Last Wednesday I went on a date. I put on too much make up, then took most of it off. I tried on knee high boots before deciding they made me look like a low rent version of Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman. By the time I ran, breathless, for the tube I'd pretty much metamorphosed into Mary Whitehouse. I felt more unsure of myself than I ever remember being in my twenties (back then I'd have slipped on something short, drenched myself in perfume and hoped for the best). Welcome to the stressful, high stakes poker game of late thirties dating.
I put everything on black when I was 32, walking away from a 'good on paper' engagement that I knew in the long run would leave us both unhappy and frustrated. It felt like walking backwards down an escalator: the year I left was a merry-go-round of marriages, as if everyone else had heard the wedding klaxon that I'd stupidly chosen to ignore. I'd cried on people's shoulders as I tried to find the strength to leave, and been amazed by the amount of people who'd told me to just take the plunge and leave it to fate. A dear, twice married friend said to me in all seriousness "don't over-think it, if it doesn't work you can just get divorced."
Her attitude is certainly borne out by the statistics. At the end of 2011 it was revealed that Britain's annual divorce rate had risen by 5% in Britain, maintaining our position as one of the most divorce-prone nations in the world (the US is one of the few countries who top us). Divorce parties are all the rage: high street stalwart Debenhams provoked fury in 2010 by trying to cash in on the trend, launching a 'divorce list', with a handy list of items the recently dumped might need (top of the range toaster, anyone?). Kim Kardashian's 72 day marriage to Kris Humphries certainly hasn't done her brand any harm: she's the ninth most followed tweeter in the world. These days, with divorce no more shocking than admitting you use Botox, we're less 'Marry in Haste, Repent at Leisure', more 'Marry in Haste, Divorce even Faster'.
Leaving my fiance was undeniably a risk - I've dated a number of men since, and yet none of those relationships have felt marriage-worthy. There's perhaps a lack of innocence, a wariness, that sets in after you've missed that first round of weddings. When you've tried so hard to get it right, or already got it disastrously wrong, you know how much there is to lose.
There's a haunting that goes on in later in life relationships: the ghosts of previous partners stalk the halls of a fledgling couple's union, never failing to make their presence known. This Wednesday's date was a perfect example. He's a man I've known socially for years, but only a little - just enough for us to see each other at parties with our arms around other people - and I could feel us subtly excavating each other's romantic history as we swigged back multiple rounds of strangely coloured cocktails. He told me about his early marriage from long before I knew him, which ended in divorce a few years down the line. He didn't regret it, he said, but I still found myself reading too much into it. He asked me about my ex, and I told him a little of what had caused me to flee. He took it all in, then two hours later, once we were drunker, asked me if I'd had an affair (I hadn't, but I know why he thought I had). Despite the mutual interrogation, we had a lovely time, perhaps because we're both seasoned enough to know that it goes with the territory.
My new novel features a couple who are even more haunted than the rest of us. When Olivia, my heroine, has a savage falling out with her best friend, she assumes that eventually they'll find their way back to each other. But Sally is killed in a car crash in New York before that can happen, and instead Olivia finds herself thrown together with her widower, both of them searching for the truth about Sally's secret life. Can Olivia bear to spend the rest of her life walking in her best friend's shoes?
I wanted to amplify something that I believe is true for any couple who are not each other's first love: you will always wonder, even if only fleetingly, about the one they left behind. All you can hope is that with experience comes wisdom. I'm going on date two next week: I'll keep you posted.