Divorce is a harsh word, and a deceptive one. It sounds so clear cut, so final. But divorce, as all those who have been touched by it will know, is usually a long time coming. Its ripple effects are felt by everyone involved: children, friends and family, long after the decree absolute is signed. Some of those ripple effects can however be extremely positive, if and when the hurt and loss have abated. A shedding of old skin, bringing a redefined self into the world, looking to a new future.
It is the complexity of divorce that documentary photographer Harry Borden set out to explore in his new book On Divorce. In it he talks to 47 individuals, including his own son, about their experiences and the impact of “the split”. The end of Borden’s own marriage in 2009 was “absolutely horrendous”, at least initially. “I felt completely full of shame,” he says, “and really knocked off my path. My wife and I had been a very good team together. I was really lonely and felt like a failure.” But since then “a new and astonishing friendship” has blossomed with his former wife.
Borden’s sensitive portraits and the accompanying interviews put the humanity back into the D-word. Those involved showed remarkable emotional openness. Borden says, “I admire them for being so candid after such a difficult time in their lives.” There’s a notable absence of judgment, and we see, too, how the wounded in love have a great capacity for understanding and reinvention. As Hilary, one of the interviewees says, ‘There are no rules for these things. Every divorce is as unique as the people involved.” Genevieve Fox
Harry Borden: ‘A friendship began to blossom’
“Is there someone else?” I said it without ever thinking there might be. Two actors in a play, it seemed the logical next line. Scripted by our own parents’ dysfunction, it was inevitable we would part. If our relationship was a garden, it was now tangled with weeds, a neglected space. We had lost the ability to talk.
At first, I was numb but, as the months passed, I began to see the complacent facade I had constructed. I started to re-establish friendships, change my priorities around work and family, cede control and listen. After an intense 10-day meditation course, I saw that marriage is just a set of ideas we have about ourselves. Nothing really bad had happened. As Keith, a divorcee interviewed in my book, said, “It’s time for you to have some fun, kiss another woman, fall in love again…”
We would divide our assets 50-50. No lawyers. I could see that the best way forward was to accept that if you love someone, you want them to be happy, even if their plans don’t involve you. Almost immediately, and maybe for the first time, a friendship began to blossom.
Jane and I were so different when we married in 1995 and it’s strange to contemplate the distressed, lost souls we became. Now she’s among my closest friends; the people I phone when something big happens. I’m so lucky to know her. It astonishes me that we have reached this place. And yes, I did fall in love again…
Barbara and Jane: ‘It made me realise that things could be better’
We were together for 18 years. But it wasn’t a particularly good marriage. I think probably when I met the person who is now Jane, it made me realise that things could be an awful lot better. I knew Jane for about nine years in the male persona before she came out to me and confessed that she would really rather not be that person. There are elements of losing a person, but the same person is still there. Maybe to some of our friends, to the rest of the family, it was a bereavement, but to me it was about becoming more real. I love Jane totally.
Lesley: ‘I do question my reasons for getting married’
My first marriage was really wonderful. It lasted for 22 months. I was so in love. And then one day I no longer was. He took it reasonably well, and even helped me to move into my new flat. I went pretty much from one to the other. Number two was the total opposite, and we had many happy years. And many not so happy years. The best thing that came out of it was my eldest son.
With the third marriage, I was asked to sign a prenup, which I had no issue with, as his mum has money, which I wasn’t after. When our marriage was at the point of breaking down, we tried therapy for 18 months, but it was no good. You can compromise, but being happy is in the end what’s important.
I’m now in a very grown-up, loving, stable relationship. He’s an amazing man. I think when you get older your reasons for getting married are completely different. You’re looking for somebody who’s fun and can make you laugh, and I definitely have that.
Anupama: ‘I think his version of love is very different to mine’
I know that I did love him; I don’t know if it was the same for him. But I do think his version of love is very different to my version of love. I think his idea of a relationship is: he’s a provider, he’s happy to look after you, but emotionally he will always be quite distant.
When Kate and I first started dating, I told her right away that “My ex and I are still living together,” and so there has never been a layer of deceit in all of this. My daughter loves Kate, she absolutely adores her. And Kate loves my daughter, too. Often, all of us go out together; it was my daughter’s birthday recently and the four of us went for a meal and had a lovely time. We are a really strange family – but it works.
Jonathan and Hilary: ‘I betrayed her badly, and that’s hard’
Jonathan: I was with Hilary for 11 years. It was a tender and very happy relationship. But I happened to meet Angie – and I simply fell in love.
Breaking up was the hardest thing, it was terrible. I felt so guilty. I was brought up to be honest and reliable, but I betrayed her badly, and that’s hard.
I’m really pleased that Hilary moved on and found somebody else and is happy. But what I’m most pleased about is that we remain good friends – I think there’s a depth of affection there that will never go. If you love somebody and have a deep bond with them, it’s forever.
Hilary: I never stopped loving Jonathan. But I realised eventually that he had fallen in love with someone else, so it was just not going to work with us being together. With time, I realised that even though I missed him, he hadn’t died. So, there was no reason why I couldn’t carry on seeing him! There are no rules for these things. Every divorce is as unique as the people involved in it!
Annette: ‘It became obvious that we had little in common’
My parents split up when I was two and I had a very disrupted childhood. As I grew up, all I wanted was to have a happy, settled family life.
When I first met Julian, I fell for his kindness and his sense of freedom. I knew that we were totally different but when you’re young, you think you’re invincible. But increasingly it became obvious that we had very little in common. We didn’t like seeing the same friends and had no pastimes we enjoyed together. He became more eccentric and, I suppose, I became more conventional.
It was Julian who made the first move. It was the divorce from hell – and tough on the three children. He told me that he didn’t mind if I got a boyfriend – and that he might find a partner for himself. The divorce took three years. I became quite ill during it.
Sadly, Julian died a few weeks after Harry took the photo. He and his wife spent his last Christmas with us, and we all played games together and shared lunch on Christmas Day.
Jeremy: ‘I’ve been married to a woman and now a man’
I had mostly dated men before I fell in love with my ex-wife. I was very open about it and so I didn’t have to be secretive about my past with anyone. After we divorced, I only had relationships with men. I am clearly more gay than straight. Although I’ve never felt the need for my sexuality to be categorised.
Perhaps it was easier for my ex-wife that I only dated guys after we split up. It’s not for me to say. I think she was more interested in the type of person I chose rather than their gender. I didn’t plan to be married again, but here I am. So, I’ve been married to a woman and now I’m married to a man. Some find it confusing. I just feel incredibly lucky that I have them both in my life.
Michael: ‘I think premarital counselling is essential’
It’s about a year and a half ago that we got divorced, we were married for just over eight years. We ended up arguing over the smaller things. Initially after we had separated, I arranged some counselling for us. We had a few sessions. Unfortunately, it didn’t really help.
I feel very strongly against divorce unless it’s completely necessary. Looking back, the issues that we had could have been worked through. So, I’m a huge advocate of counselling. I think premarital counselling is essential. When I think about it practically, I tried my best. In hindsight there’s many things I guess I could have done differently in the marriage, but overall, I try not to look back in regret.
Jen and Davide: ‘We don’t have any secrets now’
I just remember being completely obsessed with him straight away, which sounds really weird, but I suppose that’s what 15-year-old girls do, isn’t it? We were still so young when we married for the first time.
I was a completely different person the second time. I honestly would never have thought in a million years that Davide and I would have got back together again after that painful divorce. But it’s going so well. Expectations have changed, and we have grown a lot on both sides.
He is definitely my best friend. We don’t have any secrets now. I heartily recommend remarriage to your ex.
Mary: ‘I didn’t expect to fail – and I haven’t’
We had four children in nine years. In Ghana they see it as the woman’s job to get on with it, whatever the circumstances. I tried to make it work. But when I got a teacher’s job, I knew I had enough money to separate.
In Ghana, women are very strong. My grandmother was a role model. She didn’t see anything as a problem. If my temperament had been different, things would have been different of course, but I just got on with it. I didn’t expect to fail – and I haven’t.
With divorce, attitude is everything. There’s no need for acrimony between the two parties.
Sam and Harry – divorce lawyers: ‘It’s more nuanced than people think’
Sam Any relationship is a choice. That’s an active choice both people make, every day. If one, or both, get to the stage where that choice doesn’t make sense any more, it’s OK to move on. We need to shed the stigma of divorce. There are hard-wired beliefs that are wrong, such as that divorce is bad for children. In fact, it’s much more nuanced than that. All the research shows that what can cause children emotional harm is exposure to entrenched conflict. That can happen in a bad divorce, but it can also happen in a deeply unhappy marriage. Divorce can be the healthy choice.
Harry I didn’t start off as a lawyer wanting to do divorce, but I now love it. It’s a huge privilege to be able to talk to people about such difficult things – and to try to help them out at possibly the worst moment in their life. There’s an old canard that you see the worst of people when they’re getting divorced, but I don’t think that’s true. What you see above all is pain. People are also capable of great generosity; they can continue to love and care for someone they no longer want to live with or who has betrayed them badly. It’s remarkable.
In so far as I have a philosophy as a divorce lawyer, it’s “avoid court” and “remember that there were reasons why you once liked each other”. Even after you separate, even after the ink is dry on the court order, you’re still a family. And that’s never truer than when you have children.
What people need are friends, then therapy. Then perhaps time. We’re here as the last port of call.
Lucia: ‘Hurt always comes with an opportunity’
I’m from Uruguay. He’s from Colombia. We come from different cultures, but most importantly, from radically different families, with different childhoods and life experiences. For a long time, we lived largely independent lives and never fully experienced how fundamentally different we were. When we had our children, however, we realised that we couldn’t understand, respect or be with each other any longer.
Failing at the relationship with the father of my children has been tremendously painful. At the same time, it’s been the most transformational and affirming journey of my life so far. I’m a better mother, a more confident woman and a happier human being as a result.
Hurt always comes with an opportunity. However paradoxical, I believe it has been a gift and a meaningful life lesson for our children. They’re our lives and every day we work hard to give them a beautiful life. And they’ve learned that if they aren’t loved and accepted for who they are, they deserve more; they don’t have to settle for less. Even if it’s frightening, there’s always the choice to give up and walk away.
On Divorce: Portraits and Voices of Separation – A Photographic Project by Harry Borden is published by The School of Life on 7 September at £18. Pre-order it at waterstones.com or buy it for £16.71 at guardianbookshop.com