Just say ‘I don’t!’: Being married and divorced once was enough for novelist Melanie Cantor. She explains why she’ll NEVER tie the knot again

Walking my dog Mabel this morning, I was listening to Julia Louis-Dreyfus’s podcast Wiser Than Me. She taps into older celebrity women’s wisdom. It’s brilliant. 

At the end, Louis-Dreyfus always asks her interviewee what they would say to their 21-year-old self. Today’s guest, the model Beverly Johnson, said, ‘Don’t marry!’ It made me laugh out loud because, of the many things that I might say to my younger self, this would be one of them.

When I was getting divorced in 1992, I went to see a wonderful therapist called Renee. I had been married for ten years and found myself deeply unhappy. I was trying to understand why. I was living what was ostensibly a lovely life. What was wrong with me? Was I being selfish by ripping up the family unit? My sons, then six and four, would have a weekend daddy. What was I thinking?

Renee told me that the word selfish had been given a bad rap. Looking after the self is one of the best things we can do for ourselves and those around us, she said. She made me understand why I was unhappy and, eventually, I took that leap.

In case you’re wondering, my ex-husband has been happily married for the past 20 years. I am happily single. At the time of my separation, I was 34 years old. I thought I would never meet anyone again and, to be honest, I didn’t really care. But the relationship gods intervened and I did. After a year we moved in together. My kids loved him.

After a couple of years, he proposed and I accepted. The following morning, I told him I’d changed my mind. I’d panicked about feeling ‘owned’ again. I wantedto be with him because I chose to be.

I didn’t need a marriage contract. He understood and our relationship continued healthily for another six and a half years.

And then he ended it; apparently the problem was that I liked to move house too often. (I move about once every three years.) Obviously, our separation wasn’t due just to my house habit – I also killed the cat! She was 16. She couldn’t take the move. Still, he remains the best relationship I will ever have.

The only time I have cohabited again was my last dive into the well of love. It was winter 2008; I was 52, he was 38. He was a lawyer, but he had found his calling and was going to give it all up to be a reiki healer. I could hardly quibble. I had been a celebrity agent but just that year I had given it all up to become a novelist.

We were both taking the road less travelled. Mine less spiritual!

On our first date I asked him if he wanted children. I was obviously not going to waste my time if he did. My date was ambivalent. I don’t think the idea had even occurred to him. Six months in, we went to his friends’ wedding, let’s call them Mike and Fiona, on the Amalfi Coast, after which we went for a week’s holiday to Sardinia.

Writer Melanie Cantor at home with her dog Mabel

Writer Melanie Cantor at home with her dog Mabel

One night, over dinner, he told me he was worried about Mike because Fiona didn’t want children but he thought that Mike did.

I knew intuitively he was talking about himself. Later, I queried whether he might have changed his mind about children and he said maybe. ‘Where does that leave me?’

I asked. ‘It’s not about you,’ he replied. ‘It’s about my journey.’ Can someone point me to the exit, please?

We had three days left of our holiday so I was trying to hold it together until we got home when I would tell him it was over. Only my face betrayed me and that night, over dinner, he asked me what was wrong. I told him. He was mortified. There were tears. Oh god. Men and tears. Who can resist? So, on the basis that we agreed relationships can end for a hundred different reasons, we carried on travelling that road.

He moved into my house in the Cotswolds but when we came into London we returned to our respective flats. It was the perfect setup. Together and apart. I wrote. (At that time, mainly for myself.) He practised reiki. (Mainly on himself.) I asked why he couldn’t do reiki and law; talking about dreams and energy was becoming dull. His answer was always: ‘Because I’m a spiritual person.’ Eventually, I came to my senses and realised that dreams and energy were not enough. I gave him up. He went back to law. He now has two children.

 On our first date I asked him if we wanted children. I wasn’t going to waste time if he did 

Because we are conditioned to think that when a relationship ends we need to meet someone else, I went straight into online dating. I had some very bad dates. I was 56 and I was trying to date age-appropriate men. But men of my age don’t want age-appropriate women. They want 30-year-olds so that they don’t feel their age. Sometimes they were drawn to my profile, only to act like they were doing me a favour. 

Others were more concerned with telling me about their ex-wives; how she couldn’t cook, couldn’t work the microwave. Not riveting.

I had one date with a guy who was a ‘my mum, your dad’ setup. My younger son and his friend thought we might be a match. We met at a cute local Italian trattoria. He was scruffy, I was not. We ordered from the handwritten paper menu.

I was chatting away, focused on him, when he said, ‘Melanie, your menu is on fire and it’s right near your hair!’ (I’d inadvertently rested it on the tea light.) 

All hell broke loose. The waiter was flapping at the fire sensor to stop it from clanging, the waitress was desperately opening and closing the door to try to create gusts of wind, I was blowing on the menu which eventually burnt itself out. I thought it was hilarious. A great icebreaker. The look on his face told me otherwise. We tolerated each other until it was polite to leave.

Eventually, in 2018, I gave up dating. Covid helped. Over the six years of just being me and my dog, I realised I was the happiest I had ever been. I have learnt who I am by being on my own.

Still, I don’t want to leave this earth never having kissed again. I like kissing. If I met someone whose aspirations matched mine that would be great. But I can never live with anyone. A day here and there, maybe. A weekend, lovely.

But freedom and contentment have come hard earned. I will not relinquish them. Not even for love.

Melanie’s latest novel The F**k It! List is published by Penguin, £8.99. To order a copy for £8.09 until 2 June, go to mailshop.co.uk/books or call 020 3176 2937. Free UK delivery on orders over £25.

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