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There were a lot of awkward things I had to deal with when I asked my husband for a separation just five months after our fairy tale wedding.
There was the question of what to do with all of the gifts. Many had just finally been unpacked but some, like the lime green Kitchenaid, had already been broken in. Months ago, I thought it’d be cute to have custom thank-you notes printed. But looking down at the glossy wedding photo on their front, I was too embarrassed to send them.
There were all of the wedding photos on Facebook that my family and friends had been tagged in. Alone in my apartment in front of the computer, I debated whether or not I should just delete them.
There were the probing texts from my fellow graduate students, all eager for some gossip about what had happened. When I avoided their questions, several stopped speaking to me altogether. A few became malicious. They cut me down behind my back and sent consoling Facebook messages to my ex.
“I just hope you’re OK,” they wrote him. “Let me know if you ever want to talk.”
Then, of course, there were the phone calls, many from people who didn’t know that we had split. My wedding coordinator wondered if I could send along some pics that she could put on the venue’s website and in the informational pamphlet. A national wedding magazine wanted to run a four page spread featuring my big day.
Convinced that we would eventually get back together, my ex called me constantly to check in.
“You have to let me come back,” he said. “You owe me and this marriage at least a year. Do you know what people are saying about you?”
I had some idea. My own mom had compared me to Kim Kardashian when I first confessed my decision.
“Well, at least you made it past 72 days,” she said. “But I can’t stop thinking about all of that wasted money. Why didn’t you just call off the wedding?”
The truth was that my relationship with my ex had started out far more fairy tale than the horror story I was currently living in. When the two of us had first met in college, I’d been convinced that we were a good fit. We both liked watching indie movies and had bonded over our shared love of Radiohead.
Earlier in my college career, I’d had a string of bad hookups and borderline-abusive boyfriends. Compared to them, my ex seemed like someone I could finally trust and confide in. He was faithful and did all the things characteristic of a “good” boyfriend. We went out on weekly dinner dates. He even sent me flowers when we were apart on winter break.
But even in that first year of our relationship, there was a small seed of doubt I couldn’t shake. He often talked about what it would be like when the two of us got engaged. While I’d given some thought to getting married, I knew it wasn’t something that I would be ready to jump into any time soon. Lying next to him in bed, my stomach tightened at the mention of potential rings.
“I’m going to get you a big diamond,” he said. “That thing’s going to weigh down your hand!”
When the choice came at the end of our senior year to either break up or move across the country together for his new job, I spent weeks agonizing over the decision. On the one hand, we’d been dating for nearly a year and a half and, outside of my family, he was my biggest support system. On the other, I knew I’d be giving up my own dreams of going to grad school in order to move with him.
On our drive across the country, I broke down crying and pulled the car over at a rundown gas station.
“I don’t want to move. I can’t do this,” I told him.
He took his sunglasses off and put both of his hands down on the dash. We’d picked up two 40-ounce slushies half an hour back and he took a long, slow sip of his.
“Yes,” he said after a moment. “You can.”
Putting his hand on my arm, he assured me that everything would be OK. We had already signed a lease on a one-bedroom apartment and he was going to take care of me.
Pulling back onto the highway, I felt like I had somehow ended up as a character in a 1950s movie. He didn’t seem to understand how I could be so upset when he had committed himself to providing for me. I was a woman moving in with my soon-to-be-employed boyfriend. Wasn’t I supposed to feel lucky?
This highway scene would only continue to repeat itself over the next two years of our relationship. Though we’d left the gas station far behind, it felt as if the two of us were still stuck in that gravel lot with the car engine idling. Every time I brought up a concern, he dismissed it without a second thought.
When I told him that I was unhappy and couldn’t keep living with him, he told me to give it more time. I’d adjust to my new job and our apartment.
When I said that I didn’t know if I was ready to get engaged, he insisted we go to some local jewelry stores to look at rings. “Come on,” he said. “That’s just the stress talking.”
Gradually, our back-and-forths became outright combative.
“You want to break up with me?” he said when I told him I was thinking about leaving. “What are you going to do, move back in with your family?” His tone was defensive and angry. “You’ll be single and won’t have a job. You’ll have lost everything.”
While a part of me knew that what he said wasn’t true, hearing it so often made me start to believe him. I was living in a city over a thousand miles from my friends and family and I often felt alone and isolated.
When I spoke up about my feelings, they were either brushed off or torn down by my fiancé. He told me that I was being dramatic and crazy. If I left him, I would be a loser. Everyone would hate me.
During the day, I kept things together at work, but back at home I routinely broke down crying. I lost twenty pounds in the span of two months. My hair started falling out in clumps. I was a wreck of a future bride.
Deep in my depression, I became convinced that my wedding was the only thing I had going for me. Following our engagement, I jumped right into planning. I booked a beautiful mansion venue. I met with my florist to go through bouquet and centerpiece photos. I tried on over a hundred wedding dresses before settling on a lace mermaid gown.
My relationship was a mess but, with enough careful planning, I knew I could make my wedding look perfect. I thought that maybe if it all seemed like a fairy tale, no one would suspect what was really going on beneath the surface. Maybe I could even make myself believe it.
When the big day finally came, everything was flawless. The buttercream cake was decorated with succulents. Yellow paper lanterns hung from the tree in the backyard. The cocktail hour featured fancy French appetizers and a string quartet.
But as I sipped on my glass of champagne, I knew it was all a sham.
After we got married, we moved across the country again. I was finally going to grad school just like I’d always wanted and my depression slowly lifted as I attended my classes and met new friends. As I started to work on projects I was actually interested in, I realized that I didn’t have to believe all those things I’d been told by my husband. I was smart and capable and would still have things going for me if I left him.
When I told my husband that I wanted to separate, the news didn’t come as a shock to him. I’d voiced the same thing for the past two years. But this time when he fought back, I didn’t give in.
“You can’t do this. It’ll be a huge embarrassment,” he said.
“What’s your family going to think?” he asked. “Everyone’s going to judge you for this.”
And he wasn’t wrong, at least not in part. Several of my fellow graduate students did snub me on campus. Friends I had made back in the city while I’d been living with him called me selfish and flakey. They couldn’t understand why I was getting divorced when I’d seemed so happy at my wedding.
But when I officially signed my divorce papers eight months after my wedding, I knew all of the painful embarrassment was worth it. For the first time in a long while, I was happy.