What I Learned from Getting Married and Divorced by 33

Divorce at any age isn’t easy, but being young and going through it was an isolating experience

Laura Hensley
by
A still from HBO show Girls showing Marnie on her wedding day wearing a flower crown and sitting in front of her bridesmaids

(Photo: Everett Collection)

After my husband and I divorced, I tried to give my ring back to him—but he wouldn’t take it. I think he thought of it as only belonging to me, something I would eventually understand myself. I don’t remember exactly what he said, in fact, I don’t think he said anything; he just gestured. I’m sure I shocked him when I pulled it out of my pocket with the intention of handing it over. I remember feeling slightly silly that I even attempted to return the most meaningful gift he ever gave me. But at the same time, I’m happy I tried. 

My relationship with my ex-husband began well before we even started dating. We not only grew up together, but he was my childhood crush. When he moved away during junior high, I was devastated. Fast forward to nearly a decade later and we reconnected shortly after my 20th birthday. One date turned into a committed and loving relationship that lasted 12 years, three of which we were married.

Obviously, we didn’t make it, even though all our friends and family were rooting for us. But many of them didn’t understand the dilemma we both faced: we never had a chance to figure out who we were outside of each other. Trying to figure that out in a marriage ultimately led to us growing apart rather than growing together.

But knowing that didn’t make things any easier—especially because at the time, there was no one to relate to. I had one other close friend who had just gone through her own divorce, but she had been in a very toxic relationship and told me her situation was different. Beyond that, speaking about my divorce felt taboo. While marriage is something many people my age understand, divorce feels like a conversation reserved for women in their late 30s, 40s, 50s—not women who are fresh into adulthood. Yes, I had a ton of support from friends, families and even strangers as I tried to make sense of my new world, but no one could ever truly empathize.

I’ve been separated from my ex for exactly two years now, and in the process, I’ve learned a lot.

The feelings that led to my divorce

So what even happened? Ultimately, I was scared. I was scared about how fast everything was changing when we finally tied the knot, how young I still felt and how fast doors seemed to be closing. Just as my career was taking off, my husband and I were suddenly talking about having children. Granted, how suddenly is it really when you’ve already been married for a year? But I had an overwhelming urge to do things on my own and to figure out who I was outside of him and our relationship, since most of my formative years were so intertwined with his.

So I did all the things I could do to avoid facing the fact that my marriage wasn’t working: I dove head first into new friendships; I explored a new career; I worked out all the time; I flirted. I even cut my hair really short, one of those cliché clues that something’s not right.

I flip-flopped a lot with my decision to leave the relationship. Much of that had to do with separating from a good man. There was never anything horribly wrong with our marriage outside of the typical issues other couples face and overcome. Instead, I struggled through the fact that I left solely because of, well, me and my needs.

What it feels like to be single after a marriage ends

The first couple months of being single felt close to cloud nine. I was free. I could do anything and be anyone. After all, I didn’t have children, I had a flexible job as a writer and a bunch of 20-something friends who were more than willing to be my distractions. Yet anyone remotely familiar with the five stages of grief could immediately tell I was firmly in denial.

Since I chose to leave the marriage, I was extremely doubtful about whether I did the right thing. No one tells you how hard it is to be the one to make that decision. You feel like you don’t deserve to feel bad or even sad because you’re the one who left. You also realize that your former partner is now free to make their own life plans—none of which include you. Somehow, with all of our history, I still assumed my ex would be mine. We never promised to remain friends, and after a while, it was clear that the only way to move on was to stop talking. I struggled with that a lot.

So I partied. I drank. I got a dog because the loneliness was too much to bear. I attached myself to one guy since the idea of dating was so foreign to me I was too terrified to even try. But he was one of those unavailable guys that allowed me to still feel single, because wasn’t that the point of me leaving behind a good man? To live out all those single girl fantasies romanticized in books and on television?

I simultaneously pulled people in and pushed them out. It was a way to constantly feel in control during the most tumultuous time of my life. It was also a way to not feel alone while still using loneliness as a form of punishment. I quietly became a master of victimization and didn’t even know it.

And I travelled. I mean, the only way to have profound epiphanies is to eat your way through Italy, meet wise gurus and embark on intense hikes, right? (In reality, I did none of those things unless climbing an active volcano counts as an intense hike.) But the further I went out, the more I realized I couldn’t run away anymore. So after many private and not-so-private meltdowns over the first year-and-a-half of separating, I forced myself to stay put.

Learning to heal and move on

What happened after that wasn’t very exciting, but it was enlightening. When I stopped and took a moment to just be, things got easier. A lot of it was just time doing its thing and helping me heal. By not running away (literally and figuratively), I was also forced to face some hard truths. First truth? It really is ok to not be ok. The more you fight it, the worse you feel. Ride your emotions and then let them go.

Second truth? It’s ok not to confide in your friends. Like I said, at my age, not many of them could relate anyhow. Plus, talking to people other than your friends doesn’t mean you’re replacing them, it just means you’re finding someone who understands. That’s where a therapist comes in real handy, and so does branching out to meet new people who can relate.

Third truth? Communication is key. It’s incredible how tough times reverts many of us to a state of adolescence. It’s like I had to relearn how to express myself because so many of the emotions I was feeling I’d never felt before. So many of my other relationships with friends and family suffered because of this. So many are still suffering because I’ve yet to figure out how to express myself properly.

Fourth truth, it’s also ok to be ok. One day you do wake up and everything feels… normal. But that normality can be jarring in and of itself. It can lead you to start a fight, or to to re-dig a dark hole in order to hold onto a pain that somehow became a security blanket.

Fifth and final truth, one that I’m still trying to embrace, is that those years you spent making memories with a partner are still your memories to cherish. For a while, mine seemed tarnished. You pack away pictures and tokens in an effort to erase that period in your life. But time is not just a healer, it’s also a natural varnish that eventually makes those memories shiny again.

The biggest token I’ve re-claimed is my engagement ring. For the longest time I had it tucked away in a cupboard, wearing it once in a while when I was home or on a necklace when I was out. After trying to give it back to my ex, I entertained the idea of giving it to my brother when he was going to propose to his girlfriend. I quickly realized I couldn’t imagine constantly seeing it on someone else’s finger, even if it was remade. I thought about selling it, but I couldn’t stomach that either. In the end, I decided to have it remade for myself. When I came to that decision, it was the first time I felt truly ok, and that I was finally—messily—closing a chapter of my life.

Related:

The First Time I Had Sex After My Marriage Ended
“I’m Not Looking for The One; I Am The One:” What It’s Really Like to Marry Yourself
Why You Should Talk About Breaking Up Before Buying Property with a Partner

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