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ENJOYING the warmth of the Mediterranean sun as their daughter builds sandcastles on the beach, Maria and Simon Paxton look like any other couple enjoying their summer holiday.
They finish each other’s sentences, share the same wry humour and are comfortable in the knowledge that they have weathered life’s most testing times together. Yet Maria, 46, and Simon, 38, aren’t married, nor do they harbour romantic aspirations towards each other.
In fact they divorced a decade ago, far from amicably, after Simon walked out when Maria was in remission from cancer, leaving her to bring up their two-year-old alone.
Such desertion would test the affections of the most resilient woman. Not only has Maria forgiven Simon, however, she has also forged the closest of friendships with him.
“I was distraught when Simon left. But over time my anger abated. I didn’t want to feel bitter. Simon has seen me at my worst and we’ve forged an incredibly special emotional bond.”
Many divorced couples barely tolerate each other, trying to remain civil only for the sake of their children, while others exist in a state of mutual loathing.
Marital breakdown is said to be second only to bereavement in terms of life’s stresses. Whether prompted by infidelity or a gnawing incompatibility, it can lead to years of expensive legal wrangling and irreparable rifts over child custody and property.
But Maria and Simon are part of a growing breed that feel that, while the love may have died with their marriage, the friendship that went with it is too treasured to squander. Incredibly, rather than rendering them sworn enemies, the traumatic process of divorce has brought the couple from Tunbridge Wells, Kent, closer together.
This trend even seems to extend to Hollywood. Actress Courteney Cox, 47, recently revealed that she is still close friends with her former husband, actor David Arquette, 40.
“He’s my favourite person in the world,” Courteney said of her ex. “No matter what happens, he’s my very best friend.”
Christine Northam, a counsellor with the relationship charity Relate, says many couples from the non-celebrity world find themselves becoming closer after divorce.
“It is possible to build a friendship if they can let go of the hurt and anger,” she says. “Often, once the pressure to make the marriage work has gone, couples are free to enjoy the qualities they do have in common.”
That is exactly the situation in which Maria, a hairdresser, and Simon, a decorator, find themselves.
Not only do they go to the cinema and enjoy Chinese takeaways together, but in recent years they have also holidayed in Majorca and France. Sometimes, after a night out, Simon will even sleep on Maria’s sofa. Does their continued closeness suggest the possibility of a reunion?
Absolutely not, she says. “For years, I dreamt of us rebuilding our marriage, but there is no way we would get back together now. We’re both open to the idea of committing to other people.”
Maria met Simon through a client in 1994, and they married in March 1997. Freya was born two years later. But their happiness was shattered in December 1999 when Maria was diagnosed with bone marrow cancer.
“Simon tried to be positive. His calmness gave me strength, and brought us closer. Even in my darkest moments, when I was too weak to talk, I wanted him there.”
Maria was admitted to hospital for chemotherapy and radiation, which made it impossible for her to have any more children.
Maria had a stem cell transplant in May 2000, and was in hospital for much of the next year.
“There were terrifying moments: Simon would comfort me and hold my sick bucket as I rocked back and forth in terror,” she recalls. In December 2000, as they sat holding hands in Maria’s consultant’s room, she and Simon were told that the transplant had worked and she was in remission.
But instead of heralding a new beginning, Maria’s improving health sounded the death knell for her marriage. The night before Freya’s second birthday, in February 2001, Simon emerged from their bedroom with three carrier bags of belongings and said he was leaving.
Simon admits: “I ran away. I was being selfish, but seeing Maria through her illness made me a mess. I was desperately disappointed that we couldn’t have any more children.”
A year later, she filed for divorce. Maria got custody of Freya, and contact with Simon was minimal.
As the months passed, Simon realised he had suffered an emotional breakdown after Maria’s illness and felt guilty about abandoning his wife and child.
“We met beside a lake where we used to walk Freya when she was little, and he broke down in tears. He said he’d messed up and hadn’t been thinking properly. He was so ashamed. I could tell how sorry he was, and we agreed to rebuild a friendship,” Maria says.
“I didn’t want to deny Simon contact with Freya, and the more I saw of him, the more I missed him.”
Simon says: “Maria is my best friend. We’re definitely better as friends than husband and wife. I’m so grateful to have her back in my life.”
“When Simon told me he was seeing someone else, I was jealous, especially in the early years,” says Maria. “I don’t think he’s found it easy when I’ve had relationships either, even though they haven’t lasted longer than a few months, but we both understand that we’re free to meet other people.”
New relationships are a hurdle for divorced couples who remain close.
Sara Dixon, 28, and ex-husband James Simpson, 36, have forged a close bond since their split two years ago – despite the fact that Sara has remarried.
Her new husband, Ben, is convinced James is still in love with her, says Sara.
Northam warns that friendship with an ex can jeopardise a new relationship: “It’s important to be above-board. It’s good to remain friends, as long as your relationship doesn’t have echoes of dependence, longing or regret.”
Sara insists that her relationship with James is purely platonic: “My physical attraction to James disappeared in the last year of our marriage, when I would deliberately take on night shifts to avoid sharing a bed with him.”
After their divorce, they agreed to share custody of their daughter Ella.
James says: “We married too soon, but for Ella’s sake I wanted to remain on good terms, and slowly that became friendship.”
James has also remained close to Samuel and Alisha, the two children Sara had before their marriage, and, remarkably, helps out with Ben and Sara’s new daughter Daisy.
Sara explains: “Ben’s an accountant and has to leave early for work, so in the mornings James will come over and feed Daisy while I get Ella dressed or take Samuel to school.”
Sara and James have coffee after the children have gone to school, and she confides in him.
“I tell him about my frustration at having to give up work and become a housewife, and how I hate relying on Ben for money.”
James says their relationship will remain platonic: “There is no chance of getting back together.” – Daily Mail