Writing a book with my ex about amicable separation. What if we fell out?
Thousands of Irish couples separate each year yet no personal stories are told about it
Kate Gunn: why would I choose to put something so private out into the world so publicly? The answer lies in the first few weeks of my own separation.
My ex-husband Kristian sat across from me in the local coffee shop. I had a big question to put to him but I was nervous. Would he ever agree to it? Should he? It was a big ask and I had no idea whether he would even consider it. Or rather, would he laugh in my face at the audacity of such a suggestion?
“I want to write a book about our separation,” I said, and began to launch into my idea before he could tell me to stop. “Consciously Uncoupling in the Real World – how we managed to separate and stay friends. I know there is a need for it. You could help write it too.” I paused for breath but before I went on he stopped me in my tracks. “Ok,” he said simply. “As long as I have final say on what goes out.”
So I began writing.
The story poured forth. For eight years I had been documenting the minutiae of daily life on a blog, but had barely alluded to my marriage break-up on there. It was too private, too personal, too wrapped up in other people’s lives. Still, I found that the writing practice it had given me meant that I now found it relatively easy to recount personal details onto a page. So I let it flow, refusing, for now, to let barriers and fears stand in my way. Not yet. Tales of difficult conversations, uncharted grief, dead-of-night fears, phoenix-like resurrections and complicated negotiations were committed to screen. The process was cathartic and revelatory. I understood the cause and effect of the many elements that had passed me by until this slow unfurling of memories had begun. Like unpicking the seam of a skirt that didn’t quite fit any more.
During the writing process I began to contact publishers. They liked the writing but were unsure of who it would be marketed to. To me it was obvious. The 222,000-plus separated or divorced people living in Ireland today for a start. Their families, friends and grown-up children. Thousands of couples separate each year here in Ireland and yet there are no personal stories being told about it. We fall from grace silently. Mr & Mrs to Broken Family in one quiet, shameful smash.
A small Irish publisher, Orpen Press, got in touch to say they would like to meet. Before long it was settled - the book would be published. It really was going to happen. I was no longer writing just for me, or writing “in theory”. Other eyes would see and judge and know.
When the time came to re-read the manuscript, I did so with newly opened eyes. I read each page with Kristian’s eyes, with our children’s eyes, with friend’s, family’s and stranger’s eyes. It was uncomfortable and difficult, but nothing to what came next.
Kristian had agreed to write a section for each chapter – his thoughts and memories of each part, from Telling the Children to Dealing with Conflict, Moving On and more. With deadlines looming the time had come for him to play his part.
We had agreed that I would send him each chapter, which he would read and then write his own piece on. With a thick knot in my stomach I began the process, attaching Chapter One to an email and praying that it wouldn’t upset the balance we had carefully constructed since our marriage had broken up. The irony of writing a book on amicable separation only for that book to be the thing that sent the house of cards tumbling to the ground.
I waited nervously for his response. When it finally came I sighed aloud with relief. He told me I wrote beautifully and it made him sad.
Over the next few weeks we would exchange chapters and excerpts with little discussion. Going back to the early heartache was emotional for both of us and there were occasional wobbles. But there was always an out. No matter how far down the track we were I promised him that I would pull the plug if he wasn’t comfortable with it. Our life story together was being set down for all to see and judge. It is testament to him that he saw it through and allowed me to complete the task.
And now the book is appearing on shelves. It will be in our local bookstore and our friends and community will read it. It is surreal and scary and humbling.
Again and again I ask myself the same question: why would I choose to put something so private out into the world so publicly?
The answer lies in the first few weeks of my own separation. At that time, I was desperate for other people’s stories so I scoured the internet and bookshops to try to find them. I needed someone to tell me that they had been through what I was going through and had come out the other side. I needed someone to tell me that it would all be ok. But those stories were hidden from me. Told in hushed tones to close friends only.
My book, Untying the Knot, contains the story of my marriage breakdown and what came next. It’s not a blueprint for how to separate, but it may bring hope and direction to those going through or on the cusp of a similar experience. Although every separation is unique to that couple, the emotions are largely the same. Grief, fear, despondency, anger, shame, relief, hope, love… These feelings are what make us human, and it is only by sharing our stories that we can help each other overcome the complex but common emotions that we all face.
Separation and divorce is happening daily in Ireland. It is our friends and neighbours and family and community. It is on our doorstep, but swept under the mat so no one will see. Perhaps it’s time to put aside the shame and pull each other back up into the light, one shared story at a time.
Untying the Knot: How to Consciously Uncouple in the Real World by Kate Gunn is published by Orpen Press, at €14.99, and is available now from all good bookshops and online at orpenpress.com