A picture of a pair of earrings was what started it all: red studs shaped like miniature chilli peppers on his iPhone.
It was the final day of our ten-day trip to Mexico, six months after our fairytale wedding. I’d suggested we swapped phones to see each other’s photos of our holiday.
‘Why do you have a picture of earrings?’ I asked, to which my partner of nine years replied: ‘Oh, a friend from work has the same ones. I took a picture to send to her.’
The next day I called my best friend and told her about the chilli pepper earrings. Did I have anything to worry about?
‘If this was anyone else’s partner I’d be worried; but this is your husband,’ she said.
She was right. My partner was born to be a husband. He was the type of man who would spend all day perfecting my favourite pasta dish and have it ready the moment I came through the door from work. He gave up his evenings to teach me how to play tennis and built me my very own walk-in wardrobe.
In May 2022, he sobbed throughout our wedding ceremony, telling me he wished I saw myself as he saw me: beautiful, smart and caring. We were planning a loft conversion on the house we owned together and had stopped using contraception. He was in it for the long run.
And yet, less than a fortnight after we returned from Mexico, he announced that he wasn’t sure he wanted to be married to me. ‘Things have been a bit rubbish between us recently,’ he said one Thursday evening. This came as news to me.
I thought of the earrings and responded: ‘You’re going to call me crazy, but is there someone else?’
He stayed silent. No denial. I could feel my legs shaking. I was dizzy and lightheaded.
My heart was thumping so hard I was afraid it would explode out of my ribcage. I ran to the toilet and vomited.
‘I’m really sorry. Nothing has happened,’ he assured me.
For a good 15 seconds I convinced myself this was a hyper-realistic nightmare. It was the only way this situation could be feasible.
I thought of our wedding and the series of phone calls from family and friends afterwards, telling us it was the most beautiful, heartfelt ceremony they’d ever witnessed.
I thought of the caption on his Instagram post of our wedding pictures. ‘Best day of my life,’ he wrote.
Half an hour ago, my future was certain: my husband, dog, house in the suburbs and, hopefully, two children. Now, I was at risk of losing everything.
‘But…we’re married,’ I said.
I asked if it was the friend from work with the chilli-pepper earrings. Again, no answer. And then, a sheepish nod.
After a while he mumbled that he’d recently been plagued by thoughts about how dull our life was. He assured me again that nothing had happened with her, but the situation had left him asking himself: ‘Is this it?’
‘Yes, it’s called marriage,’ I replied. And marital domesticity wasn’t exactly a gear shift for our relationship. By the time that he proposed in 2019, we’d been living together for almost four years — and owned a flat.
Our combined creative energies went into making our two-bedroom box a home. Indeed, we both loved it so much that, when asking me for my hand in marriage, he got down on one knee beside my dressing table during my evening skincare routine.
‘We love our home together, so where better to ask you than here?’ he had said.
We loved nothing more than putting together over-the-top dinner parties for anyone who was interested and bulk-buying cleaning products.
And it wasn’t just our ‘life’ together. We had an emotional connection that I’d always believed would stand the test of time.
He’d supported me through the eating disorder I suffered in my 20s. I often felt we were a hive mind, sharing the same attitudes on most hot button issues — namely our friends’ choice of romantic partner.
We spent Sunday afternoons happily nattering away while out walking or cuddled up on the sofa. Had he been living a lie?
After an hour of crying, he apologised. He was confused. He wanted us to do therapy. But he loved me and he wanted to be my husband. We hugged. I cried a bit more, and that night lay awake staring at the light fixture. The following evening, I walked in from work to find him propped up against the kitchen counter beside half a bottle of red wine.
‘I’ve been thinking about our relationship and…’ he started, before I’d even shut the door.
This was a very different man to the one I’d married. He was bolshy, arrogant, a bit drunk.
He proceeded to dissect our relationship — as he saw it. The times I’d wronged him; denied him attention; my unrelenting ‘obsession’ with work. The ‘spark’ we’d lost.
He’d decided he didn’t want to try to make a go of it. For him, it was over. I asked if he was really prepared to throw our life away, gesturing to the chic living room we’d furnished together.
‘Eve, we can’t stay together because of stuff,’ he said.
It was the start of a six-month path of separation — and eventually divorce — that I never imagined would happen to me.
But in the months since my surprise break-up, I’ve learnt my situation isn’t as rare as I’d thought. Although the average length of marriage before a divorce is around eight years, divorce lawyers say the period of matrimony they see is getting shorter.
Sandra Davis, a partner at Mishcon de Reya specialising in family law, has noticed a connected trend: ‘I’ve seen a lot of couples who live together for many, many years. Everyone thinks they are totally solid, but then they get married and suddenly it ends.’
Why? ‘For some, the reality of permanency is terrifying,’ she says.
‘With others, perhaps the relationship is already fragmenting but the couple get caught up in the fairytale of the wedding planning. When real life starts again, the cracks are still there.
‘Covid lockdowns had a big impact on couples,’ she adds.
In hindsight, perhaps the pandemic changed the trajectory of our relationship. It shone a light on the differences in our working lives.
We’d always taken an opposite approach to work. Writing is part of who I am. I’m highly driven, and constantly chasing the next project. For him, work wasn’t as significant to his identity.
‘Instead, his fulfilment came from extra-curricular activities such as tennis and cycling.
In 2020, as the deputy health editor of The Mail on Sunday, my specialist subject was suddenly of the moment. My days were busier, longer and more absorbing than ever. And as an ‘essential worker’, I was able to work from my office for most of lockdown. He worked in digital media and was increasingly disengaged from his job. While I was excited about my reports being part of living history, his lack of passion for his job was something I struggled to relate to.
Shortly before the break-up, he got a new job. He was upset I hadn’t given his promotion enough attention. In hindsight, he was probably right.
What’s more, our wedding was postponed three times during the pandemic. For 18 months our conversations had been hijacked by colour schemes, stag dos, table plans and playlists. If we didn’t have our upcoming nuptials to discuss, would we have had anything to talk about at all?
In May this year, seven months after the initial break-up, I decided to come out of the divorce closet on Instagram — and was inundated with messages from strangers who felt similarly blindsided. Friends of friends got in touch to tell me a similar thing had happened to a cousin, a friend, an aunt.
All had been married for a year or two, but together for far longer. In every story, it was the man who had pulled the plug.
Overall, women are more than 20 per cent more likely to file for divorce than men. But it’s generally a softer landing, experts say.
‘Women tend to mull it over for a long time, and their partner will have a sense of what’s to come. Maybe they’ll suggest therapy or try to discuss problems,’ says Davis.
‘But with men, it tends to be much more sudden.’
Women in similar positions told me their partner was so guilt-ridden he gave them everything they wanted, financially. But not in my case.
The night my husband floated the break-up, I suggested he leave the house to give me space. His reaction was out of character: he refused. ‘I’ve got nowhere to go,’ he said. ‘You can’t just kick me out on the street.’
He thought I should leave, instead, and stay with my mother, who lived a 15-minute drive away. Or, he said, we could both stay in our shared home but ‘keep out of each other’s way’.
No thank you, I told him.
After spending just one night in a hotel, he returned to our home and didn’t leave. So I packed a case and, aged 31, moved into my mother’s flat.
Nor did his out-of-character behaviour end there. A month later, when we put our house on the market, we discussed the split of the sale proceeds. When we bought the house 18 months before, my widowed mother had raided her savings to gift us a significant amount. So, after the break-up, I assumed that if the house sold at a profit, my mum’s investment would go back to her. I was wrong.
As with many couples, my husband took care of the lion’s share of our finances. I transferred him money for bills, the mortgage payments and household expenses — and he took care of it. The same applied when we bought our house. My mother’s money went into his bank account.
It meant that, when we split, he claimed that the money wasn’t invested in the house after all — but spent on council tax bills and bathroom renovations.
There was nothing I could do to contest it. Somehow, he’d worked out that only a quarter of my mother’s money was left.
A few weeks later, he asked for the engagement ring back.
It was around this time that I realised how naive I was about marriage. The moment you legally commit yourself to another person, all assets — savings, pensions, house — are 50:50. And if it all goes wrong, there is little you can do to win back what you put in.
You could ask a solicitor to help, but they charge an average of £200 an hour — and it’s unlikely to go your way.
As for rings, they count as a gift — and there is no legal imperative to give them back. So I kept it.
In June, I returned to the house to pack my former life into cardboard boxes while my ex was out. I explored the empty rooms, remembering when we chose paint colours together and taught our small dog to get in and out of the cat flap (he has a new home with my ex’s parents).
I remembered the first time we walked in and instantly agreed it was the place we would raise our children. I thought of the plans we had to grow tomatoes in the garden; to convert the loft into my home office.
But then I crashed back down to Earth. On the kitchen counter was an array of gifts he had bought me for various birthdays, with Post-it notes beside them to tell me which of them he was taking with him.
I sobbed, packed my stuff as quickly as I could, and left.
The next — and final — time I returned to the house, I left him a letter on his pillow. He’d broken my heart, but I still cared for him deeply, and I wanted him to know. I couldn’t bear that our ending was acrimonious.
I never got a response.
In the days immediately after the break-up, one thought haunted me: ‘How am I going to cope alone?’
I’d gone from living at home to living with him, aged 23. I’d never navigated bills, rent or the mortgage. I imagined I’d be incapable without him.
In fact, I’ve spent the past eight months proving myself wrong.
In October, I moved to New York City to head up the Daily Mail’s American health and wellness content and get a fresh start. I’m not nervous about starting again in a new place, all alone. At this point I am pretty confident I can get through anything.
A few weeks ago, he emailed me with his new address so I could add it to our Consent Order — a form which protects you from a partner coming after you for money in the future.
He lives in a one-bedroom flat in a part of East London he’d never expressed an interest in, and where, as far as I know, he has no friends or family. After a bit of digging, I found the flat on Rightmove and stared at the screen, sobbing.
Despite everything, all I could think was: ‘I really hope he’s not lonely.’