Perhaps I’m confessing too much, but I know I’m far from alone among long-married husbands — and wives, for that matter — in daydreaming, just occasionally, about how pleasant it would be to be single again.
In such moments, I reflect on the joy of being able to stack the dishwasher however I damn well like, without having to endure my wife’s reproving looks and heavy sighs as she re-stacks it in the manner approved and understood only by her.
I think how nice it would be to find my book or my iPad exactly where I left them, instead of tidied and hidden away in a neat little pile — who knows where? Or to find a treasured, if moth-eaten and paint-stained, old sweater on its shelf in my side of the wardrobe, instead of having to retrieve it from a charity bag, destined for recycling.
In such moments, I reflect on the joy of being able to stack the dishwasher however I damn well like, without having to endure my wife’s reproving looks and heavy sighs (stock image)
Meanwhile, what a liberation it would be to open a bottle without having to brave the rebuke, spoken or unspoken: ‘Isn’t it a bit early?’ Or, ‘Are you quite sure you haven’t had enough?’
As for the legions of adoring beauties who would queue up for the thrill of an evening out with me, they’d stretch from my South London suburb to the beaches of St Tropez.
But all right, I admit it: these are absurd fantasies. In my heart of hearts, I know that after 39 years of marriage, and counting, my life would fall completely to bits without Mrs U.
I’m not just thinking of my diet — though even after the recent addition of goulash to my less-than-impressive culinary repertoire, I might quickly tire of the other four dishes I’ve mastered: baked beans on toast, bangers and baked potatoes, boiled eggs and spag bol. And let’s face it, takeaways and supermarket ready meals never hit the spot in quite the same way as Mrs U’s home cooking.
Even after the recent addition of goulash to my less-than-impressive culinary repertoire, I might quickly tire of the other four dishes I’ve mastered: baked beans on toast, bangers and baked potatoes, boiled eggs and spag bol (stock image)
I know that within a few weeks, the house would be a tip and our immaculately kept garden — lovingly tended by my better half — would be a thicket of brambles and nettles. There’d be no milk in the fridge, no paper in the loo, no spare bin bags in the cupboard under the sink and nobody around to remind me of the birthdays of my nephews, nieces, grandson and godchildren.
It is even possible, if I were single again, that the women of this world would persist in their inexplicable, long-standing policy of refusing to recognise me as a dreamboat.
No, more even than my creature comforts it’s Mrs U’s company I would miss. Heaven knows we’ve had our share of rows over the years, while the ardour of our youth has faded and we don’t always find a whole lot to say to each other these days, as we sit in companionable silence in front of the telly. But I know from the very rare occasions over the past four decades when we’ve been separated for a night or two — whether covering party conferences, in my case, or visiting relations in hers — that life off the leash has never lived up to my expectations. I’ve always longed to be back with her.
Of course, she may well think quite differently — and if I asked (which I won’t) she could certainly come up with a list of my annoying vices far longer than mine of hers. It could be, God forbid, that she’s itching to get shot of me.
But in my experience, at least, marriage has become easier and more contented as the years have passed and we’ve learned to live with each other’s little ways. Indeed, I find it not only sad but a little surprising that my contentment is not more widely shared, as growing numbers of older long-term couples turn those daydreams of a return to the single life into reality.
Such is the conclusion to be drawn from this week’s figures from the Office for National Statistics, which show that a surge in later-life divorces among so-called ‘silver splitters’ has swollen the ranks of over-65s who live alone — up 500,000 to 3.9 million since 2008.
One factor, apparently, is the increasing financial independence of women, which has emboldened more of them to ditch their irritating husbands and go it alone.
Whatever the explanation, this is clearly bad news for the social care crisis, since fewer people have a spouse on the premises to look after them in old age. And as marriage goes out of fashion, with cohabiting couples now the fastest growing family type, the outlook for the future is bleaker still. This is because cohabitees remain many more times more likely to split than those who tie the knot.
Nor is it any coincidence that these same ONS figures show a million more young adults live with their parents than 15 years ago, with a quarter of those aged 20 to 34 — about 3.4 million — still in the family home last year.
After all, couples who split need two homes, not one. This puts tremendous pressure on the housing stock, driving up rents and pricing hopes of a home of their own out of reach for countless young.
But it’s not my purpose this week to tut-tut at silver splitters over the social damage caused by divorce.
I’m well aware that I’ve been hugely fortunate in finding a wife I still love after all these years — a wife, moreover, who seems prepared to go on putting up with me (touch wood).
I know, too, that unhappy marriages can be a living hell for one partner or both — and I’m not such a cruel fundamentalist as to insist that vows exchanged, often rashly in the heat of youthful passion, should be a life sentence in all circumstances ‘till death us do part’.
I’m also quite sure that some readers will tell me they’ve never been happier than since the day their divorce came through.
But if my suspicion is correct, other silver splitters will have found that in parting from an exasperating or errant spouse — and joining the record eight million Britons who now live alone — they’ve merely exchanged one form of unhappiness for another.
Periods of solitude, I grant you, can be pleasurable and therapeutic, particularly for those of us used to being surrounded by large families. But I shudder to think what it would be like to return every night to an empty house and wake every morning in a lonely bed. Give me unsolicited instructions on how to load the dishwasher, any day.
I’m not buying this week’s theory floated by Jon Lawrence, associate history professor at Exeter University, that contacts through social media can be more meaningful than face-to-face relationships. Pictured: Jon Lawrence
As for cures for loneliness, I’m not buying this week’s theory floated by Jon Lawrence, associate history professor at Exeter University, that contacts through social media can be more meaningful than face-to-face relationships. His idea seems to be that we can choose our Facebook friends, wherever in the world they happen to be, while neighbours and family members are thrust upon us, like them or not. But this sounds like unscientific tosh to me.
After all, when did a Facebook friend, encountered only in cyberspace, ever stand you a consoling pint or brew you a nice cup of tea after a bad day at work?
But the professor is surely much nearer the mark when he says it’s a myth that the post-war years were a ‘golden age of tight-knit communities’. In fact, he says, neighbours in towns and inner cities tended to guard their privacy jealously, just as they do today.
But I’ll sign off with a piece of advice for lonely silver-splitters who find they miss companionship and human interaction: get a dog — and the cuter the better.
Indeed, I’ve found that in the four months since we took delivery of Minnie, more neighbours and strangers have struck up friendly conversations with me, in the street or the park, than in all my previous life.
Otherwise, I have this to say to those husbands and wives daydreaming of a return to the single life: be jolly careful what you wish for.