Divorced at 23

 Photo by  Sarah Rittenour

Like far too many women, I have a relationship history marred by abuse: boyfriends in high school who failed to grasp the concept of the word “no,” acquaintances who viewed my body as an object, and neighbors who found the innocence of childhood captivating in all the wrong ways. By the age of sixteen, I was worn and weathered by the atrocities of selfish men. I had very little concept of what it meant to be respected in a physical relationship with another person, but my idealistic naivety yearned to find someone who could teach me that my body held more value than a mere object to be used and stashed away.

Then I met him. He’s the kind of person who everyone lusting for true love knows: intelligent and thoughtful with just the right hint of teen rebellion, seemingly ready to conquer all for our love. I was seventeen years old, and I fell — hard. I wanted desperately to believe that there was a person out there who would take care of my battered heart and mind.

By the age of sixteen, I was worn and weathered by the atrocities of selfish men.

I was so desperate to believe I had found this person that I began to excuse the red flags erecting themselves faster than I could ever imagine. His disdain for my parents (and my parents’ disdain for him) was simply birthed from situational misunderstandings. His lack of motivation in education and work was an intentional (and brilliant) slap in the face of “the man.” His unwanted advances and coercing were a testimony of his attraction and devotion to me. Everything that soured my gut was immediately soothed the moment he kissed my forehead or proclaimed his endless love for my being. And I bought it.

Cognitive dissonance is a common psychological phenomenon where a person subconsciously ignores conflicting information in order to maintain an already existing belief. We like it when our world makes sense. We like to be right. And as the youngest sibling in an education-focused household, I grew up feeling particularly inclined to be constantly right. This made (and continues to make) me a painfully stubborn human being. Within the realm of cognitive dissonance, there is a misconception known as the “sunk cost fallacy.” This fallacy refers to the all too common tendency to consider the already spent time/money/resources when making a decision for the future. It’s the same concept that applies to your decision to eat those last few bites of the dessert you just bought even though you’re painfully full because “it’s just going to go to waste otherwise!” It’s also the same fallacy that keeps people in dead-end, uninspiring, and even abusive relationships because we think back to all the hard work and dedication we’ve put in and ignore the likelihood of things getting worse. It's the same fallacy that kept my nineteen year old self careening down a path of adulthood that I couldn't decide if I actually wanted to follow.

Cognitive dissonance is a common psychological phenomenon where a person subconsciously ignores conflicting information in order to maintain an already existing belief.

And so, despite the worried wisdom passed down from my parents, I walked down the aisle. Clinging to my father’s arm, my eyes were locked on my soon-to-be-husband. I was in love, I told myself. I was ready. This was it.

Truth be told, I don’t remember too much of my wedding day. It was a blur of floral arrangements, camera flashes, and teary-eyed embraces. Family members wished us well, we smashed cake into each other's faces, and we left the reception as we had come in. Only now, we were husband and wife.

The thrill of marriage kept me afloat for our first year together. My husband was enlisted in the Air Force, so much of our first year was spent apart, attempting to simultaneously navigate military orders and my college education. All the while, my heart fluttered with excitement as I imagined our first home together — planning our decor, drafting up grocery budgets, dreaming of the day that the distance between us would end.

As soon as the school year came to a close, I packed my belongings into a U-Haul and made my way from Michigan to Dayton, Ohio. We had found a quaint historic house for rent near downtown, and we quickly settled in and made it our home. The quiet, nagging doubts about my marriage were squashed under the excitement of picking bedspreads and finding a way to use the phrase “my husband” in every conversation. I was in love with being married, but no matter how much I tried to fool myself, I wasn’t in love with my husband.

My desire to live the “married life” kept me content for almost two years before the cracks began to show. Slowly but surely, I began to tire of being a housewife. I began to resent how messy my husband was and how little he knew of what it meant to be an independent adult. I began to feel more like a maid and less like a wife, and we began to drift apart. Often I thought about how I could live on my own so easily (it felt like I was doing that already, anyway). When he wasn’t at work, my husband was glued to his computer, playing video games and chatting with his friends. I craved his affection, but couldn’t immerse myself in his hobbies — nor could I tear him away from the screen. He refused to take any time to be present with me; being in the same house was enough for him.

Finally, after a year of wading through what seemed to be a small forest’s worth of paperwork, I was officially divorced at the age of 23.

And so we continued our strange, separate existence in our home. I passed my time studying and keeping the house in order while my husband sunk his time and money into an online world I couldn’t understand. He drifted further and further away from me, only turning toward me for attention when he wanted the physical intimacy I no longer wanted to share. This was so habitual that I began to include it in my mental “to-do” list for the week: grocery shopping? Check. Walk the dog? Check. Have sex? Check. In my mind, I figured it was better to power through the motions and keep my husband content than it was to express my dissatisfaction and rock the boat. We were drifting apart, but we were still floating. And I was content with that.

Until, suddenly, I wasn’t. Finally, all of the little irritations had accumulated, the final straw had been added, and my back was broken. I simply couldn’t keep putting one foot in front of the other. I knew we weren’t happy. I knew we could keep pushing forward and that we would only continue to grow into ourselves rather than as a unit. I realized that I wanted more out of my life than my marriage could give me.

So I left.

Ending my marriage felt like a dream. I watched myself break up with my husband. I heard myself say that while I loved him, I wasn’t in love with him, that we would be happier someday with other people. I heard him protest. I heard him yell. And then, I felt myself grab my keys, walk out of our home, and drive away into the night. It was then that I knew I had made an irreversible decision. I felt a similar, all-encompassing fear to that of saying my vows at the altar. But this time there was no uncertainty in my step. I was terrified, heartbroken, and alone, but I was right. I was moving forward again.

I navigated the divorce process as best I could on my own, enlisting the help of Internet strangers and trying, to no avail, to get any response from my soon-to-be ex-husband. I divided assets and purged most of my belongings. Finally, after a year of wading through what seemed to be a small forest’s worth of paperwork, I was officially divorced at the age of 23. It was a surprisingly quiet transition; he didn’t use social media much, and I preferred to keep my personal life, well, personal. While I wasn’t mortified about being divorced at such a young age, I did feel a sense of shame that I had somehow failed — after all, I had never intended to leave my husband. I grew up in a very American Dream-esque household with two lovingly married parents (who also had their own lovingly married parents). Divorce was never looked down upon, but it simply didn’t happen in my family. I felt as though I had broken that chain. After my divorce, I wanted to continue living as an independent adult. I lived in Dayton for a year longer, then moved to Cincinnati with a wonderful man (and his beautiful son) who had also experienced the heartache of ending a marriage. Slowly but surely, we began to build a new life together.  

My past is behind me, but some days it still seems to loom over my head like a distant nightmare. My ex-husband and I rarely communicate anymore (I don’t think I’ve heard his voice since I left my house that fateful night). But undergoing a divorce, especially at such a young age, seems to have a tendency to stick with you. As a Michigan transplant in Cincinnati, I’m often asked how I wound up in Ohio. This conversation always seems to go the same way. First, I explain that I lived in Dayton, Ohio for a few years. I pause. Their look remains quizzical. Usually, they ask if I went to school there; after all, it’s a pretty natural assumption. This is when I explain that no, I moved to be near my now ex-husband, and that after we split I wanted to move to a different city without reverting back to living with my parents.

And...queue silence.

Life is just a series of mistakes and the changes we make from the lessons that come of them.

I almost always receive an apology when someone finds out that I’m a divorcee at 24. When I was freshly divorced, this response made me squirm a little bit. Now, I laugh. Why on earth would I be sorry to remove myself from an unfulfilling relationship? Truthfully, I know what these folks are thinking. They mean, “I’m sorry you had to go through the tedious divorce process” or “I’m sorry that you experienced love in the past tense” or “I’m sorry that you had to divide all your belongings down the middle.” But what’s funny is that I’m not sorry for any of it. I’m not sorry I married my husband, I’m not sorry that I left him, and I’m not sorry that I had to fill out a million stacks of paper and stand in front of a judge.

Because even though divorce is often ugly, it’s becoming a normal part of American society. And I would argue that it should! Without sounding like too much of a Hallmark card, we only have one life to figure out the things that make us happy. Sometimes, marriages work out. Sometimes marriages go through rough patches. And sometimes, they’re just a mistake. There’s no marriage litmus test to tell anyone whether or not they’ve made the right decision; that is and always will be wholly personal. But it shouldn’t be taboo to seek personal happiness. No one should have to sacrifice their life's desires because they’re afraid of what others may think.

For too long, I was worried about what my family and friends would say when they found out I was getting a divorce. But in that instance, their voices didn’t matter. My heart mattered. My happiness mattered. Life is just a series of mistakes and the changes we make from the lessons that come of them. I don’t regret my marriage because it taught me lessons that, while difficult, have shaped me into a better person. I learned what bad marriages look like and what I want out of a successful one. I had a chance to navigate some of my first lessons in adulthood with a partner at my side, and I tumbled my way into a city and a life that I am proud to call my own.

Samantha DeVries

Samantha is 24 years old and lives in Cincinnati, OH. She has a B.S. in psychology and spends her free time reading, drinking coffee, and hiking.