Brad Pitt, currently in the process of a divorce from his actress wife Angelina Jolie, recently opened up to GQ Style magazine in the US. It was a brave and raw declaration from a sensitive and intelligent man. He was clearly someone still in some pain, but also someone coming to terms with his situation, taking responsibility, rather than blaming, admitting to his mistakes and flaws.
Now in what I like to term the “Walden” stage of his break-up, after the writer Henry David Thoreau, he is on his own “Life in the Woods” self-exploration journey, luxuriating in his own misery, thoughts and company. (Pitt is currently holed up in his Craftsman-style retreat in the Hollywood Hills. When I found myself in the middle of a divorce four years ago, I disappeared to a cottage in Oxfordshire.)
In his flannel shirt, his cheekbones more chiselled by heartache, he’s chopping wood, lighting fires, experimenting with sculpture. With the screaming and shouting phase apparently over, this is a man who is seemingly determined to regard the end of his marriage as a sobering wake-up call. A new beginning. An opportunity to reinvent himself.
He’s stopped drinking and smoking dope. He’s trying to be a better man. A better father. A decent and reasonable ex-husband. Working towards a more self-aware, emotionally capable and less volatile improved version of himself. I don’t doubt that there were terrible rows, bitter exchanges and some expensive sessions of Californian therapy before he finally alighted on the idea of Brad 2.0.
But as a divorced man in my fifties, I couldn’t help but admire his candour, honesty and humour in the face of such public and private adversity. “In the end, you find: I am those things I don’t like,” he said. “That is a part of me. I can’t deny that. I have to accept that. And in fact, I have to embrace that. I need to face that and take care of that. Because by denying it, I deny myself. I am those mistakes. For me, every misstep has been a step toward epiphany, understanding, some kind of joy.”
If only all divorced men could think like this; behave with such grace, measured examination, and gift themselves with the dignity of restraint and resist the urge for confrontation and recrimination. How wonderful it would be if we all could absolve ourselves of the cloying, festering, debilitating, emotionally ruinous sense of shame that blights progress and prevents sleep. I know I didn’t.
Divorce for a man of any age can be a harsh and lonely business. For a man in middle age, it can be utterly isolating. I went from being at the centre of a noisy family of four (I have two daughters) to shopping for quiet meals for one. At 48, after 19 years of marriage, I found myself, somewhat preposterously, in a flat-share with someone 10 years younger. I worked, drank and slept. Not much else.
Worst of times
In the midst of trying to do the right thing by my children, juggle work commitments, get accustomed to the reduced circumstances of lifestyle and accommodation, it would have been easy to let my self-worth slide off into oblivion. This was the worst of times. Little, unexpected and apparently mundane incidents would throw me into the pits of despair. The audience-drawing clatter of metal and glass when the waitress cleared away the cutlery and tumblers that would be unused when eating alone at a restaurant. The tragedy of my meagre basket contents at the supermarket checkout. My social life, once raucous and red-carpeted, simply stopped. Instead of being invited to everything, I was the star guest at my own exclusive pity party.
Why? Well, here’s the thing. Your divorce is boring. Really, really boring. To everyone around you. To your family, your children, your colleagues, to the women you might be lucky enough to meet and to your friends. If you still have any friends, that is. Once the salacious details are out and the gossip is exhausted (global exposure, intense scrutiny and a bust-up on a private jet for Brad and Ange, a bit of mildly entertaining, Jackie Collins stuff for me), no one wants to know about it. No one. Worse still, no one wants the stench of divorce in the shape of a sad-sack, party-pooping husk of a man around them at any social occasion.
I’m not surprised Pitt feels the need to speak out. To someone... anyone. Because if my own experience is anything to go by, he won’t have much of a male support system around him right now. While divorced women tend to rally via a sisterhood support group, men are pretty useless around divorce. I know this because I’ve been both the newly divorced man and the uncaring friend of the newly divorced man. You get a couple of pints, a punch on the arm and an occasional, “You OK, mate?” Your phone doesn’t ring and you will be heartbroken when you learn of a party that you are not invited to.
Because of all this, I withdrew. From my social life. Into myself, mainly. I retreated. And after a year or so, I almost got to like it. I enjoyed roaring fires, loud music, gardening, woodwork, pretentious foreign movies, Philip Roth, protracted, meticulously prepared breakfasts. Wheeler Dealers on the Quest channel. For a while, at least, having a big double bed all to myself was a fabulous luxury. I got stuck into renovating my little cottage, obsessing over details, sometimes working from dawn to midnight on a bathroom fixture. Wildly out of character, and on something of a whim, I even sought advice.
Life coach Manj Weerasekera is known as The Fresh Start Guy, specialising in helping mature divorced men get back in the game. Manj was married himself for 17 years and also did the Walden thing when he separated and we bonded over this.
“The first year was tough. My business suffered and emotionally I was pulled apart. I lived like a monk... Shedding my skin, so to speak.”
Employing humanistic neuro-linguistic psychology, performance mindset conditioning and the psychology of attention, Manj calculated my “dating IQ” (my integrity quotient) and suggested an approach to relationships that involved listening to my conscience, adopting a clear communication policy and respecting my own needs on equal measure with the needs of any dates I might get and any subsequent relationships I might form. And to not talk about my ex-wife on dates.
“I am a realist,” he said “Come out of the intellectual... and into the actual.”
Buoyed by a combination of three years alone, Manj’s wise philosophy and a chance meeting with a beautiful antiques dealer, the Quest channel and wood-chopping are no longer part of my regime. And if there’s hope for this 53-year-old divorcee, I reckon the world’s sexiest man won’t have too much trouble. Oh, and Brad, if you need to talk about all this, give us a call.