One of the strengths of The Archers radio show is that its format, 14 minutes each evening when listeners eavesdrop on the residents of Ambridge, allows for the slow development of story lines. For months now the script writers have been dropping hints that Shula, the supposedly conventional lover of horses and all things rural has been unhappy. The sudden death of her best friend Caroline shook her world, and it seems has caused her to reevaluate her own life.
The lines from Marvell come to mind;
But at my back I always hear. Time’s wingèd chariot hurrying near;. And yonder all before us lie. Deserts of vast eternity.
Marvell was attempting to convince a lover to lose her virginity, but it is a sentiment which many can recognise, and which can cause those 3 am ceiling staring thoughts as we contemplate not only our past choices but the years left to us. It seems that Shula has had many 3 am moments recently, and they have led her to decide to end her marriage of 20 years.
Many of the Archers fandom have found her decision as incomprehensible as her husband Alistair. Shula has after all jumped all the hurdles, her son has a successful career, her marriage whilst not exciting is stable, she has reached the final furlong, so to speak, and even her mother thinks she should settle for what she has rather than bring change into her life.
The concept of the relationship escalator is one which I think helps partially explain why people, real and fictional, are struggling with Shula’s decision. From early childhood we are taught that relationships “should” follow a certain path, and that success or failure is determined by how much we adhere to this path. Dating is followed by engagement, followed by marriage, followed by children, followed by retirement with roses around the door. The idea is so ingrained that women are asked almost within seconds of marriage if they are pregnant, and dating someone without formal engagement provokes questions of “where is it leading” as if relationships are only valid if you jump the next hurdle. Interestingly Lillian and Justin, with long experiences of failed relationships under their belts seem to have recognized that being on the escalator doesn’t guarantee happiness when they cancelled their wedding).
This cartoon from Kimichi Cuddles not only explains the relationship escalator, but also has some of the questions which seem to be going through Shula’s mind
Shula is asking herself if she wants to stay in a marriage because it is expected of her or she should put her own happiness first. Many have suggested she is having a “mid-life crisis” as if her being unhappy matters less than sticking on the relationship escalator. Of course many of us are deeply invested in the escalator, so it is no surprise that someone who challenges it might come under attack. This is not to say the escalator does not work for some, but that its unconscious adoption as the only way can lead to many relationship problems.
I also find the term mid life crisis an uncomfortable one. If something is a crisis it indicates deep distress, something which should not be ignored. That many people in middle age realize that they are not immortal and that life is not a rehearsal should surely be something to celebrate? Which is not to excuse the harm done by things such as affairs, often under the excuse of a mid-life crisis, but asking, if you are not content, what changes do you want to make is always a worthwhile question to ask.
Whilst some, like her twin brother Kenton, have supported Shula her husband, son and mother have framed her decision as selfish. There may be a gendered element to this, which many mothers will recognize, around the idea that they must always put their needs last. I was reminded of this picture when considering the responses to Shula.
On the most basic level Shula has said she is not happy, and wants to make changes which she hopes will increase her happiness, but our determination to insist the relationship escalator must be right, for everyone, and gendered expectations of women and mothers is leaving her pilloried as selfish, mentally ill and to blame for being unhappy. Indeed she seems to be in a catch 22 situation, where telling Alistair she is unhappy is the wrong thing to have done, but being unhappy is equally wrong. As we tend to expect emotional labour to be performed by women in our society she is even being blamed for not previously working out she was unhappy, and not putting Alistair’s emotions first.
Deciding to leave a marriage is never easy, and some will decide to stay, others to make the break. When walking alongside clients contemplating these decisions many, just like Shula, keep their pain, and distress hidden until the final moment. It does not mean someone has not thought things through, quite the contrary, however the injunctions on people to ignore their personal pain are so strong that many people fear to admit their unhappiness. Once the unsayable has been said however, then we can look at what changes we need to put into place. For Shula it is divorce, for some it might be different solutions, but one thing I know is that pretending everything is OK doesn’t work, not even on fictional stories of everyday country folk.