wondered why I'd ever launched myself into it at all. Its failure was evidence that my judgement was poor, that I had mistaken attraction for enduring love, that I clearly couldn't handle close relationships, and couldn't give the required commitment. In short, I thought much less of myself, and my self-confidence suffered. However, I still clung to the idea that there were other people out there who would make a much better match.
When M--- entered my life, I decided that she was such a one. But during fifteen years together we never married, although I was happy to talk about it from time to time. Marriage was however never seriously on the table. And I think that if pushed I would not have done the deed, not after my previous experience of what it might involve, and the legal issues. It was 'once bitten, twice shy'. But the way M--- and I inter-related was very much like a marriage, and when our relationship collapsed it was all terribly reminiscent of what had happened years before. The same thing all over again, but much worse. There wasn't of course a divorce as such, but it felt like one. A bad one. And nobody was the winner. M--- got all the cash (and it was a small fortune). But she lost her man forever. I got a brand new life as Lucy. But I lost the love of my life. No, there was no winner.
Nowadays marriage has no appeal for me whatever. The essence - as I see it - seems to be a wish to be committed to someone else, and to share each other's lives for better or worse. An important add-on is the creation of one's own family, but the pair-bonding element is the core of it.
For a decades I embraced this. But now I know that I was wrong to try. People like me should stay single and pursue a different path through life. If I'd understood that, then I could have spared W--- (and M---) a lot of trouble.