The List was Annabel’s most desperate gesture. She had become so frustrated by her husband's failure to participate in household tasks that she punched out a list of all the chores she took responsibility for, big and small: from doing the kids’ nit treatment to bonding craft sessions, servicing the car to buying a birthday present for his mother.
“There were 60 things on it,’’ says Annabel, in her 40s.
“It wasn’t even everything - just what came to mind at the time I wrote it. He did go white when he read the list. And temporarily tried to ‘help’ more. But it didn’t last.” Recently they separated.
Annabel’s story is one that is common at the end of a mid-life heterosexual breakup where the woman has been the primary parent, shouldered the housekeeping, the loving and organisational support of children, worked full or part-time - and finally had enough.
The frustration usually intensifies as the years go on, particularly as the kids become less tractable teenagers and the men more determined that their hobbies and businesses exempt them from home participation.
When exhausted middle-aged women leave, it’s the desperate result of an irrepressible feeling that there’s more to life than stalemate. In fact, many Gen X heterosexual women feel they carry the lioness’ share of the domestic mental load, and dream of leaving as soon as the kids were old enough. In Australia, the most common age bracket for women to divorce was 40-44 in 2016, up from 35-39 in 2006.
SBS Voices published an article in 2017 about how the personal feelings many Gen X heterosexual women hold about carrying the lioness’ share of the domestic mental load.
A passionate response got us thinking - what happens next? To qualify: we're talking heterosexual dynamics. This is the story I hear over again as a writer, feminist, friend and middle-aged (and happily second-married) woman about when the tricky calculus of partnered happiness isn’t adding up. Frequently it's both a symptom and a cause of a relationship in freefall and accompanied by degrees of confusing gaslighting and denial.
These women have shared their stories here as cautionary tales.
Becca says her ex was so focussed on his own interests and hobbies -- personal development projects, craft workshop holidays, the endless solo mountain bike rides -- that he had no idea what was happening in their children’s lives and didn’t seem to want to know them as people.
She was 47 and they had three teenagers when they split. To make matters worse, he revealed he was giving up their marriage to pursue his ‘fantasy woman’.
Becca had been willing to work through it until that point: his physical and psychological absence, his passion for self-improvement over the hard yards of parenting and domestic arrangements.
As things deteriorated, her husband moved out. “When he buggered off to live in a one bed apartment by himself, I thought, ‘When is it my turn!?’"
Two years down the track, Becca says she can’t forgive her husband for the way they separated, but thanks him daily in her mind for leaving. “I wouldn’t have him back, not in a million years,” she says. Becca describes a ‘search and rescue’ relationship that grew out of young adulthood after complicated and neglected childhoods.
This resonated with me from my own failed marriage. I hadn’t realised we weren’t rescuing each other at all, but were getting increasingly entangled in co-dependent ropes. In the end, both Becca and I enacted our own rescues.
I hadn’t realised we weren’t rescuing each other at all, but were getting increasingly entangled in co-dependent ropes.
After the split, Becca didn’t want to repartner or make adjustments for anyone else’s baggage. “I’m selling the house. Where I move to, what kind of house I buy -- they need to be decisions about my needs, and I need to be secure and independent and self-sufficient.” Her husband had repartnered even before he left the family home and his domestic patterns, as far as she can see, are repeating.
Cate has no desire to repartner, either.
Having recently left a 25-year relationship, she is bringing up two young teenagers on her own, but says solo parenting is easier than parenting with a 'man-child', and there is a lot more family joy.
She says he passively controlled everything by never making a decision or taking action. “I felt lost in the midst of that so I couldn't step outside and say, "[Wait] a minute, I deserve more."
Many of the women craved solitude.
Donna left her husband three years ago, and loves living alone and looking after herself. She is quite clear she won’t live with a man again.
Ellie says she was utterly drained after years of being her partner’s sounding board and counsellor, and while she’s excited to date again, she’s also happy in her own company. She’s now quite clear that if there is a new partner she won’t be his therapist, that he’ll need to have sorted out his own baggage.
But some are keen to re-enter the dating world. Fran was delighted to date again after years of trying and failing to win her husband's affection with 'domestic perfection'. She’d found herself trapped with three young children after emigrating, and with him being a much higher income earner, ended up being the main carer until the children were older. The mounting tension had reached ‘state of emergency’ levels when they eventually broke up. Fran has since repartnered, and says there is laughter and reciprocal conversation every day.
So how did they leave? All the women spoke of a kernel of strength that propelled them free. For Fran, it was a breakdown where the choice was to leave or ‘surely die’. For Cate, it was two weeks at an art retreat where she wept on the shoulders of strangers before going home to pack up her life. Each had faith that an unknown future was better than the drudgery of the past - not one had regrets. Each said their kids are now happier, their houses more harmonious. It was hard in other ways, but without the conflict, the children seemed to gain in confidence and thrive.
Rachel, whose marriage ended with a massive hidden debt, various dishonesties and emotional cruelty, saw that despite the trauma, her experience was ultimately a "a tale of hope".
“My parents' generation left each other in their 50s - my grandmother’s generation didn’t leave at all. We’re leaving in our 40s and hopefully my daughter will understand her worth, and not marry such a man in the first place.”
“My parents' generation left each other in their 50s - my grandmother’s generation didn’t leave at all. We’re leaving in our 40s and hopefully my daughter will understand her worth, and not marry such a man in the first place,” she said.
Annabel, who presented her ex-partner with The List, is now dating. There is no shortage of younger men pursuing her, who are open and attentive. For the first time in years, she feels desirable. For now, she genuinely doesn’t know if she wants to repartner. But if she does, it won’t be anytime soon.
*Real names have not been used