I left my wife for a woman I met on the train

The first work Monday in January is Divorce Day. Tom Nash’s experience of a messy split made him become a divorce coach (oh, and his former wife is now with his partner’s ex…)

This article appeared in The Times on Thursday 5th January. Read the original here.

Tom Nash, 39

A former recruitment specialist, is now one of the only male divorce coaches in the UK. He has two children, William, 13, and Sam, 10, with his ex-wife, Nunziatina, and lives near Bedford with his partner, Donna.

Nunziatina and I met in July 2005 on the Greek island of Zante, where we were both on holiday with friends.

On Christmas Eve, five months after we met, I proposed. We bought a house and got married in September the following year – a big Catholic wedding. We may only have been 23 and 24, but it felt right.

William was born in June 2009. I was unhappy in my job in recruitment and left shortly before he arrived, so I had three months at home with him. Nunziatina went back to work, in financial services, a few weeks after giving birth. It was brilliant, apart from the fact that we burnt through our savings.

I bounced around jobs for the next two to three years. By the time Sam was born in April 2012, we were doing quite well and in 2014 we moved into a five-bedroom family home on a private road in Bedfordshire. Nunziatina would do the school runs but I was working in London, getting up at 6am to commute, socialising with clients and often home late. Occasionally, if I could get the train times right, I’d get to see the boys just before bed.

I wouldn’t say we were unhappy, but we were starting to lose our connection. There were things we weren’t satisfied with: how much time we spent together, our physical intimacy and finances.

Work was starting to have an impact on my mental health too – I was suffering from anxiety. I never really talked to Nunziatina about it, which in hindsight I should have done. But I was just doing what I thought I was supposed to be doing: get the career, the house, the holidays, the lifestyle. I was also drinking too much – seeking escapism, I suppose.

We had a WhatsApp group called The Commuter Chat – people would message saying, “I’m on the 7.04am, is anyone else?” The train on the way home had a bar, so we’d meet up and have a few beers.

Donna was on the chat, although we had never crossed paths. But in the spring of 2016 she and her husband Dan were separating and for childcare reasons had to change their working patterns.

The first time we met she looked up from doing her make-up and said, “Oh, you’re Tom.” We chatted all the way to London. About eight weeks later we had our first kiss.

As the child of divorced parents, the one thing I’d always said to myself was, “When you’re married and you have children, that’s it. You have to be with that person.” I hated myself. But at the same time I couldn’t stop the feelings. Nunziatina suspected there might be something going on but I was too cowardly to tell her the truth.

I collapsed at work one morning in November 2016. My colleagues thought I was having a heart attack. It turned out to be a panic attack.

Donna and I agreed to stay away from each other. Our relationship had become physical the previous month. We tried cutting off contact, getting different trains and walking different routes from the station. But we’d keep bumping into each other.

In March 2017 I decided that I had to end my marriage. I said, “I’m really sorry but I just don’t love you any more.” There were tears and anger and shouting.

Things quickly became acrimonious as we argued over when I could see the boys, who were then just four and seven. Nunziatina still didn’t know about Donna. But when Dan, Donna’s ex-husband, got in touch with her to tell her about us, I was forced to come clean. She was broken.

The initial court hearing was horrible – standing in front of a panel of magistrates having to justify your reasons for wanting an equal share of the humans you’ve created and being told off for not being able to sort it out between yourselves.

By then Nunziatina was in a relationship with Dan. They had kept it secret for as long as they could, but friends had seen his car parked around the village.

I had conflicted emotions about it. I did want her to find someone, but why did it have to be him? How was this going to be for the children? We couldn’t have made this any more awkward if we had tried.

All four of us were constantly stressed and it was starting to affect every area of our lives. Slowly it became clear that something was going to have to change.

When I started to look into coaching in early 2019 it was with the intention of using it in the corporate world, but Donna suggested I could use the same skills to help other people going through divorce, particularly other men who might not want traditional counselling. We googled “divorce coach” but there were no men doing it.

I’m now a divorce, family and separation coach. The pandemic saw many people rethink their relationships and the huge number of separating couples has resulted in an average wait time for a decree absolute of 66 weeks. Families can be in limbo for more than a year. And it means that organisations like Resolution, a community of family justice professionals, are referring more and more couples in conflict to people like me.

My role is to help them realise that you can get through it. It requires patience, time, respect, apologies, appreciation and consistency. Most important is to put the children at the centre. And it’s not about who’s picking them up from football on Thursday. Imagine that at their graduation, or wedding, they might have to think about which parent can’t sit next to the other. Or access to grandchildren.

Today, Nunziatina is one of the people closest to me. Our children are now 10, 12, 13 and 17 and travel as a pack. Nunziatina and Dan have them on Monday and Tuesday, Donna and I on Wednesday and Thursday, then we alternate long weekends. They have two stable homes, with two sets of school uniform, gym kit, textbooks and teddies so they don’t have to cart their lives around.

There’s a parent WhatsApp chat, we go on holiday together and spend Christmas Day as an eight. We joke about moving in together.

People do think it’s strange. Leonie, who’s 17, said the other day that if anyone asks she’ll just tell them that we “wife-swapped” because it’s easier than explaining what actually happened. We don’t want her going around saying that, but we all see the funny side.

Nunziatina Nash, 40

Tom’s ex-wife, works as a finance assistant. She lives near Bedford with her partner, Dan.

I thought Tom was good-looking straight away. Right from the start I felt sparks and we fell in love quickly. Very early on he said that he wanted to meet my parents, which for an Italian Catholic family is serious. I said, “They’re going to think you want to marry me.” He replied, “Well, I do.”

Our first year of marriage was horrendous. We had no money and our parents were constantly having to help us out. Tom was not happy in his work. He was always changing jobs and it created a lot of pressure. He left one just before I was about to give birth.

I ended up having an emergency caesarean and needed three blood transfusions; I could hardly walk. But as soon as I was out of hospital I was logging in at home and working as much as I could, as it was on me to bring in the money until Tom found a new job.

Tom and Donna, top, with Nunziatina

After having Will I changed a lot. I wasn’t the happy-go-lucky person I had been before. Tom stayed the same and I didn’t, and I don’t think he liked that. Maybe I had postnatal depression but I didn’t consider it at the time.

I started seeing the cracks appear in 2016. It was Tom’s birthday and my family had come over to give him their gifts, but he didn’t arrive home until 9.30pm. He was drunk and said that his friends from the train had thrown him a party. It soon became a nightly thing. It was really lonely.

I started to suspect that something was going on, so I looked through his phone and messages to his friends. I read the name Donna and that they had kissed. Tom denied it and promised me nothing was going on. But he was still staying out late and making excuses about birthdays and leaving drinks. I started to feel resentful and knew deep down that he didn’t want to be with me. I said to him a few times, “I would never force you to stay.” But at the same time I was desperately trying to make it work and he was telling me that he loved me. And he was still being very public on social media about our marriage, writing on our tenth anniversary how happy I had made him.

So it was a shock when he ended it. It’s pathetic looking back: I’d made his favourite meal and opened a bottle of wine. He choked down his food and then said, “I don’t love you any more and I haven’t loved you for two years.” I was blindsided. It was overwhelming and I had to ask him to leave.

A week later Tom came skipping into the house and I could see how happy he was. I said, “You are having an affair and you’ve spent the past week with her, haven’t you?” But he still wouldn’t admit it. Shortly after that he broke down and said he didn’t know what to do – there were conversations about whether we could work things out. I was all over the place.

One Sunday Dan sent me a message to say that Tom had been having an affair with Donna. I didn’t know Dan at all, but I called him straight away and we tried to figure out the timeline together.

When Tom dropped the children back at my house, I confronted him. It felt like he just wanted to get his new life under way and for the rest of us to fall in line. He was talking about upending the routine our children had been in for their entire lives. We ended up going to court.

Dan and I spent two or three months messaging. It felt like he was the only person who understood what I was going through. I never thought I would find someone so soon, so it took me by surprise when we got together. And, obviously, it was weird. I didn’t tell Tom straight away – I didn’t think it was any of his business – but Dan’s phone statements were still being sent to Donna’s house and they saw my number coming up a lot.

We laugh about this stuff now; it all seems so silly. But I spent two years with knots in my stomach and felt scared every time Tom’s name flashed up on my phone, as I knew it would be another argument.

Someone needed to wave a white flag. Tom had a minor operation and I offered to bring the children round when he got home. It was really awkward but from then on it got easier.

Donna and I started asking each other for coffee. Now we’re really close. If Dan and I have a row I call her because she gets him. The first time that happened she came over with a bottle of wine and it turned into Donna telling me how sorry she was about what she’d done to me.

I know a lot of people see me as a mug and say, “I’d never be able to be friends with Donna.” But the bitterness inside me was only going to grow. Near the end of those two years I felt as though I was losing my mind. My chest was tight and I felt as though I couldn’t breathe.

I’m not like that any more. I feel settled and happy. I’ve learnt to let it go. To put it in a drawer in my head, close it and not open it again.

Tom and I now rarely go more than a couple of days without seeing each other. He’s one of my closest friends. But he should have broken up our marriage before moving on. Unfortunately, what he did has left a mark on me and I don’t know if it will ever go away. I still can’t look at myself in the mirror and see an attractive person – it knocks your self-confidence; you feel as though you’re not good enough. Even now, five years down the line, I’m struggling with that. I’m a bit of a hermit these days and I don’t see a lot of people outside our very small circle.

The way I describe it to people is that we’re two couples who are best friends, who do everything together with their children. It’s just that the children are related to all of us. I wouldn’t say they always love it – they have four parents shouting at them when they’re naughty.

It makes me angry when people stop their ex-partner seeing the kids because of something they did. It’s not the children’s fault. That’s my hope with telling our story – that someone who’s behaving badly at the moment will read it and think again.

Donna Thomson, 42

A finance manager, she has two children, Leonie, 17, and Zac, 12, with her ex-husband, Dan.

I remember when this new guy joined the WhatsApp chat I’d been on for years with friends from the commuter train. I found him quite irritating and had to mute the entire group because he never stopped talking.

Six months later we met. I knew that he was married because he was wearing a wedding ring.

Yet to my surprise we hit it off. We could talk about anything. It was a connection that I didn’t expect to have with anyone. After separating from my husband earlier that year I had every expectation that I was going to spend the rest of my life on my own.

Everyone always thinks that people like me – the “husband stealers” – are cold, heartless types who go out of their way to hurt others. That certainly wasn’t my intention. There isn’t a day when I don’t think about it and how horrible it was.

And if I’m honest I never wanted Tom to leave his wife. The opposite, in fact, because I didn’t want to have to live with the guilt. It doesn’t make me feel good knowing that I hurt somebody, especially now Nunziatina is my friend.

After word got out, a lot of people in the village where we lived would ignore me. Someone shouted, “Slut!” over the garden fence. Others looked at me like I was something on the bottom of their shoe.

Most people imagine that having an affair is like it plays out in the movies – you’re meeting up in hotels, having sex every five minutes and swept up in this whirlwind. But, apart from my actual divorce, it was the worst time of my life. I felt emotionally dead. I was ashamed of being in love with someone I shouldn’t be.

When Tom talks about our relationship back then he has a very different vision of it to me. To him it was very romantic but to me it was harrowing, especially since he had children.

I was happy when he said that he was going to end his marriage. But I knew there would be more hard times to come, so it was like bracing yourself for a car crash.

Nunziatina already had her suspicions, but I don’t think she thought he’d ever leave – and to be honest, neither did I.

When Dan got together with Nunziatina that was even harder: having someone you loved so much suddenly being deeply involved in something that’s tearing everybody apart. But I was happy when I heard they were a couple – they were better matched than he and I ever were and I thought it meant things might calm down a bit.

My children were starting to be affected and I was getting phone calls from the school. There were also efforts to portray me as a bad mother to satisfy the argument that Tom’s boys shouldn’t be able to stay at the house with us – social services were even called, and although they quickly concluded that it was a false claim I’m left with a permanent black mark against my name.

I have apologised to Nunziatina a million times and I don’t think I’ll ever stop. I don’t love her just because of the guilt. I love her because we have a great time together. We all have our own friendships: me and Dan have our in-jokes, and so do Tom and Nunziatina. I never get jealous. And I never stopped loving Dan. I just love him in a very different way to how I used to.

Everyone says it’s weird. But what’s weird? That we want our children to be happy? I think it’s just because the norm is that exes are supposed to hate each other. That’s all we ever see in films or on TV. When Tom and I were researching divorce coaching we could only find coaches saying, “He’s a bastard but I’ll help you get over it.” We wondered whether there was a way to do it differently.

Recently my 17-year-old daughter had been in her bedroom watching a film about divorce and came downstairs crying. She said, “Thank you for making me go to Dad’s when you split up.” She is so glad that we have handled things this way and when you see how happy the children are now it has all been worth it.

I’ve said that we should all buy a big retirement house together. We’re always going to be part of each other’s lives. I don’t know whether either couple will get married – none of us can really be bothered with another divorce, I don’t think.


Shoot credits
Styling Hannah Rogers. Make-up Christina Lomas at David Artists using Estée Lauder. Hair Paul Rodgers at David Artists using Sam McKnight