IT HAPPENED TO ME: I Got Married at 23 and Divorced on My Three-Year Wedding Anniversary

Bible college is often referred to as "bridal college," and mine was no exception. Most students there marry young and procreate early.
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Shannon Luders-Manuel
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Bible college is often referred to as "bridal college," and mine was no exception. Most students there marry young and procreate early.
Wedding picture 1.jpeg

I got married at age 23, and on our three-year anniversary, my now ex-husband and I signed our final divorce papers.

I'd always dreamed of getting married, but I'd always dreamed about a lot of things. I wanted to go to a four-year liberal arts college. I wanted to be a writer. I wanted to raise kids and receive the Ladies' Home Journal in the mailbox every month. I wanted a ring on my finger and a family around the table because I'd lacked my own stable household since age 11. I wanted all these things, but didn't know how to get any of them.

Instead I went to community college, then worked a full-time job that didn't give me enough take-home pay to rent a room if I wanted to eat, too. 

So I packed my bag and went off to a Bible college with low tuition. Bible college is often referred to as "bridal college," and mine was no exception. Most students there marry young and procreate early. 

Since marriage seemed to be the only dream of mine with a chance of panning out, especially since I couldn't get enough financial aid to attend the school for a second year, I said yes to a man nine years my senior and tied the knot about a year after that.

It's not that he forced me to do it. In fact, if anyone pushed for marriage, it was probably me. I wanted so desperately to belong to something that I clung onto whatever, or whomever, I could find. 

My husband wasn't unworthy. He wasn't physically or verbally abusive. He wasn't manipulative. But my bubble burst when he told me after the wedding that he didn't want me to take classes part-time at the nearby public college and that he didn't want children after all.

I wasn't much better off in the marriage than I was before I walked down the aisle.

If I were in love, and if he were as well, our financial situation wouldn't have mattered. But neither of us was in love. Instead, we were both doing what we thought we should. 

He unenthusiastically went back to school to get a second master's degree in Marriage and Family Therapy. I got a dead-end job and received the Ladies' Home Journal in the mail. We got two cats. We made pumpkin pie at Thanksgiving and decorated the apartment for Christmas. We slept in the same bed, I shared his last name, and we went to church together on Sunday morning.

When my estranged dad had sent me letters right before the wedding telling me that I was supposed to have an amazing life that didn't include getting married at age 23, I didn't get it. Or maybe I just thought it didn't matter since my dad couldn't give me the amazing life he wanted for me, let alone properly provide for himself. 

When my husband proposed, I felt a momentary panic and then said, "Yes." After all, I reasoned with myself, this was the man God had chosen for me.

About a year after we got married, my husband looked at me while we lay in bed and said, “You’re not attracted to me, are you?” 

My husband was pale and hairy and often had a ring of ice cream around his lips without knowing it. But, somehow I thought I could train myself to want to rip his clothes off, ice cream ring be damned, because he could hold down a job and didn’t use a garbage bag for a poncho.

I knew after that first year that our marriage wouldn’t work. I knew because we were friends, not lovers. I knew because he was happy only seeing me on weekends, on his days off from his graveyard security job. 

But I felt like I’d never followed through with anything, and I needed to follow through with this. My husband’s desire to stay married stemmed less from a fear of failure, and more because he thought divorce was a sin. 

“If we had it to do over again, I wouldn’t do it,” he said. “But I did, so I can’t undo it.”

By this time, my own feelings about what constituted a sin had changed tremendously, and when my husband decided, a year-and-a-half after that, that divorce was, in fact, the best option, I wanted to pinch myself. 

I met with a Bible college friend to tell her the news. 

“Have you guys talked?” she asked. 

I wanted to scream at this single friend who had never been in a relationship. For her, marriage was still a far-off ideal where fantasy is reality and anything can be worked through with enough conversation. 

Sometimes it can, but there was no amount of talking that would have made my marriage work, because it was built on something so tenuous.

I moved into my aunt and uncle’s basement room, and six months later, my ex-husband and I went to dinner and a movie after signing our final divorce papers. 

We didn’t plan to get divorced on our anniversary. In fact, I don’t think we even noticed until we signed the date. He was too busy hoping I wouldn’t want to get back together, and I was trying not to smile too widely at the new reality of being legally apart—both of us free of what we’d thought we had wanted when we walked down the aisle. 

A couple weeks later, I took off for a 4-year college, began my academic and professional career, and got the hell out of Dodge.

While my first boyfriend sans divorce almost canceled our first date after he learned of my past, the older I get, the less the divorce matters. In fact, it’s almost like it never happened at all. Social security counts me as “never married,” and my friends see it as part of a different life that happened with a different me. 

A couple years ago, my ex published a short story in a reputable journal, fulfilling a lifelong dream. We’ve both seen dreams fulfilled, ones that probably wouldn't have happened if we had stayed together.

I'd still like to get married one day to a man I really love, but even though I'm almost 40, it's certainly not a pressing goal. I stopped subscribing to the Ladies' Home Journal years ago, and I go solo to family gatherings. 

But, as Esperanza says in The House on Mango Street, I have "A house all my own [...] quiet as snow, a space for myself to go, clean as paper before the poem." My poem is still being written. I’m excited to see how it ends.