A very modern form of betrayal – telling tales out of marriage

Reading about what has gone wrong in other people’s marriages is a harmless enough weekend treat. There are certain newspapers which make it their job to distract readers from the front-page stories of downturn and depression with a sneak peep into the personal failures of the famous.

Somehow reading these articles hardly feels like voyeurism. The story is public, at least one of the participants is a bit famous, the marriage is dead. Between the lurid little titbits of domestic gossip, some sort of universal moral message might even emerge: Once a Philanderer Always a Philanderer, or Sex Isn’t Everything, or Don’t Pay More Attention To Your Career Than Your Marriage. Spilling the dirt post-divorce is now such an intrinsic part of marriage that newspaper serial rights should be written into any pre-nuptial agreement.

This week, the first marriage (1987-1993) of the comedian and actor Hugh Dennis was revisited by his ex-wife. He had “no spontaneity, no sense of fun”, she confided under the headline “Hugh Dennis was so boring I divorced him”. A few pages later in the same paper, the first marriage (1974-1987) of the actor Nigel Havers was disinterred. According to the former Mrs Havers, he was serially unfaithful. Even Princess Diana was after him.

Both former wives were given the double-page spread treatment in a paper so obsessed by such matters that it could rename itself The Sunday Adulterer. It is likely that they were paid; certainly they benefited from a brief, sorry spark of collateral fame, years after the relationship in question came to an end.

Revealing the ancient secrets of a dead marriage, a very modern form of betrayal, is in its way nastier, more cold-hearted, than infidelity. For example, to be portrayed, based on behaviour two decades previously, as a crashing bore would be unpleasant for anyone – far worse than the Havers love-rat option – but, when the target earns his living from making people laugh, the accusation is professionally as well personally harmful. Who is not a bit dull inside a marriage? Surely the freedom not to sparkle around the clock is part the institution’s attraction. Besides, these things tend to be subjective. The former Mrs Dennis found a man who has subsequently made a successful career out of writing and performing comedy to be “restrained, serious and unexciting”. By contrast, she boasts rather sadly, she has “travelled the world. I’ve been to India, Egypt and Qatar, visited Hawaii and, six years ago, moved to Los Angeles”.

It is pointless to argue that moving about is not synonymous with being interesting – indeed, can be a reliable indicator of dreariness. The point is that what happened, or failed to happen, between the young Mr and Mrs Dennis should be of no interest to anybody.

A broken marriage is a tragedy. It reflects a bad choice by two people, or a good choice that became bad. It is a joint enterprise, for which both people have responsibility. The fashion for picking at old marital scabs is a public expression of two great contemporary myths. The first is that, when a marriage goes wrong, there is a villain and victim. Outside the world of soap operas, that is very rarely the case. The second, is that because communication is important – “We just didn’t seem able to communicate our needs,” the ex-Mrs Dennis inevitably complains – blabbing your version is also justifiable.

The press will always be willing listeners, knowing that we, the weak-willed readers, will find titillation and reassurance in the lives of the famous. An apparently harmless interview will be shaped so that a small nugget of resentment, mentioned in passing, becomes the headline. Those involved, probably including the vengeful spouse, are left feeling undignified, hurt and maybe a touch silly. As for those of us on the outside, harmful lies about marriage are reinforced: there is no shared responsibility, no intimacies need remain private if things go wrong and, even alone with one who shares your life, you should always be slightly on your guard.

Independent, 22 February 2011