In the recent 2016 movie, Bad Moms, Amy Mitchell reflects on her troubled marriage, recalling that she and her husband had married so young, that they never really got to have the usually carefree period people typically enjoy in their twenties.
Earlier this year, in another sphere of the internet, The New York Post published a piece about a disturbing trend referred to as “the starter marriage”, referencing the uncomfortable statistical evidence suggesting that first marriages, and in particular those marriages entered into when one is very young, are now considered probable for dissolution before they even begin. The term “starter marriage” was first coined in a now famous New York Times article in 1994. These early and quickly dissolved marriages are now widely dubbed “starter” “test” or “practice” runs.
These are dismal murmurings about marriage in our country, and while these statistics are likely skewed and anecdotal for the most part, it remains a truth that marriage in modern America seems to have hit the proverbial “rough patch”.
This matters to me primarily because I AM married, but also because I am one of those who married and divorced very young, and am now in my second marriage. I took a lot away from my first marriage that has actually made me deeply grateful for, but also CAREFUL and AWARE in, my second.
There’s nothing more sobering than being face to face with your who you REALLY are; the good, the bad, and the ugly. Divorce has a way of making things clear. There were a lot of lessons, but the most important thing I took away from my first marriage is an intimate knowledge of my own flaws.
When one goes through a divorce, in spite of the many various causes and complexities of that reality, it really does shake you to your core. There is often a period of intense self reflection where you try you figure out exactly what went wrong. You rehash and relive painful scenarios in your mind and try to find some peace about what your life looks like now, though it’s not what you had planned.
It’s during this time that you do a whole lot of crying and wishing and grieving. It’s during this time that you try to forgive your partner for the pain they’ve caused you but also try to forgive yourself for your poor choices, too. It’s during THESE times that you can really look at your heart, safely tucked away from judging attitudes, prying eyes, or accusing voices. You really face all the ways that YOU contributed to the negativity in the relationship. This is a really important thing to do.
So I did that important thing and it was really humbling. But when I fell in love again and chose, with much fear and trembling, to get married again, I also temporarily forgot what a flawed human I was. My then fiancé adored me, thought I was perfect, beautiful, intuitive, and enlightened. It was a bit heady.
When the fairy dust and magic settled into ordinary life and when children came with all of their precious but intense demands, all of my character flaws were on full display once again, just as they were in my first marriage. And while my husband remains to this day adoring and kind, as our marriage grew into ordinary rhythms, I was faced with the reality that I would always have to actively work against the negative patterns in my life and take practical steps to NOT MAKE the same mistakes I made in my first marriage.
It is a daily grind.
Sometimes I wish I could just take a break from that hard inner work and let the chips fall where they will. Slam the door and build that wall in my heart as high as I can. But then something always happens to remind me of why I am doing this and my feet find the solid ground of GRATITUDE. So I take a deep breath, forgive, and I keep on trying.
I am grateful for the experience of my first marriage because the revelations I walked away with are allowing me to chip away at the stony parts of my heart. Every day I stumble a little forward. I forgive when I want to withhold. I reach out when I want to withdraw. Because that’s NOT what I did before, and I want a different outcome this time.
I try to believe the best (a huge struggle with trust issues and my melancholic personality) when before I would have assumed the absolute worst and built emotional walls. I guard my heart from discontent fiercely. I protect my emotional territory. I set boundaries that frustrate and even make people mad. I disappoint people sometimes, because I need to preserve my emotional space so I can prioritize my spouse and my children and anticipate their needs.
These are all things I DID NOT DO before, and a relationship died partly because of it. I didn’t destroy my first marriage by myself, not by a long shot. It takes two to light that flame. But I did choose a self protective stance over a unifying one more than I should have and that’s something I am actively reversing in my second marriage.
I don’t subscribe to the idea that first marriages, however young, are “practice marriages”. To do so is to demean the beautiful and hard work involved in weaving two lives together. For most of us, marriage is what we make of it. And for those of us who did experience a first marriage that just didn’t work out, and now find ourselves in the choppy and self aware waters of walking out our “second chances”, I offer you my solidarity. Keep practicing. Keep chipping away. Love is a gift. Some of the sweetest things in life happen as “second chances”.