Today I bring you chapter 6 of my book, Trash the Dress: Stories of Celebrating Divorce in your 20s. This is where I form my pack! Read on to meet some amazing divorcees and find out why they got hitched in their 20s.
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Forming the Pack
Young divorced women are like shelter dogs. You know they exist, but you don’t realize how many there actually are until you meet one. Then, you realize they’re everywhere. Some dogs end up at pet rescues because they were suddenly abandoned by the ones they loved, others because they were removed from unhealthy situations. With life as they knew it gone, these dogs are left alone with their thoughts, fears, and hope for the future: finding a new companion to share their over-abundance of love. Shelter dogs, like young divorcées, are survivors. Some rehabilitation may be necessary, but those with good hearts will help them heal. The dogs never forget their pasts, but once they feel safe and confident again, they run through life with wagging tails.
When I first started conducting interviews for this book, I was pretty sure I would have to scour the bowels of the Internet to unearth twenty-something divorced women. Word of mouth and a bit of DIY marketing brought me a few willing participants. I was thrilled when five girls joined my pack. Then, something crazy happened. I wrote a blog for a major news website which examined the reasons twenty-somethings got hitched when they should’ve ditched, and hundreds of emails flooded my inbox.
I was overwhelmed yet selfishly ecstatic to discover that so many others related to my situation. Through the interviews, launching a subsequent private online support group on Facebook and hosting local meet-ups, I have learned that there are surprisingly common reasons why we not only got married, but also why we got divorced, and that we share similar post-divorce fears.
Through my research and experience, I have concluded that the underlying motivation behind marriage for most women who have gotten divorced is one of the following reasons:
● It was convenient and they followed society-imposed norms of marriage by a certain age.
● A previous relationship left them heartbroken and they figured they’d never again experience a love so deep so they stopped searching and settled for being content.
● They’d hoped marriage would change the relationship or their partner.
● They had low self-esteem and didn’t think they could do any better.
● Their religious families forced marriage.
Here's why some participants got hitched:
Madison, a 29-year-old accountant from New Jersey, admitted to marrying at age 25 even though she didn’t feel “crazy love,” because she was “content and secure” after a past relationship smashed her heart into pieces. Justifying her decision, Madison said, “We were both financially stable and could have a good life. I felt I would never be hurt by him as long as I didn’t give my whole heart.”
Maxie, a 28-year-old grad student from California, was drawn to her ex-husband when she met him at age 23 because they both loved music, worked as nurses, had a strained relationship with one parent and loved their dogs. “I think the electricity between us and the fact that we fit well together as a couple united us,” summarized Maxie.
On par with major life goals, including a cozy home, babies, and an RV to retire in, Maxie and her man had their future mapped out when she married him at age 26. “Ironically, a couple weeks before he left me, I was talking to my friends about how I am pretty practical and not one to get caught up in romance or naiveté but I felt like I could honestly say that he would never do anything to hurt me and that we had the type of marriage that could weather anything. I had such confidence that I had something special that not too many other people had and that it was unshakeable. Little did I know…” she recounted.
While Maxie went into marriage envisioning a picture perfect future, 28-year-old teaching assistant Brooke from Wisconsin admitted, “I had considered calling it off. But because we had already paid for the hall and booked everything, and I had the dress, the girls had their dresses, etc., I just didn’t know how to call it off. For whatever reason, I thought it was going to be easier to go ahead with it all than to stop it. What a silly, young, naïve girl I was.”
Similarly, Scarlett, a 29-year-old marketing guru from Toronto, Canada, got married at age 24 thinking of it as her first, never as her only, marriage. “I don’t really believe in marriage and forever love, and I don’t know that I ever have,” revealed Scarlett. She continued, “That could be one of the reasons that I try so hard to protect myself—because I feel like it is inevitable that it will end and I will be hurt.”
Scarlett was actually the one who decided to end her marriage. “The biggest disappointment for me was that I couldn’t be happy even though I had everything that I’d ever wanted. I had the perfect life, perfect husband, perfect job and everyone else wanted what I had, but it still didn’t make me happy.”
She told me, “I felt like getting a divorce was the only way that I could fix myself and maybe find happiness in my life.”
Rory, a 30-year-old patent examiner from Massachusetts also had marital reservations. She confided, “I thought we were wrong for each other, I thought he would never stop lying and gaslighting me (Let me save you an Internet search: gaslighting is a form of psychological abuse in which false information is presented with the intent of making a victim doubt his or her own memory and perception), and I was afraid that I would always be the breadwinner. I ignored every single worry and doubt; rationalized them away one by one and told myself that my fears were ‘normal.’ I was afraid to go through leaving him—again. I didn’t want to deal with the heartbreak and the reality of a failed relationship. I was scared of being in my late 20s without having captured the American dream. I thought he was the best that I could do and didn’t believe I deserved more.”
Lack of self-confidence was a deciding factor for other divorcées to marry. Kate, a 30-year-old technical assistant from Connecticut got engaged to her high-school sweet heart at age 20, because, “We were such good friends and had been together for so long, it just seemed natural that the next step was to get married.”
However, when they married one year later, Kate had second thoughts. “As I walked down the aisle for a moment I thought to myself, I am marrying him because I know I will never do any better.” She struggled with body image, self-esteem and depression all through middle and high school.
Jackie, 26, from Pennsylvania, experienced a situation similar to Kate’s. She said, “I struggled with anorexia and bulimia as a teenager. I was always very self-critical and sensitive as a child, and I had low self-esteem for many years. Some of those traits influenced my decision to marry my ex-husband, as I never realized I deserved better treatment than he ever gave me.”
Jackie’s divorce was in progress at the time of our interview, but 36-year-old Patricia from Massachusetts is a veteran and knows the struggles Jackie is facing. Of her marriage at age 22, Patricia recalled, “I was insecure, plain and simple. I picked a man who couldn’t really hurt me. He was a nice guy from a nice family with nice friends. He was very into me and that was enough for me. I had no idea who I was, why I had picked jerks before, and that an identity couldn’t be given to you by someone: I had to carve one myself.” Patricia did end up carving her own identity by earning a Ph.D.(that’s Dr. Patricia Leavy now!), becoming a women’s studies expert and authoring books including Low–Fat Love.
If only Sydney, a senior online news editor in Florida, had Dr. Patricia Leavy’s advice to consider prior to her own marriage at age 20. “I had no goals in life,” shared Sydney. “All of my goals had been shot down, one after the other, so instead I aligned my goals with his, even though I wasn’t much interested in them. It was the easiest way to feel like I was actually doing something worthwhile. When I did finally go back to college (I had dropped out to be with him) I had to deal with his jokes about journalism school, how the only gainful employment I’d find was writing obituaries.”
Ana, a publisher from the Philippines who married at age 26, told me, “I knew the person was not right for me, but I thought to myself, ‘this will do.’ I wish I had enough sense of my own self-worth and confidence to know that I deserved better than ‘this will do’ in anything—not just as a partner, but also as a person. In hindsight, when you know who you are, what you are capable of, you don’t simply settle. You make better, wiser decisions. Basically, I should have asked for a marriage, rather than a wedding. That is the difference between a lifetime and a day, a love affair and a relationship.”
Social media manager Paige, now 34, gave up goals when she married in her 20s. “I come from a very small town where we all basically marry young. It was the easiest way to get out of Dodge,” explained Paige of her hometown in the state of Georgia.
Paige married young at her own will, however, many twenty-something divorcées faced pressure from their families and religious organizations.
Avery, a 27-year-old research assistant in Ohio, told me, “Part of the reason why we got married so soon was because we moved in together about five months after we first met. We were very involved in the church and our youth pastor was encouraging us to get married so we wouldn’t set a bad example to the youth we were leading. They all looked up to us. My rationale was, ‘I love this man and want to grow old with him.’ We stopped having sex after we got engaged and perhaps this was a motivating factor that brought him to want to tie the knot so early.”
Willow, an online editor from New Jersey, had a similar situation: “My mother brought it up after she found out we were sleeping together. She was a born-again Christian and said we needed to get married to make it right. He was all for it and proposed that Christmas day.” Willow’s marriage began when she was 20 years old and ended when she was merely 23. Thanks, Mom.
Over in Arizona, Harper, now 30, found herself in a very controlling religion that was based on dating only with the intent of marriage. Making things even harder, Harper enlightened, “The religion we were in did not permit a ‘scriptural divorce’ unless adultery was an issue. In leaving him, I also left the religion, which ended relationships with my family as well as his—their choices, not mine. To this day, religion continues to play a factor in how he treats me.”
Grace, a 28-year-old grad student from Pennsylvania, also blamed religion for rushing her into marriage. “We went to a conservative Bible college, so it was more of a courtship than dating,” listed Grace of factor number one. “There is such pressure in conservative Christian culture to become serious too fast and to fast-track it to marriage. There is no time to consider whether you even want to get married young. Rather, that is presented as the ideal to which one should aspire.”
Grace continued, “Like good conservative Christians, we waited to have sex until our wedding night, though I was not a virgin when we got married. Looking back, I think it would have helped if we had lived together or had at least had sex. I think the waiting for sex thing really puts a lot of pressure on relationships. Perhaps we would not have gotten married so young if we were having sex, which would have perhaps given us more time to realize we were not right for each other.”
New York travel agent, Elizabeth, 29, discussed how her culture imposed on her to marry her abuser. “I’m Chinese with Christian parents who are from Hong Kong. When I was engaged, I thought that the physical and emotional abuse would go away and he wouldn’t do that to me once we were married.”
Though her gut told her to call off the wedding, the arrangements were made and Elizabeth feared a backlash from the Chinese community. “In the Chinese culture, face is everything. I didn’t want to lose face to my family and myself. Also, I didn’t want to leave college unmarried and be called an old maid, even though I was only 23-years-old. In the college that I went to, everyone married young—before they graduated. So I pressured myself into getting married.”
While Elizabeth forced herself to meet expectations, Nora, a 27-year-old family law attorney from North Carolina acknowledged she nudged her boyfriend to propose, though not deliberately. “We’d been fighting a lot and I kept bitching about how he needed to grow up, get a job outside of the house, do things that showed me he was committed to the new state we’d just moved to and was committed to having a great life with me,” she began. “We had poor communication and somehow things got confused and he thought I was begging for the proposal. I think he mostly did it to shush my nagging. I mostly said ‘yes’ because how could I say ‘no’ to a nice ring and a stable man? That’s what you do, right? You say ‘yes’ when homeboy pulls out the yellow diamond you love.”
Scarlett from Toronto also admitted to being swept away by the wedding fantasy. “I always wanted to get married for the wrong reasons—jewelry, the dress, and being able to check it off my life’s list of to-dos. I always said that I wanted to be married before 25.”
Cherie, a 30-year-old behavioral therapist from California, knows she forced her boyfriend into marriage. “He did not really want to, it’s hard to admit that! It makes me seem like a dumbass. Some people will probably think ‘Hey crazypants, if you knew he didn’t want to get married, then why did you marry him?’ But let me tell you, I loved this man. I can’t explain it.” Parental pressure eventually led to a laid back proposal.
“The word ‘proposal’ isn’t quite the correct word for what it was,” noted Cherie. “We were in a drive-thru ATM and as he was pulling out cash he said ‘Dude, let’s just do it, let’s get married so they back off.’ There was no ring, no down on one knee, or ‘I love you.’ He called me ‘dude.’” She added, “My parents bought the ring the next week.”
Carly, on the other hand, described a whirlwind romance. Now a 27-year-old law student from New Hampshire, Carly got married five years ago to a man she met at San Lorenzo Market in Florence, Italy. “After our second date, which was also his birthday, he asked me to marry him and I laughed. I said ‘no.’ He asked a bunch of times, and one night he asked and it was such a perfect moment that I said ‘yes.’”
Carly was attracted to her man’s sense of adventure and humor. “There was never a dull moment in our relationship before we got married, and I love someone who is as spur-of-the-moment as I am.” Yet, Carly came clean with herself on the day of her wedding, “I kept looking to see if my ex-boyfriend was there. I think I got married in part to get back at him for how awful the end of our relationship was,” she confessed.
Lily, a 29-year-old social worker from Virgina, married her high school sweetheart. “I either get the ‘Aw, you married your high school sweetheart?’ gooey response, or the ‘You married the first person you slept with?’ incredulous response. And secretly I myself could not definitively decide what I believed,” shared Lily.
Of course she loved her husband, but Lily said, “A nagging, out of focus part of me always wondered if I had settled down too early. Could I really have found the right person when I was still basically a child? Movies and magazines led me to believe it was perfectly reasonable that I would fall in perpetual love at 17, but logic and statistics begged to differ. Of all the people in the world, what are the odds I found the right person so early?”
It turns out neither Lily, nor any of the participants in this book, found “the one” in their first husbands. While every marriage suffered the same demise, the underlying reasons for divorce vary. And some are quite disturbing, as you’ll find out next.
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