RECENTLY, I found myself trying on my wedding dress for the first time in more than 20 years. As I carefully took it out of its tissue paper, and put it on, the memories of the day I took my vows for the second time came flooding back.
Me in yellow with gold brocade and taffeta that sunny day in June 1988, walking through Chelsea registry office towards my elated husband-to-be.
All these years later – at the grand old age of 50 – I may be twice-divorced, but I’m still in my prime, and still wedded to the idea of weddings.
Oh, I know that single people are supposed to say they’re happy with things as they are, that they love their independence. But I think everyone, deep down, would secretly love to be in a happy marriage. Isn’t it the dream? The ultimate fantasy?
Both my marriages – my first to old Etonian Sebastian Riley-Smith and the second to banker Johan Eliasch – failed, and the the truth is, I blame myself for the breakdown of both. I was self-obsessed and insensitive and preoccupied with all the wrong things. I talked when I shouldn’t have talked, didn’t listen when I should have and didn’t pay enough attention or take enough care of my husbands. If I am lucky enough to find a third I would do it all so differently.
Marriage in your 50s is a very different proposition to marriage in your 20s and, in many respects I think, a much better idea. So what have I learned from my two marriages?
Sadly, back in my early 20s when I married Sebastian, nobody told me that marriage frequently doesn’t suit the young. I was stupid and didn’t give the whole thing enough thought. I certainly didn’t think, will I be suited to this man in fifty years time? What do we have in common?
I met Sebastian, a wine merchant, at a party in Chelsea. He looked like Hugh Grant and I told my friends ‘I’m going to marry that man’.
I actually didn’t marry him for another seven years – he took a lot of persuading. He was 25 and looking back I can see he actually really didn’t want to get married. But I was determined.
Mercifully for everyone, he left me after just nine months. In fact, Sebastian announced it at a dinner party when I wasn’t even in the room. Friends kept coming into the kitchen and saying: ‘I’m so terribly sorry’. I had no idea what they were talking about.
Of course I was heartbroken and mortified when it ended so quickly but looking back I was a pretty ghastly wife. Instead of communicating with my husband, I busied myself being – what I thought at the time – was a good Stepford wife. I wanted to do everything perfectly. I ironed socks and cooked food and dressed like a Sloane Ranger. It was all very sterile and I’m not surprised he ran off with his secretary. (Can you believe they’re still together?).
So then there was Johan. He became my best friend after my first marriage broke up; we started going out and I moved into his house in Chester Square in London’s Belgravia.
A year and a half later, in 1988, I proposed to him. Or not exactly. We were sitting in the drawing room and I started telephoning all my friends and telling them we were getting married. Johan didn’t look up from his newspaper and I thought ‘Great! He’s not saying no’.
His mother and I arranged the wedding for three months later and he went along with it.
A very successful banker, he was clever and attractive and caring, but even as our marriage began we were moving in opposite directions. He spent his time flying around the world and socialising with the heads of banks, while I enrolled at drama school. Poor Johan. He would jet in from some far-flung corner of the globe and want some attention from his wife and I’d be learning lines from Restoration comedy The Way of the World.
In many ways that hunger for education I experienced in my late 20s and early 30s – a function of my never having gone to university – was the thing that broke up our marriage. I started to become much more bohemian and less snobbish and more egalitarian. I wasn’t interested in spending hours making chit chat with the head of Morgan Stanley anymore, and it showed.
During my marriage to Johan I admit I felt immense pressure to be the wife that he needed publicly. Our lives were very glamorous; we counted Tracey Emin, Nicky Haslam, collector Kay Saatchi and singer Belinda Carlisle among our close friends and there was a crazy amount of socialising.
I also struggled with being pregnant with our sons Charles and Jack during those years when everyone was scrutinizing everything I wore and every party I went to. I think the wedding vows should probably be updated a little bit and, in addition to ‘in sickness and in health’, there should be an ‘in pregnancy and pre-menstrual fatness’ clause added.
But of course I’m being flip. The fact is that communication broke down, and with it our marriage. I’ve been on my own ever since.
So am I hoping that a third marriage might work because I’m lonely? Well, yes, of course that’s partly it. Isn’t that fear of being alone at the root of most human relationships?
And what do I know now that will make a third marriage work? So very many things.
Most important is that people change and only marriages with room for change will last. After all, the woman I am in now bears very little resemblance to the naive Sloane Ranger who married Sebastian or that society girl who married Johan. I also know now that it’s the silence, not the arguments, which really break a marriage. At least when people argue they are still doing it together. It is still a union. A couple may hate each other like a comedy, but that’s often the life force of the coupling. The thing that keeps them going.
I would also refuse to refer to any kind of marriage self help manual or marriage guidance counselor. When things go wrong, emotional, practical and sexual, I am not convinced that marriage guidance works. After all, if you cannot discuss these things with a spouse then how is a third party going to help? It is rare, I believe, to find any kind of therapist who can connect with both a husband and a wife, which leads to one of you feeling that they are being pushed into disclosure – particularly on the issue of sex.
And yes, I do think sex is important. Sometimes a heavily-pregnant wife may forget her husbands needs have not diminished with hers. Being stones heavier than you were on your wedding day may make you feel less attractive to your husband and more in need of cuddles. The husband, in turn, may feel rejected and believe you don’t love him anymore.
This is why communication is essential. Sometimes when a man is sulking it’s not because you are not attractive to him or because he wishes he were elsewhere, it is because his favourite football team has lost. He would like a cuddle and cup of tea just as much as you would.
That said, I believe that sex is not as important as many women – and particularly young women – imagine it is. After all, sexual attraction is at its peak when you are relative strangers so it is an act of self-delusion to insist that wonderful sex will keep a marriage going for decades and decades. The only thing that will do that is true friendship, understanding and compassion.
We women must also remember that men like to have a role. In any future marriage that I am lucky enough to enter into, I will remind myself every day that when men do something wrong – like burning the toast; not putting up the shelves, or putting them up crooked – it’s not a good idea to take over as though you are the man of the house. Let men be men. It is possible to be different and yet equal.
What will this third wedding be like, you ask? Well the second one was fairly decadent (me in gold brocade and a Turkish turban being carried down the Brompton Road on a chaise longue) so it doesn’t need to be very wild. It certainly won’t be in a church but maybe an Elvis chapel in Vegas would be fun.
I flatter myself, in fact, that I’m quite good at wedding planning – maybe a product of those pre-pubescent years spent mapping out my own nuptials.
Meanwhile, I truly do believe that marriage in my 50s could be one of the best decisions of my life and I’m open to suggestions both for venue, styling – and husband! Applications on a postcard please to PO BOX WEDDING BELLS, The Chapel, Las Vegas.