How To Have A Happy Marriage With An Impossible Man: Love Lessons From The Churchills

Winston Churchill’s name is well cemented in history as one of the greatest leaders of the twentieth century. He is also well remembered for his heavy drinking, stubborn attitude, habitual rages, and strong marriage to Clementine Churchill, a woman known for being the complete opposite to her husband.

By Johanna Duncan4 min read
Winston Churchill and his wife, Clementine, on board a naval auxiliary patrol vessel during a visit to the London docks, 25 September 1940. H4367
War Office official photographer, Horton (Cpt), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Clementine Churchill embraced simplicity, slowness, and tried her best to stay away from cameras. And yet, somehow they were a perfect match. Their marriage can be considered successful not only because they stayed together throughout all their challenges, but because there is evidence that they were both made better for it.

Clementine’s childhood was difficult. Her parents divorced when she was just six and her oldest sister, her support system through the ups and downs brought by divorce, died of typhoid fever when Clementine was a teenager. Depression and anxiety plagued her youth, but at 19 she met Winston. He was ten years older than her and already a well-established Member of Parliament. Winston was an emotional man and a romantic at heart. He was Clementine’s third fiancé, and there were rumors that she got cold feet before their wedding (this rumor is well showcased in the phenomenal film Darkest Hour), but decided to go through with it, as three broken engagements could lead others to question her eligibility. 

Due to their important role in history, the Churchills’ life is well documented. We know of all their triumphs but also about their sorrows. More so, it is evident that they cared for each other immensely and made a constant effort to show appreciation, respect, and love. Here are a few things that the Churchills consistently got right:

They Set Healthy Boundaries While Growing in Intimacy 

The Churchills slept in separate bedrooms. Clementine and Winston recognized that it was easier to get along with that boundary in place. Winston was known to stay up until 2 a.m. reviewing speeches and going over war plans, all while smoking a few cigars and drinking whiskey. On the other hand, Clementine was a creature of habit, the type of person who goes to bed at 9 p.m. and wakes up early to exercise. Neither one of them was ever willing to give up these habits, so having separate bedrooms was the only way for both to either sleep or stay awake without disturbing each other. 

Winston was welcome in Clementine’s room and she in his, but there were rules. Specifically, there was a no-cigar rule in Clementine’s room, which Winston was aware of and able to comply with. Clementine understood that Winston’s world involved a lot of shouting, drama, and stress. She knew what she was walking into every time she stepped foot in his bedroom and office, and didn’t make much of an attempt to change it. You can find more about their dynamics in Clementine’s biography.

They Learned How To Encourage Each Other 

Both Clementine and Winston struggled plenty with their mental health. Their children did too. Only one of their four children who survived to adulthood didn’t experience substance abuse, and one of them, their daughter Diana, died of an overdose. On one hand, their difficult childhood played a part, and on the other hand, their difficult adulthoods rarely gave them a chance to rest. As a result, both Clementine and Winston became resilient people capable of moving forward through incredible adversities. 

Before World War II, Clementine and Winston faced one of the greatest griefs anyone could experience – the death of a child. A few months before turning 3 years old, their daughter Marigold died of sepsis. She died with both parents by her side. According to William Manchester, one of Winston's biographers, Clementine screamed like an animal, and as reporters arrived, Winston, who was always keen to pose for them, kicked them out in a rage and demanded privacy for his family. 

Winston named his depression the Black Dog, and referred to it as a companion (this is a dissociation technique). While he never lost his sense of excitement, the responsibility he felt during World War II weighed heavily on Winston and left him bedridden for days. Some now argue that Winston suffered from bipolar disorder, as he moved between long periods of depression and periods of erratic behavior. It’s hard to tell how much of this is the nature of mental illness and how much of it is the consequences of the circumstances he faced combined with his heavy alcohol consumption. But there is no doubt that Winston required incredible support, and he received it from Clementine. She seemed submissive in public, but was strong toward him in private, never shy to express the good and the bad bluntly. This was crucial for their trust, given that Winston knew his wife would always tell him how it is

Many believed that Winston would not survive the war. It was understood that between his poor health, alcoholism, and high stress level, he could drop dead any day. But someone kept Winston grounded and with his head in the right place throughout these days – Clementine. 

In an interview, Winston and Clementine’s youngest child shared these two observations about her parents' dynamic:

  • “He [Winston] himself talks of his black dog, and he did have times of great depression, but marriage to my mother very largely kennelled the black dog. Of course, if you have a black dog it lurks somewhere in your nature and you never quite banish it; but I never saw him disarmed by depression.” 

  • “She [Clemetine] was the scabbard to his sword, and she kept it shining!”

The support went both ways. When Clementine was feeling unappreciated, neglected, and depressed, she was known to book a hotel and take some days to rest. Clementine mentioned more than once that she suffered from fatigue and needed a few days of rest; hence, the hotel and sometimes spa visits. According to Sonia Purnell (Clementine’s biographer), Clementine would sometimes stay in the hotel until Winston would call and remind her how much he loved her and needed her. It always worked.

Purnell humorously points out that the problems with fatigue stopped after Winston passed away. Clementine did not complain about him, but we can imagine how draining it must have been to keep up with her husband’s pace. 

Winston's staff knew that when they could not get through to him, Clementine could. Famously one night, Winston climbed to the roof of 10 Downing Street to watch bombs drop over London during the height of the Blitz. As the prime minister, this was quite the security breach, so his staff members called Clementine. Clementine did not argue. She simply said she wanted to be with him and stood by him on the roof. Winston soon realized that his wife would not leave his side, and while he was okay with risking his life (some historians even argue that his depression took him somewhere between suicidal thoughts and simply not caring about dying.), he was not okay with risking his wife's life. In minutes, the Churchills were back to safety at the underground bunker.

They Remained Loyal and Cherised Their Trust 

Clementine was allowed into the secretive inner circle of WWII commanders without any official military role. She was deeply involved in trying to convince America to support England in the fight against the Nazis and operated as a trusted advisor to her husband. She proofread his speeches and hosted diplomatic dinners on a rations budget. Clementine’s efforts did not go unnoticed, as Winston never failed to give her credit and Queen Elizabeth appointed her a Dame Grand Cross of the Order of the British Empire.

This doesn’t mean that they never failed each other; but when they did, it was clear to them that it was due to human weakness and no ill intention was at play. That is the secret sauce of happy marriages.

Closing Thoughts

It’s always intriguing to move past the accomplishments of great men and women from the past and dive into what life must have been like for them. Their daily struggles and the habits that made them who they are. The Churchills are to be admired for the great personal and political wars they fought. Their life is a collection of one difficult situation after the other; and yet, they reached the end of their lives with the satisfaction of having led England through WWII and a marriage that was made stronger by this struggle. They are no saints, but people who turned their impossible situations and difficult personal flaws into opportunities to grow in mutual appreciation and deeper love. 

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