When Emma Wilhelm was 29, she wrote a “Dear John” letter, packed her bags, and left her husband on her lunch break. She drove to her parent’s house in Minnesota, listening to sappy country music all the way. They’d been married for 14 months, together for less than two and a half years. For Emma, it was a “starter marriage,” the pop culture term for short-lived flirtations with forever.
Even though more women now hold off on marriage, 60 percent still tie the knot before age 30. And not so surprisingly, young marriages are more likely to go down in flames, leaving nearly 10 percent of white women divorced by the age of 30. (That number is a bit lower for black and Hispanic women and almost nonexistent for Asian women.)
Young couples face several challenges, such as financial instability, blossoming and demanding careers and emerging adult personalities, that can compete with settling into marriage. When those strains lead to a breakup, many young divorcees are left feeling like they did something wrong—that they made the wrong choice, didn’t try hard enough, didn’t catch the signs or failed to make their marriage work.
But now, a recent crop of self-help books and blogs aimed at young divorcees are trying to spin the conversation: Far from being a failure, divorce can be a catalyst for change. “Right after my divorce, my self-esteem was really low,” recalls Wilhelm, whose blog, Divorced Before 30, gets thousands of readers each month. “But I also felt a huge sense of relief. I knew that I had a chance to reinvent myself and to be happy again.”
The same sentiment runs through one of the most popular books in this genre, “The Mini Marriage,” released in 2010, which includes five “bite-sized” memoirs of young divorce that promise to help you “heal your heart and become young, divorced and fabulous.” In every case, according to the book, divorce is a blessing in disguise—the do-over you need to get what you really want out of life.
After months of grief and depression, Wilhelm seized that chance, setting what she calls some ambitious goals for herself. She resolved to pay off her debt, run a marathon and get more serious about writing. Wilhelm signed up for a creative nonfiction course at the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis and landed a position as a business writer. Her blog, which she writes on the side, has now taken off and she’s in the process of landing a book deal. She even remarried (happily this time) and now has two little kids.
That kind of reinvention is common after a breakup, explains Gary Lewandowski, Ph.D., associate professor of psychology at Monmouth University and co-creator of ScienceofRelationships.com. “Relationships should be a source of growth and a way to improve the self,” he says. When they’re not, or worse, when they actually stunt your growth, you’re more likely to flourish after you part ways.
Joelle Caputa, now 30, left her husband at 28. They were together for just over a year, but she knew it wasn’t right long before that. “I realized I was making a mistake as I was walking down the aisle on my wedding day,” she recalls. “I didn’t feel like I was walking towards my soul mate. I hoped people liked my dress.”
Even though she knew that they wanted different lives—she wanted kids and dogs, he wanted freedom—she convinced herself that he could change. When he didn’t change and financial problems added strain, the knot unraveled. “We were basically living as roommates, not even sleeping in the same bed together,” she recalls. “He eventually told me that he didn’t want to be married—maybe not to anyone, but definitely not to me.”
At first, the divorce was a relief. “Marriage had turned me into a depressed and lonely person,” she says. “I always believed in fairy tale romance but felt I was trapped in the life of the ugly stepsister.”
Still, the breakup wasn’t easy. “It was the scariest, hardest time of my life,” Caputa says. “I moved back home and then lost my job a few weeks later.” She battled insomnia and anxiety, struggling to pick up her life and move on. With her 31st birthday looming, Caputa never pictured herself single in her thirties—and fears she’ll be too old to have kids when she eventually remarries. “I always thought I would be happily married with kids by now,” she reflects. “I have to keep telling myself it’s okay.”
Those feelings are normal, expected even, after a divorce. Questions like, ‘Who is my family?’ ‘Who are my friends?’ and ‘Who am I without my partner?’ are all provoked when a couple separates. A 2011 study from the University of Arizona found that divorcees who are able to answer those questions flexibly have an easier time recovering and are more likely to move on. But that means letting go of the dreams that were wrapped up in the marriage.
For Caputo, the dream of a family, a nice house and two dogs was a huge part of who she thought she’d be. Moving on meant she had to let go of that dream—for now—allowing real life with all its messy, unexpected loose ends to open the door for new plans. Caputo finally found closure when she decided to trash her wedding dress, an experience she’s now writing about in a forthcoming book called “Trash the Dress: Stories of Celebrating Divorce in Your 20s.” The dress hadn’t brought her the happiness she’d hoped, so she refashioned it, turning her strapless, vintage sheath into a sexy, frilly romper. “It was my final good riddance to the past,” she says.
To help close that door and start moving on, Lewandowski encourages new divorcees to get back into activities they loved when they were single, whether that means going for regular hikes or sleeping with the cute barista who knows your coffee order by heart. His research shows that doing what he calls “rediscovery activities” for only two weeks leads to a noticeable mood boost and fewer feelings of loneliness. Ever the optimist, he adds, “[Young] divorcees probably have the most opportunity for self-expansion because there are so many more potential partners available.”
On Wilhelm’s blog, Divorced Before 30, there’s a photo of her as a bride, standing next to a “Dead End” road sign that’s now more ironic than funny. At the time, that’s exactly what her marriage felt like—a rocky road to nowhere. “In truth, it was just a detour,” she says now. “And a fortuitous one at that. If it weren’t for that experience, I wouldn’t have moved home to Minnesota or reconnected with the old friend who became my husband. I well up with gratitude when I think about my life today—my husband and children—and my divorce played a role in making this all possible. Life is always more interesting than anything we could have anticipated.”
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