When people ask me if the terrible, toxic divorce I describe in my new novel Is This Love? is based on my own, I have a standard answer: ‘No, mine was much worse.’ I am, of course, being dramatic.
But I also know the facts of my own story are shocking. On the day my ex-wife told me she was ending our three-year marriage, she walked out of our house and to the hospital in London where we were having fertility treatment. She withdrew her consent for that treatment, and it was immediately terminated. I was two weeks away from the date of our embryo transfer.
For those who don’t have experience of IVF, that means I’d been on a months-long drugs regimen, shooting up hormones in bathrooms across the city and once, memorably, in the front seat of my car outside a gig in Brixton (no one batted an eyelid).
I had fresh and faded bruises — track marks — across my stomach from hip bone to hip bone. I’d had many internal examinations by a changing rota of mostly kind gynaecologists, to the point where I no longer blushed to have a stranger’s head and shoulders between my elevated knees.
Catherine Riley (pictured) describes the painful experience of her ex-wife leaving her and terminating their IVF treatment two weeks away from the embryo transfer
I’d been grateful for all of this, provided as it was then for free by our amazing NHS: a testament to how far we’d come in the recognition of LGBTQIA+ people’s equal rights to a family life.
And I’d been looking forward, desperately, to the date that all this hard work was leading to: the introduction to my 39-year-old body of the magical collection of cells that had been created in a lab — a living embryo, microscopic but so full of potential. My first — and only — embryo. The representation of my hopes and dreams.
Looking back, of course the signs were there. She’d been absent at scans and appointments, making excuses I’d accepted because they didn’t trouble my delusion that we were in this together.
We’d argued, and become distant. But I’d put it down to my hormones: they were all over the place. Things would be different once the treatment was over and I was finally pregnant. Carrying a child to term and then raising it would be the easy bit.
It’s fair to say I was very deluded. But you are when you really want something. You block out the doubts, the worries, the niggling inconsistencies. The great big lies.
You focus on the goal and try to make it happen. You think that hard work pays off, and you commit. And when it gets harder and harder, you redouble your efforts. You become single-minded. You stop listening, too.
On the same day we split, she withdrew consent
It’s never just one person’s fault. I wrote my novel because I wanted to explore that moment of breakdown. I was interested in the lies people tell each other, and themselves, about who they are and what they do.
I wanted to show that one person’s ‘truth’ is always subjective: there is never a definitive version of a moment, a relationship, a life. You can never know who’s telling the truth about what takes place within the private confines of a marriage.
The novel is not just about divorce. It’s about love. The story hovers in a liminal space between mad love and desperate rage as its protagonist J tries to work out their feelings about the wife who has walked away.
Almost every one of us will have been through a break-up, and no matter how much we might try to conduct ourselves with kindness, there is always a point where love turns to hate, however briefly.
I experienced it when my ex-wife phoned later that day to tell me what she’d done. My memory of that call is vague now, rendered mercifully opaque by the passage of time.
Gay marriage was still very new and it wasn’t clear who ‘owned’ Catherine’s foetus once her ex-wife’s consent to being its parent had been withdrawn
I think, perversely, that I thought she was joking. I probably laughed. I can remember feeling panic, abject panic. I know the call was brief, and she was terse, and that it ended with me sobbing, alone, in our house.
I realised no one could help me, no one knew what to do. I told friends, then my family, and everyone was shocked. In shock. They all knew what it meant. Another ending, on top of my marriage. A body blow.
It seems incredible now, but after she phoned that day, my ex-wife and I never spoke about it again. She just refused any further conversation and so I was left to pick up the pieces alone.
For more than a week, we didn’t see one another and communicated only via brief, painful text messages and emails.
During that time, I relied on the love and patience of friends who took turns to stay over with me, and my family who checked in every day.
My sister, a GP, gave advice on how I could best look after my body as the hormones I’d been pumping into it drained away. I was supposed to sleep well, eat well, drink plenty of water… ridiculous instructions in the circumstances, advice it was impossible to take.
After those first few days, I saw my ex-wife only once: a brief, agonising meeting in the place that had once been our home. Of course it was surreal: we outlined how the coming weeks and months might play out, where we would both stay, what we would both do. But not a word about what she had done.
Like I said, incredible. But that was the end. I guess there was just nothing more to say.
Catherine’s novel is not just about divorce. It’s about love. The story hovers in a liminal space between mad love and desperate rage as its protagonist J tries to work out their feelings about the wife who has walked away
At the fertility clinic, however, they weren’t sure of next steps. Gay marriage was still very new and it wasn’t clear who ‘owned’ my foetus once my ex-wife’s consent to being its parent had been withdrawn.
A family friend spoke to a legal expert who expressed excitement at the potential precedent-setting of my circumstance. No doubt by now, six years on, other people’s traumas will have helped iron out those legislative wrinkles.
In the end I had to speak to the HFEA, the UK’s fertility regulator, and after a pause I was given the go-ahead to try again with the embryo still on ice at the clinic. It was decided it was ‘mine’ after all: my egg, donor sperm.
I hadn’t planned on being a single parent, but there was never any question that I wouldn’t try to see the process through. It was an easy choice to decide to do it all again.
I was told by my fertility team I needed to wait, to let my body recover from the first preparation cycle before restarting. They were anxious that I didn’t do anything while I was ‘stressed’.
I was mid-divorce, I was trying to get pregnant on my own and had no idea what I was doing. Now, on the eve of turning 40, I couldn’t wait until I wasn’t stressed.
It takes a while for your body to recover after IVF. So although I was desperate to get going, it was five months before I began the drug regime again. Then another sevenweek build-up of hormones in my body, daily supplements, eating well and taking gentle exercise.
I was surprised to realise the process, doing it on my own, felt the same — I’d been going it alone the first time. I thought about asking someone to come with me to the hospital for the transfer. It’s very much like having a smear — instead of taking cells out of your body, they put them in — but I decided I didn’t feel like sharing that experience with a friend.
They weren’t sure who ‘owned’ my foetus
Instead, I made up an elaborate story in my head in case anyone asked why I was there alone: how I’d always wanted to be a single parent, my dream of raising a child alone. Of course, no one asked.
It was weirdly underwhelming in the end. A sterile process, over in a few minutes. I went for dinner with friends that night and tried to avoid questions about how I was doing, what I was doing. I wasn’t telling many people my plan. I wanted to hold my secret close. I dared to think ahead to announcing the good news further down the line.
Until then I just had to get through a two-week wait until a blood test at the hospital would confirm whether or not the transfer had been a success.
I knew before they told me that it hadn’t worked. Like my marriage, it was never meant to be.
So, yes, my divorce story is pretty grim. I’ve described it in broad strokes to others who have been left, or done the leaving, and felt rewarded by their openmouthed, slack-jawed disbelief.
I’ve lapped up the sympathy, relished the condemnation. But I know that, in reality, it’s not that straightforward.
We were just on different paths. I wanted a child and, evidently, she did not. We stopped being able to talk, and we became entrenched, shut down. Me as well as her. And in that gradual erosion of communication, divorce set in.
That’s how it starts, and that’s how it ended: two people unable to say what they wanted, too scared to face the truth. My ex-wife understood the legal ramifications of our marriage contract, and she wanted out.
In stark contrast, I believed our marriage would somehow hold us together. We were both trapped. She found us a way out of the entrapment.
It’s strange, isn’t it, that someone who once sat at the very centre of your life, upon whom you relied for happiness, validation, stability, can suddenly be the person you want to be farthest away from?
I have always been surprised by the brutality of breakups that end abruptly: the returning of keys, the swapping back of belongings, the deletion of phone numbers. Final farewells and then… nothing more.
Walking away from pain is perhaps easier than staying on, trying to rebuild. ‘Being friends’ is hard work and often ugly in the early stages as new rules are worked out and new boundaries are negotiated.
While I’ve witnessed some brutal breakups, gay and straight. I’ve more often seen my friends rescue something from the ending of their relationships, sustaining love and loyalty and morphing their shared history into a new form of commitment — the cliché of the lesbian trailing a line of her exes behind her exists for a reason! — and that’s always made sense to me.
Among my friendship group there are overlapping histories and complicated timelines of women — and men — who were once together, but who now socialise as friends. So I wanted to write about a very different kind of ending. A hard stop.
The process of doing so made me realise there is rarely just a baddie and a victim.
In most divorces — and I suspect all family lawyers would agree — there is bad behaviour on both sides. The characters in my novel take that to extremes, but there is something about the formal process of divorce — engaging lawyers, citing ‘unreasonable behaviours’, listing the belongings you want to keep and those you’re willing to share — that brings out the worst in everyone who goes through it.
That’s why people say you ‘go through’ a divorce. It is a trauma and like any trauma it provokes extreme reactions — and leaves permanent scars.
So although I say my divorce story is ‘worse’ than the one in my book, in reality it’s the same. Both are about losing the person you loved so much that you committed publicly to spending the rest of your life with them. Both are stories of betrayal, and of being hurt in unimaginable ways. And both are also stories of shared culpability, of mutual blame. All divorces are.
The good news is that scars heal. Pain recedes. On the night before that pregnancy test, I went for dinner with an old friend. Slowly, very slowly, she and I rekindled something that had once sparked between us. In time, we began to make plans for a family and I hope one day we’ll get there — together.
Not all lesbian exes can end up friends, but things you thought you could never get over stop mattering, and life starts again.
Is This Love? by C.E. Riley (£14.99, Serpent’s Tail) is out on August 4.