Kayla* remembers exactly what it was like realizing at age 28, a year into her marriage, that it wasn’t going to work. Before she and her husband got married, she thought they were on the same page about everything: having kids, their finances, and how their general future together would look. But quickly, it became clear that they didn’t seem to share the same vision anymore. They didn’t even seem to share the same values.
For Kayla and her husband, the process of getting divorced was quick, which felt bittersweet to her. Not having kids or owning property simplifies a process infamous for being awful, but that ease can also feel devaluing of what was once a promising future. “It kind of makes me sad how easy it was because I don’t want to undermine the commitment of marriage—but it was very easy, just signing a paper and being done with it,” she says. “We didn’t even have to go anywhere together because it was all done over email.”
Though statistics show many are getting married later than they used to (according to the United States Census Bureau, the average first marriage age for women was 23.9 in 1990, and now it’s 28), people like Kayla are still getting married well before turning 30. And for an estimated 10 percent, divorced, too.
Even without experiencing the messiness that often comes with the process of dividing assets, Kayla says her divorce was uniquely terrible and disparate from how other breakups in her past felt. Given that none of her friends were divorced, and thus, couldn’t empathize accordingly, she felt completely alone in the aftermath. She also felt embarrassed after vowing to be with someone forever in front of family and friends and then having it not work out so soon after. She felt like a failure and ultimately decided to move across the country to start over.
Here, women like Kayla who are part of the demographic of being under 30 and divorced share what that experience has been like for them in today’s world.
Grappling with feelings of isolation and failure
Ramona* was 19 years old when she met Dominic* on Tinder. A year and a half into dating, they got engaged, and married shortly thereafter. Not long after the wedding, the newlyweds faced a challenge: Dominic, who was in the military, was deployed for a year, and the distance was hard on their relationship. “He told me he had been cheating on me from the beginning,” Ramona says. “What hurt me the most is that I thought we had open communication. I felt completely numb.”
Ramona moved forward with the divorce when she was 24, despite not having the support of her family and friends.
That’s when Ramona started thinking about divorce, but she was conflicted: Her upbringing taught her marriage is forever, even when it’s bumpy. She talked to a therapist, a member of the clergy, her family, her friends, and everyone advised what she didn’t want to hear: to stay in the marriage. Ultimately, though, Ramona moved forward with the divorce at age 24, despite not having the support of her family and friends—a stark difference from how things would shake out for her if this were a breakup from a boyfriend and not a dissolution of marriage.
After breakups, Ramona’s friends would readily comfort each other, be generous with shoulders to cry on and invitations for girls’ nights out. But this was divorce—it was different. Ramona says many of her friends criticized her decision or stopped talking to her completely. “I really had no support,” she says, noting the painful surprise she felt when so many of the friends she and her husband shared cut her off, despite knowing it was his infidelity that led to the divorce. “But my misery [in the marriage] was stronger than being shunned from my family and friends. I had to rely on myself for strength.”
Rebecca Bergen, PhD, a clinical psychologist in Chicago, says it’s not uncommon for a woman in her twenties going through a divorce to experience the feelings of isolation, shame, and brokenness that Ramona and Kayla describe. In large part, she says, it has to do with no one in their personal social circle being able to relate or understand, given where they are in their personal romantic trajectory, which is likely dating, never been married, or getting married. “That can lead [the person getting divorced] to feel like they are the only ones going through this particular life stressor, which can be isolating and lonely,” Dr. Bergen says. Furthermore, she adds, the identity of being “divorced” is often associated with someone in their forties or older, which can make being a twenty-something divorcée feel premature and, thus, shameful.
“In these moments of feeling isolation or shame, it’s important to find people who make you feel supported, whether it’s a therapist, family, or friends who you can go to and not feel judged,” Dr. Bergen says. Kayla says that though she felt a personal sense of failure, her friends and family were extremely supportive during her divorce, and Ramona eventually found support through a Facebook group for young divorced women.
Shattering the stigma of being “young and naive”
While women of any age may feel stigmatized as a result of divorce, Kayla and Ramona both say they felt judged by others as being naive, specifically because of their age. “It was really embarrassing because I was the first of my friends to get divorced,” Kayla says. “But whenever I felt judged, I just reminded myself that I wouldn’t be the last.” Ultimately though, Kayla says her friends and family were extremely supportive.
Dr. Bergen says the “young and naive” stigma is completely unfounded. “Having the ability to manage conflict and know how to communicate is a more accurate predictor of whether or not a marriage will work than the age someone was when they got married,” she says.
Ramona agrees. “It’s easy to assume that women who get married young are dumb and don’t know what they’re doing, but that’s definitely not the case,” she says. “Some marriages just don’t work out—at any age. And the thing about judging someone for getting divorced young is that it doesn’t do any good whatsoever. All it does is knock someone down lower.”
Dr. Bergen says that rather than viewing the situation as a failure, it’s productive to embrace it as a learning opportunity, and divorce lawyer Kari Lichtenstein adds that people in their twenties often get divorced for many of the same reasons as people in other age groups. Cheating, like in Ramona’s marriage, can lead to divorce in couples decades older. And in the case of Kayla, who realized a year into her marriage that she and her husband had different values and plans, that happens when older people in marriages grow apart as well.
What can make experiencing these issues in your twenties feel different, Lichtenstein says, is a positive: Being young can help someone be less willing to stay in a situation that’s bad or unhappy. “I often see that my younger clients are looking for something different out of their lives and are not willing to stay in a marriage that isn’t working for them,” she says, also reiterating that young divorces are often less complicated to dissolve, contractually, because there are often fewer shared assets.
Moving on after divorce
Amy Oestreicher, who got divorced when she was 29, says that while her divorce was devastating, she looks back at her marriage with gratitude. “I learned so much from that relationship, especially things about myself,” she says. After taking a couple years to emotionally heal, she’s now dating, hoping to find love again. “I think what’s different about dating after divorce, as opposed to after a breakup, is that when you get married, you really think it will be forever,” she says. “You take a vow, you stand in front of all your family and friends, and you envision growing old with your partner. But a divorce shatters all that, which makes it even harder to deal with all the annoying parts of dating, like boring dates or getting ghosted.”
“What’s different about dating after divorce, as opposed to after a breakup, is that when you get married, you really think it will be forever.” —Amy Oestreicher
Dr. Bergen says many are able to date smarter after divorce because they’re more in touch with what they want (and don’t want) in a partner. “They’re often more likely to see deal-breakers earlier, or to ask questions getting to the heart of what a potential partner believes and wants in life, and not just getting swept up in the romance,” she says. Still, she adds that it’s also common to feel completely jaded and down on love post-divorce, which can take the help of therapist to untangle.
But, for others, getting divorced can be empowering. Joelle Caputa, who got divorced when she was 28, birthed a whole movement from her experience called Trash The Dress, and is writing a book by the same name.
“I interviewed 70 women for the book, all divorced in their twenties, and celebrated the way they moved on with their lives and also included their tips,” she says. “Some of the women were in abusive relationships or with a partner who had drug or gambling problems. For these women, divorce was an accomplishment. It shows their strength and ability to get to the other side. Divorce can be really empowering.”
The point of her movement, Caputa says, isn’t to downplay the seriousness of marriage, but rather to show women a way out if they are deeply unhappy and feel stuck. “You can be divorced and live happily ever after,” she says. “You can live happily ever after by yourself or you can get re-married, like I did, and find happiness in a new marriage. It’s worth it to not settle for anything that isn’t right. You are strong and can get yourself out of it—and there are others who have been through it.”
*Last name withheld
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