Things started out so well. My wedding day was perfect. The sun shone down on the 15th-century castle we’d hired for a hundred guests, even though it was April in Ireland. I wore a silk and lace gown with hundreds of tiny sequins, and I was marrying the man I’d been with for three years.
We’d met working for a charity, and we both cared about trying to make the world better – we imagined ourselves living overseas, and probably having a baby in a year or so. He was straightforward, and kind, and supported me. Surely marriage would be easy… Yet just a year later I was contemplating divorce.
Things seemed to change at our one-year anniversary when we went to Germany for a friend’s wedding. On that trip I remember wondering: is this all there is? Spending whole days apart on holiday, because I wanted to go to museums and he wanted to shop? Having to beg him to turn off his work emails for a few days? Coming home and not speaking for hours at a time. At the time, I dismissed these as silly doubts. There was no question of it not working out. And all my friends seemed happily settled too, and my parents and sister had both been married since they were teenagers – I didn’t know how to admit to them marriage wasn’t quite what I’d hoped for. I told myself was just being naïve, expecting everything to be perfect.
But things continued to change. I would lay awake at night and wonder about leaving –where would I live? We owned a beautiful house together and I hadn’t rented in years. Would I even get a place on my freelance income? I couldn’t go back to a flatshare at 31, especially not when most of my friends were buying homes with their partners. Who would look after our dog? Who’d get the car? What if I never met anyone else and never had children? I couldn’t face the final decision to leave, so I put it off, frightened of what might be on the other side.
However, I was amazed when, the year my friends and I all turned thirty, a wave of break-ups began. One day my friend Michelle emailed us to say she was leaving her husband of five years, and that things had not been right for years. This finally forced my ex and I to have the difficult conversation we’d been avoiding all this time. He said we could work on it, see a therapist which we did try to little success. He kept insisting that I was giving up too easily, refusing to face up to my own issues. We struggled on, but then just a few weeks after Michelle’s revelation, our friend Cathy called off her wedding. One day they were looking at venues for an elaborate celebration, then the next it was over and she’d moved out of their house. I felt stunned. It seemed as if the break-ups sent seismic waves through our friendship group. Suddenly, couples were having to face the fact that maybe they weren’t that happy, either.
I realised then that I couldn’t keep putting off the decision about my own marriage. The only way I could do it was in small steps. I found a flat, moved out and finally worked up the courage to tell my friends. With one in particular, I remember being at lunch together, ready for me to tell her my news when she blurted out, ‘So I’m getting divorced.’ She’d been with her husband for ten years and I had no idea anything was wrong. All I could think to say was, ‘Um…me too.’
My biggest surprise was how easy it is to hide an unhappy marriage from your friends. I had no idea they were on the brink of a split, and they didn’t know I was. I only told my parents a month before I moved out. I was ashamed to tell them – after all, they’d paid for the wedding. They they were very surprised, but supportive. It made me see I should have talked to people sooner, explained that our marriage – on the surface so great, with our nice house and exotic holidays – was falling apart. It might have made me face the problems sooner, rather than hoping they would just go away. I don’t know if anything could have saved our marriage, but perhaps I would have had the courage to end it sooner.
Over the following year, while I was moving all my things out and trying to start my life again, four other friends had big break-ups, like a divorce domino effect. We were all in our early to mid-thirties, without children, and had been married or in serious relationships since our twenties. In most cases the splits happened because people grew apart and changed, started wanting different things from life. My friends are quite ambitious, high-flying people and maybe that makes it harder to compromise – or maybe we chose the people and lives we thought we should want, rather than what we actually needed.
I’m not sure if I would get married again. I would feel strange making those vows, knowing how impossible it is to promise things on behalf of your future self. I wish we had thought about that more carefully before getting married, and that I’d been clearer about what I wanted from life instead of just trying to support him. But three years on, I am in a committed relationship, doing work I enjoy and living a life I love. All it took was that one leap of bravery, and perhaps a bit of that domino effect.
Eva Woods is the author of The Ex Factor, out now.