I remember a time when meeting someone who was just as damaged was a bit of a relief. Everyone walking…
I’m the product of a teenage pregnancy. My mom was a 17-year-old high school senior who was desperately in love with my father, a drug-addicted petty criminal with a charming smile and an oh-so-cool band. When my very small, very feisty and very Catholic grandmother found out about the little miracle growing inside her teenage daughter, she charged my father’s family home and demanded a wedding. I’ve seen a handful of photos of that day. My mom looked beautiful and excited to start her life as a mother and a wife. My father looked like a coked-out dork with a Bon Jovi haircut, unprepared for and seemingly oblivious to the responsibilities he was taking on. The guests looked uncomfortable and bored. What should have been at least a marginally joyous occasion was anything but. It was exactly what it looked like: a forced union intended to make my mom’s middle class parents feel more at ease with a situation they couldn’t control.
The marriage lasted less than 2 years, though the abusive relationship lasted more than a decade. The (very) abridged version is that they were on-again off-again for years and even had another baby together 4 years after their divorce. I remember those years in detail, including the drugs, the screaming matches and the physical beatings my mom endured. The final straw came when my mom told my dad she was done with drugs and he brought an eighth of cocaine home that night anyway. He insisted she join him, so she did her share, waited until he passed out, packed everything in the apartment and moved out for good.
I guess living through all of this should have had more of an effect on the way I viewed relationships, love and marriage. But as a kid who grew up in the early 90s, somehow Disney movies with dashing princes resonated with me more than the actual reality of my environment. Despite the very real knowledge that bad men exist and sometimes the love of your life is just an abusive drug addict with a pretty smile, I somehow never became disillusioned or jaded on the idea of true love.
When I was 13 I developed a crush on a boy who barely knew I existed. At 15 we had a meet-cute where I spilled a glass of ice water on him after a Super Bowl party and to my amazement he asked me to be his girlfriend the next day. We lost our virginity to each other when I was 16. I felt like I had found something perfect and rare. A boy who seemed to appreciate my quirks and put up with my sass, who made an effort and who made me happy. He didn’t even so much as drink, let alone take drugs. And it would never have even occurred to him to hit me. He was quiet and elusive and everyone loved him, a detail I viewed as extremely important.
He proposed to me on my 18th birthday, two and a half years after we had started dating. According to a usual timeline, two and a half years together was a perfect time to propose. I was independent and felt accomplished that I’d broken the cycle of the life that I was predisposed to in that I’d made it through my teen years without any addictions and without so much as a pregnancy scare. Unlike the terse expressions in the sad photos of my mom’s first wedding, people were psyched that we were together and were genuinely supportive of the relationship. Whenever the thought of how young we were crossed my mind, I rationalized it that I was somehow ahead of the game—like I just had my life together and knew more what I wanted than my other friends. I felt like I was getting a jump start on the rest of my future.
After being engaged for a year and a half, with no plans and no wedding in sight, I told him I was ready to get married. I didn’t care about glitz and glamour and guest lists. I knew what I wanted. I wanted to be his wife.
His mom and I talked about an intimate backyard wedding on the lake. I got so caught up in the idea of finally being looked at as an adult (something else that should have been a very obvious red flag to me at the time) that I didn’t even care about the details. I made a list of must-haves and a list of absolutely-must-not-haves and those were my only requests. We set a date for 6 months into the future and everything seemed like it was falling into place.
That’s when the support and “genuine” excitement turned into a non-stop series of interrogations from my family asking if I was pregnant. They couldn’t understand the idea of someone willingly getting married at age 20 and assumed it was a shotgun wedding. I laughed along on the phone and assured them all that no, I wasn’t having a baby—we were just young and in love and knew that we were going to be together forever, so why wait. Like some trite 80s movie ending.
Looking back on it, I cringe thinking about that wedding planning process. I was so detached. I had no real opinions on anything. At the time I remember thinking I was just low maintenance and wasn’t a materialistic person. I wasn’t one of “those” brides. I should have taken a more honest look at why someone like me, over-excitable and obsessive to a fault, felt absolutely no connection with planning something that is constantly referred to as one of the most important days in a person’s life.
But I was 20 years old. I’d been with my boyfriend for over four years. I never had a desire to date a bunch of people or sleep around, and was oddly proud of the fact that we had only ever been with each other. We knew each other intimately and I couldn’t foresee anything that would break us apart or ruin our permanence. I couldn’t think of a single reason why I wasn’t supposed to be with this person for the rest of my life. It’s why I’d said yes to the proposal in the first place. So, marriage was the end game anyway, right? Why push it back just to satisfy some age restriction so I would be old enough for people to believe I felt the way I did?
So the day came. I walked down the aisle with my then-stepfather, read vows that had been specifically written for us by one of our closest friends who was a poet and took picture after picture with family members, mostly his. I looked past the fact that none of my friends attended and that many of my favorite family members had declined their invitations. Because of my detachment during the planning phase, the wedding was nothing like one I would have actually planned and it looked more like I had shown up to someone else’s wedding in a white gown. But at the time, I didn’t care. I had accomplished what I wanted. I was a wife. This was it. I could start my real life with the person I was supposed to be with. I was thrilled.
There are a lot of people who will say that young marriages are almost always a mistake. And it would be much easier to take their advice if everything they had to say wasn’t so bitter and defeatist. By its very nature, it flies right over the heads of the starry-eyed, hopeful kids in love—the ones likely to get married young in the first place. And every piece of advice comes with the insinuation that you’re just a stupid kid who thinks they know everything. It’s not helpful, it’s invalidating. And as a result, it’s impossible to listen to.
What they should do is tell you that no matter how in love you are on the day of your wedding, that thrill will wear off. And spending your life with someone means every minute of it, good, bad and boring. And no matter how much you may truly love someone, there is nothing more important than knowing who you really are as a person. There is no paperwork or special jewelry that can take the place of being able to embrace the true you and live your life with honesty and integrity to yourself. Only once you’ve accomplished that are you truly prepared to invite someone else into the rest of your life.
I think that’s why people emphasize the age factor so much. Because getting to know yourself and finding out who you really are as a person tends to come later in your life. This is obviously different for everyone and I’ve had friends come to me for advice who followed the acceptable timeline, got married at 32 and were desperately unhappy in their marriages only months later. I’ve had friends who got married at 24 and hit rough patches they were able to work through together and they ended up stronger than ever. Age has nothing to do with it. Knowing yourself, living with unabashed honesty and knowing that the person you’re agreeing to spend the rest of your life with does too have everything to do with it.
As you can probably guess, my marriage did not last. When I got divorced I was still young enough that people could start advice with “When you’re older, you’ll understand…” My decision to ask for a divorce can’t be traced back to one indiscretion and it wasn’t inspired by a singular moment. It was a series of moments, moments of learning and realization and change and growth that took place over a long period of time. I learned the difference between what I’d been taught and who I was. I realized what was truly important to me, not what I was told should be.
I fought with myself (and him) for over a year, trying to make things work and trying to make the version of myself that I was becoming still fit with the same old version of the person I had married. He resented my changes almost as much as I resented his stagnancy. I kept trying to see him the same way, trying to understand why everyone else loved him but he didn’t make me happy. It didn’t work. I finally worked up the courage to admit to myself and to him that I wasn’t in love with him anymore, I moved out and we finalized the divorce a little while later.
In the time since then, I have analyzed the whole thing countless times. For me, I think the fact that I succeeded in having a relationship that was nothing like the one my mom and dad had was something I assigned too much value to. The victory of breaking a cycle of abuse and addiction should have been acknowledged for what it was, but instead I tried to keep it around forever as some kind of proof or a medal of honor. In a weird way I was still letting my history define me instead of feeling proud of that accomplishment and seeing what else I could conquer and overcome.
One of the most important things I have learned along the way is that marriage doesn’t fundamentally change anything about a relationship. A relationship is whatever it is and marriage is only going to magnify what’s already there. The weakest parts of a relationship will be front and center, coursing through even the simplest decisions and conversations. On the other side of the equation, the best and strongest parts will also blossom and evolve and new ones will even come to light. If you have doubts about a person or there is something that you can’t seem to get past—marriage isn’t going to erase that. And staying with them at all is unlikely to change those things either. Which is why the ability to be truly honest with yourself is so important.
Because if you’re honest with yourself right now about the things you absolutely must have in a relationship and the basic qualities your person must possess, you’re likely to find you’ve been settling for people who don’t measure up. It’s easy, it’s lazy and most of all it doesn’t help you grow or change. Most of us have been in relationships we knew from the outset were unlikely to be forever, and I’m not some weirdo who thinks every boyfriend I have is going to end up being my future husband. But after spending way too many years with someone who was totally wrong for me, I’m no longer willing to entertain the idea of a relationship that I outright know isn’t going to last.
I have had four men besides the one I actually married propose to me or tell me that if I said the word, they were mine forever. The only thing I can attribute this to is the fact that I have never wavered in this decision to be totally true to myself about who I am and what I’m looking for. I push people to be the best version of themselves they can be and I call people on their bullshit like it’s my fucking job. And people gravitate toward that kind of behavior because it’s real and it’s honest.
And that’s why I agreed to write this article. Because if there’s anything that I can’t stand to see people do, it’s waste time. I wasted years of my life ignoring what was important to me in the interest of making a relationship work with someone who wasn’t pushing me to be better. I did it because I felt like it was what I was “supposed” to do. The most important piece of advice that I can give anyone, as a 27-year-old divorcee is: there is nothing wrong with you for wanting more out of a relationship or any other part of your life. And if your own goals and desires aren’t being met, that is a valid enough reason to leave. Don’t ever let anyone make you feel inadequate or like your feelings don’t matter. Your happiness is important.
And finding and achieving what truly makes you happy depends on being totally honest with yourself about what you want—and never settling when you know that the relationship, job, city or whatever else, isn’t measuring up.
There is no substitute for living your life with authenticity. No matter how hard it seems now, I can promise you that once you do, you will never miss the days when you let your history define you and accepted less than you knew you deserved.