"I'm just really not ready to be committed like this." That's what Andi said to Tucker, her husband of 11 months, after she came home from a crazy day at work two years ago with an overwhelming urge to quit her marriage. Today. Right now. "This just isn't for me."
She spoke stoically — no tears, no histrionics. She had been imagining this moment since she moved out of their condo a few months earlier, but she wanted to ease him into the inevitable — to somehow tiptoe her way through the minefield of Tucker's emotions. But now, having scored a direct hit with those crushing words, she watched Tucker crumple against the dining-room table. "I don't understand," he said, over and over. "We're married."
"Look, we can do this now, or we can do this five years from now when it's a lot messier," Andi said, softening her voice but not her position. "I want a divorce." The guy didn't really do anything to deserve this, she thought, looking at Tucker's ashen face. He must think I'm a monster. Watching her husband shuffle to the door of her temporary apartment, Andi felt awful. But mostly, she felt unbelievably relieved.
"I was married for like, two seconds." That's what Andi says to me today, her enormous kohl-rimmed blue eyes crinkling as she recounts her drive-through union. "It was literally an entry-level marriage." We're sitting in a café in a funky Boston neighborhood known for its liberal attitudes and alternative lifestyles — this is where gay couples raise their children — and yet women are actually swiveling in their seats, doing indiscreet 180s to get a look at the impeccably coiffed, blonde-haired woman saying such things.
Hearing her words, I flinch slightly. We're talking about an event that's supposed to be a turning point in life, and she sounds so cavalier. And yet, Andi is only articulating what the one in five women under age 30 who get divorced every year must think.
After graduating from college, Andi jetted off to culinary school in Paris, then switched to journalism, where she climbed the ranks, moving from one semiglamorous job to the next — all the while hooking up, dating, dumping, and moving on. She's a perfectly modern gal, a gorgeous mess of neuroses and contradictions - the kind who never pictured herself married by 27, divorced by 28, and remarried with two toddlers at 35.
But along the way, she met Tucker. "He was what I was supposed to marry. He was what everybody else in my life wanted for me and what the world tells you you're supposed to want," she says. "I got sucked into the idea. I was in my 20s, and I felt like there was so much pressure from my family to find the perfect person. I just felt like, God, I'd be stupid if I didn't do this."
Within months of promising to love and honor and cherish Tucker forever, she knew she had made a huge mistake. The problem? He was boring. "Wholly uncomplicated," as she puts it. The kind of guy who reads Tom Clancy books on the couch and watches Adam Sandler movies while dreaming of white-picket fences. Going to depressing French movies, leapfrogging over the less ambitious on the company ladder — those were the things that excited Andi. "The idea of spending my life with someone like that seemed stifling," she says. "It finally just got to me that he was so...sunny."
I hoist my drink in that you-go-girl kind of way, but I'm struck by her casual disregard for the institution. Marriage used to be a big deal. How could she slip in and out of it so easily? She'd plodded along for nearly 12 months, passive-aggressively avoiding her relationship by consuming herself with the restaurant openings and black-tie benefits that were part of her job. But then Tucker started talking about having children. "To me, once you have kids, you can't get out," she says. "When he began asking about a family, I felt like that was too final of a commitment. That's when I had to say, 'OK, I've got to fish or cut bait here.'"
Her own parents split up when she was 3, and she didn't want to condemn another generation to that hell. Andi and Tucker got divorced almost a year to the day after they had vowed to be together forever.
"Oh, my God, it was so easy," she says, exhaling loudly. "I realized, I can get out of this, and he can get out of this, and we can get on with our lives." They sold the condo and split the profits, and that was that. She felt bad about hurting his feelings, but she never doubted her decision. I raise an eyebrow. "Never," she repeats.
Andi takes a throaty slug of her second raspberry martini, picks at her fish taco, then sits back in her chair. "I think marriage is the new dating and having kids is the new marriage," she proclaims loudly, as yet another woman dining with her partner turns to stare. "It's true. I wouldn't have married him if I didn't think I could get out of it."
Despite how it sounds, Andi is not a first-class bitch. She's the type who will hunt down the most perfectly thoughtful baby gift or whisk you off to a much-needed mani-pedi after your boss goes nuclear on you. But when it comes to relationships, her attitude is pure pragmatism: Clearly she'd screwed up — best to press delete. And I bet there isn't a married woman out there, if she's really honest, who hasn't flirted with the thought of doing the same. I know there have been days in my own five-year marriage when I've dreamed of reclaiming my freedom. Not many, but a few. But then I wake up, not just because I love the guy — and I'm damned lucky to have him — but because I'm married. That is supposed to mean something.
Andi was my introduction to the concept of an icebreaker marriage but certainly not my last. Burning through a starter husband is almost becoming a rite of passage: While newly-marrieds everywhere fear the one-in-two-marriages-fail statistic, the more relevant stat is that while the median age at which a woman first marries is 25, the median age at which she first divorces is 29. In fact, 20 percent of marriages fail within five years, and of those, one in four end within two years. So much for until death do us part.
I don't have to look far in my own life to find human faces that bear out the numbers: One of my best friends from college barely scratched out a two-year union following her six-figure Hawaiian wedding; my brother managed to eke out almost 29 months before he and his betrothed packed it up for Splitsville. Their divorces were good things, believe me. Still, I was miffed that they got married in the first place. These relationships were never the stuff of happily ever after.
Of course, our generation can afford to chuck the Cinderella story when the glass slipper doesn't fit. While our grandmothers were forced to remain shackled to unhappy unions for monetary reasons, most women today have the financial wherewithal to cry uncle and bolt whenever we get uncomfortable.
For some, a starter husband is like a starter home — a semicommitment where you're willing to do some of the surface work, like painting the walls, but not the heavy lifting, like gutting the whole foundation; he's just not a long-term investment. Others compare a starter husband to a first job, where you learn some skills and polish your resume before going after the position you really want.
In our everyday life — one where we're encouraged to pursue the bigger, better anything (witness the average college grad who now burns through seven jobs before turning 30 — how can you commit to something, or someone, forever? "That's a huge promise. We live in an incredibly fast-paced consumerist culture," says Pamela Paul, author of the book The Starter Marriage, who herself was divorced less than a year after taking her vows at age 27. "Ours is an H&M culture, where you go out and buy 10 cheap items for the season, then toss them, rather than investing in one beautiful coat you'll wear for another 10 seasons. More and more women have that throwaway mentality with their first marriage — the 'I want it now' attitude." Until, of course, you don't.
And that's just our prerogative, says Generation Me, fingers poised above the do-over button. We can pick and choose among limitless possibilities seemingly unattached to consequence because today's 20-somethings are living out an extended adolescence in a manner unlike any generation before them. We're still knocking around and figuring it out, often on our parents' dime.
"Simply put, my 20s were freaking me out," says 29-year-old Elisa Albert, a wavy-haired brunette and adjunct assistant professor of creative writing at Columbia University. "I felt unqualified to be barreling into adulthood alone — I felt at loose ends in regards to my career, my ability to support myself, even my post-college social identity. I was lonely and scared. At the same time, I'm watching Sex and the City and going, OK, so should I spend the next 20 years getting my heart broken and pretending that it's all in good fun? Or should I marry this dude I'm dating, have a gorgeous party, and make my parents really, really happy?"
She chose wrong.
It all started over a steaming cup of coffee in a New York City diner. Elisa's mother suggested she give a family friend a call in the wake of his sibling's death (Elisa's own brother had died a few years back). "We talked about our brothers, which was intense, and then somehow we went from there to falling in love and having this 100-mile-an-hour courtship," Elisa says. "We were talking about naming our unborn children after our dead brothers. It was totally crazy."
From an outsider's perspective, you could see trouble ahead: They crashed between breakup and make-up like a game of pinball. But during one warm-and-fuzzy reconciliation, they decided to get hitched. Suddenly, the relationship snowballed into something bigger: getting married.
"I totally bought into the wedding-industry machine," admits Elisa, who spent more time obsessively planning every detail of her nuptials for 300 at a Malibu estate than she did working on her master's thesis. From the five-star vegan menu to the Japanese lanterns to the playlist, Elisa's focus was all wedding, no marriage. "I had a totally misguided notion of what a wedding was about," she says. "You work toward this giant event, have an enormous party, then an hour after you get married, reality sets in. I was like, Oh, shit — that didn't really solve anything." You can almost forgive a girl for focusing on the party and forgetting about the hangover. After all, it seems that we don't have a clue what the heck marriage is anymore. Like a fat promotion to the corner office, we aspire to it — the sparkler on my finger means I'm a success, receiving the final rose means I win — but what is the prize again? For that cluelessness, apparently, we can thank our single moms and alimony dads. "We are the children of parents who divorced in the '70s and '80s," says Paul. "Divorce is out there as a familiar possibility."
My own parents' bitter divorce — many, many years in the making — played out right around the time of my engagement. I knew all too well what the seamy underbelly of marriage looked like, and it had made me incredibly cautious about commitment — it took me seven years of dating my husband before I could consider the concept of "forever."
Still, it's a legacy that cuts deep. "We were both like, We're going to do this right! Divorce is for losers," Elisa says of her and her ex's attitude toward their own parents' divorces. But she knew in the back of her mind that there was a plan B, that marriage was not necessarily a binding contract. And when she realized that she didn't even have a clue what a good marriage looked like, let alone what one felt like, she didn't hesitate to produce her Get Out of Jail Free card. "It was a constantly pitched, keyed-up hell," she says. Their downstairs neighbors left a note on their door: "I don't know what the hell is wrong with you people, but you need to stop screaming at each other."
Pulling the trigger was easy; dealing with the fallout was not. "Every time I ran into somebody I knew, I wanted to die," Elisa says. She briefly moved back to her childhood home in L.A. to regroup. "Even if they were nice, I just felt this pity from them, like, 'Oh, my God, you fucked up big. Wow, that sucks.'" Looking for guidance, she joined a divorce support group out in the Valley. It was an eye-opener. "It was full of women in their 50s with kids and mortgages," Elisa remembers. "They knew their marriages were doomed straight out of the gate but stayed shackled to them for 20 years."
Confronted with that alternative, Elisa's confidence in her decision was restored. Today, three years later, she considers her first husband the perfect warm-up for the real deal. "I could not be more grateful for that experience," she says. "I'm in a really good relationship right now, knock on wood, and I would never have been capable of that without my first marriage — learning how relationships work."
It's easy to write these women off as callous or self-absorbed. And yet on some level, they just might be pioneers: Why stay put in an empty shell of a marriage — an arrangement on paper only — instead of calling it what it is? "This generation is reinventing marriage," says Paul.
"I think women our age are like, We're either going to fix this, or we're going to end it, and that's for the better," says Kay Moffett, coauthor of Not Your Mother's Divorce. She married her own starter husband in a funky, flamingo-filled Florida wedding at 27, then divorced him four years later after realizing she could never make the real commitment of having children with him. But don't call her divorce a failure; in this enlightened world, it was simply a relationship that ran its course. "I think maybe we're moving more toward a serial-marriage society — maybe you have three marriages in your life and several different careers. That's where I'm heading," she says.
Still, even unapologetic Andi admits that the process is not always easy. "On the one hand, I felt empowered, like, Woo-hoo, I have the rest of my life in front of me. But there were moments of, Oh, my God, I'm a divorcee — does that mean I'm all washed up?" she says. It's why, she suggests, she turned to drinking heavily for several months after her breakup, trying to reconcile those thoughts — and perhaps, I suspect, dull some of the pain she's so sure she never felt.
Then she met David. He was supposed to be her rebound relationship. Three years later, she realized that she wanted to have kids with him — and that was the clincher.
Andi lifts her 2-month-old daughter up to her breast in the middle of the café. I ask if her second husband is The One, since they have kids and all. "I'm happy, but I try not to think about it," she says. "It's like, if I thought I had to have my hair the same way for the rest of my life, I'd freak out."
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