An ambitious spouse should be supported – not divorced

Two weeks ago, Beverly Turner announced she was splitting with her husband James Cracknell, the 46 year-old star of last weekend’s Cambridge Boat Race team
Would we look kindly on a husband who resented his wife's extreme ambition, asks Zoe Strimpel Credit: Mark Cuthbert/UK Press

I was at a dinner at Lord’s on Wednesday night to celebrate the start of the cricket season, heralded by the publication of the yellow-coated Wisden Cricket Almanac for 2019. A total ignoramus when it comes to cricket, I wasn’t there in my own right – far from it – but rather as the guest of the after-dinner speaker.

Anyway, sat next to me at dinner was a former professional cricketer with whom I had a very interesting conversation about what it’s like being a pro athlete. He described how it requires an all-or-nothing singleminded immersion that often destroys families (it did his) and causes all manner of mental health problems. As he explained, the team is a tribe, a family, and when an athlete is cast out for no longer cutting the mustard, it can lead to terrible depression, addiction, and worse.

I was particularly struck by his pained assertion that being a sportsman deprived him of ‘empathy’. Beverley Turner, who two weeks ago announced the split with her husband James Cracknell, the 46 year-old star of last weekend’s Cambridge Boat Race team, used the exact same word in describing why life with him had been so hard. Always single-minded to a fault, in pursuit of a win, he became worse after a cycling accident in 2010 that left him with brain damage. “James had no capacity for empathy,” she said in 2017.

Cracknell seemed to recover; Turner called him “right as rain” in an interview the same year. But as she made clear on Monday, in her curious public  j’accuse in a national newspaper, their marriage was harder to resuscitate. Here she suggested that his recovery – although it had exceeded all expectations, hadn’t been complete.

“A formerly quiet man, he couldn’t stop talking, but certainly stopped listening,” she wrote, and his single-mindedness seemed only to intensify as communication between the pair deteriorated. By her own somewhat scathing admission it was perhaps no wonder he fled for Cambridge since, “like most teenagers…[he was] probably glad to see the back of the woman who seemed to be constantly making demands on him that he wasn’t prepared to meet.”

Many married women have responded to Turner’s airing of marital laundry with a “hear hear”. Why should the man always go off and pursue his dreams while wifey stays at home doing the grunt work? 

But I saw it differently. Yes, being married to a man like Cracknell, even without the extreme challenges posed by his brain injury, must have been very, very hard, and it's not a crime to want a divorce. Nonetheless, Turner's piece revealed a bleak but all too common idea of marriage, and exactly the kind of thing that keeps me warily clinging to my freedom.

Who – man or woman – wants someone “constantly making demands” on them – pulling few punches even when they’re the best in the world in an all-consuming job? I always thought marriage at its best was about supporting your partner to pursue their dreams, and vice versa, figuring out how to make it work even when it’s hard or at times unfair or unequal. Turner’s version, by contrast, seems to be more about tit for tat and I was sorry that she seemed unable to enjoy her husband’s physical brilliance and mental curiosity. 

I couldn’t help but flip the scenario: if a woman were single-mindedly pursuing record-breaking goals, would we look kindly on a husband who resented her extreme ambition and then divorced her for being too careerist? No way: we’d expect him to step up, support her, hire the requisite nannies, cheer her on. Above all, we’d assume he married her because, not despite, of her drive.

Turner’s disdain for her husband’s pursuit of interesting as well as demanding and dangerous goals made me think she should take a look on Tinder. There she’ll see the alternative; shoals of average men who seem barely able to string a sentence together, who get antsy as soon as the conversation goes beyond platitudes, and whose main reward in life seems to be taking stoned selfies while at festivals.

From my vantage point, being partnered up with a man who is best in the world at anything – from chess to scuba diving – sounds pretty damn good; but then I find genius attractive. Turner should have embraced, not condemned, Cracknell’s return to Cambridge, and offered it to her kids as a shining example of how athletic gift doesn’t have to extinguish or negate intellectual curiosity and achievement, as the cliche suggests. It also shows that person can do and be many things throughout their life.

I’m no Olympian, but I also left a nice London life (when I was 30) for a student room back in Cambridge, dropping everything to do an MPhil in gender studies. It was the best thing I ever did – like Cracknell, I wanted to get my intellect working again.

And if I had been married and a mother? I’d have hoped my husband and kids might join me in one of the most beautiful and most interesting cities in the world. In this case, perhaps Beverley could have enrolled in a Masters of her own. The couple can’t be in need of dosh.  

In the end, I wondered why she married him at all. After all, “the dark internal restlessness that drives all overachievers to success was already evident” at the start of their courtship, and she seems to have had a long-standing distrust of Olympians, whose drive “rarely arises from a healthy psychological place”.

But Beverley: we’re all damaged goods, and plenty of us are motivated by drives that arise from unhealthy places. The difference is that most of us aren’t world class, record-beating athletes at 46 as well.