In a small country like New Zealand everyone seems to know everyone. Next February, I am getting married. Knowing this prompted me to consider deeply (for one of the only times in my short life) the opposite to marriage - how it feels to get divorced. Bizarre? Maybe. But with beginnings, it gets you thinking about the endings too. I’ve thought specifically about the perceived stigma of getting divorced when you’re in your twenties & thirties.
Divorce is an unfashionable word these days. It’s so unfashionable that when Chris Martin and Gwyneth Paltrow split, she famously called it “Consciously uncoupling”. The word implies mess, anger, destruction - memories of kids in primary school who’s parents broke up, parents whispering about it in hushed tones in the corridors next to the art, and explaining it to you on the drive home. If your parents that divorced, it may bring up mixed sadness if not outright trauma.
The sacrifices we make for love are real - but they also come with a cost. That cost is heartbreak. Signing a contract to say you’ll love someone forever is not guaranteed happiness. We’re living longer and moving faster than ever. Sometimes, the relationship can’t go on.
Divorce is a major step to end a marriage, and not one to be taken lightly. However, it can also signify re-birth: the pain of an ending can bloom into newfound freedom, identity and love. We are fortunate to have divorce: I for one am grateful that as a woman I don’t have to remain married if my relationship were to not work out, like out grandmothers did.
As Kiwi’s we cringe when it comes to tricky emotional stuff. We need to get better and show less judgement, myself included, when it comes to discussing the difficult bits of life. One thing’s for sure - we need to start talking about divorce more, especially in New Zealand.
A few weeks ago, I was thinking about what its like to have a divorce in your twenties or thirties. How does that shape you? How do people view you before and after? How do you come out stronger? I asked you, my excellent readers, and three amazing people came forward. They’ve asked to remain anonymous to protect the feelings of those around them. But they are all real Kiwis, all heartfelt, former or present residents of Wellington.
They all agree that it was painful, messy and heartbreaking. They also agreed that people suddenly had opinions on their lives.
I want to thank them for sharing their stories and I hope that by telling these unique tales, we can bring more compassion and less judgement to break-ups and divorce. “Somehow it was liberating and for sure I needed it” said one author “So I thank you for that, you were the push I needed to “exorcise” some of my feelings.”
Here are their true stories:
Marion:* “Marriage breakups hold a special type of taboo…”
“No break-up is easy. I don’t think it matters if you are married or not. However, unfortunately, marriage breakups seem to carry a sort of stigma that is difficult to shake. I find it an interesting dynamic. New Zealand, as a society, is rather progressive. We are making bounds towards becoming a country where people are free to discuss and embrace their sexual orientations or gender identifications, religions and culture. Yet, marriage breakups hold a special type of taboo. We are not an overly religious society, and I have found the vast majority of people that identify strongly with religion to have actually been quite supportive following my marriage breakup. People are people - and we need to support each other through difficult times, however they manifest.
I married my husband in early 2017, before moving to the Middle East for his work. I didn’t enjoy living in Dubai, where we were based, no matter how much I tried. I struggled to find meaningful work that I enjoyed, and I found the United Arab Emirates to be superficial and transient. When we look back on relationships that fail, we can always find plenty of reasons why things didn’t work out. My relationship was no different, and I’m sure that we both wish things had gone down a different path.
I moved back to New Zealand for six months, with my husbands support, in mid-2018. I wanted to study for my Master's degree, and we didn’t have enough money to pay for it. I, therefore, intended to move back to New Zealand, earn some money, and fund it myself. While being apart was difficult, I was excited to try and make a new go of my life in Dubai and looked forward to being reunited with him. It turned out that he wasn’t a particularly honest person, and I had no idea how unhappy he was in the relationship. Unfortunately, in my absence, he decided to explore many of the opportunities presented to him as a long haul pilot. He came to visit me in November 2018, and broke off the marriage, telling me I was no longer welcome in our marital home."
Despite being overwhelmed with shock, I returned to Dubai two days later, found out the truth about what he’d been up, packed up eight boxes of belongings and flew straight back to New Zealand. I then proceeded, at 31, to start all over again.
It was a bit of an unexpected fall from grace. I was planning, in December 2018, to return to my life of travelling the world and living in a penthouse in downtown Dubai, and to studying for a degree I had always wanted to achieve. I ended up living in my mum’s spare room.
I felt sorry for myself for a few weeks, and then realised how lucky I was. Not only had I escaped what I now knew to be a very destructive relationship, but I also had the means to support myself. I had a loving family, kind and supportive friends, and I was able to find work. Although I owned next to nothing, I had the means to purchase furniture for a rented apartment and to hire a lawyer. I did not have children to worry about. Despite all that had happened, I knew there were many women who were not in such a fortunate position as I was.
I visited Women's Refuge. Perhaps unsurprisingly, they were overwhelmed with requests from women who were facing far more difficult issues than I. They were able to recommend people that I could talk to, and I started seeing a psychologist. A friend recommended a lawyer. I worked through the settlement process with this lawyer and was able to gain some financial closure on the relationship.
There are certain things that made my breakup, I believe, a bit easier than for others. One obvious factor was that my ex-husband was in Dubai. I didn’t have to run into him at the supermarket or see him out with another woman. I stopped following his social media, and his family never made contact with me. As it turned out, he didn’t seem to have many friends left in Wellington. This city has become a safe haven, full of loving and supportive people that have helped me through a rough situation - and in a strange way, it now feels mine. If he ever came back, I feel like it wouldn’t matter if I saw him, as the city has my back - not his.
Telling people what had happened was difficult. When I look back, I think a few other people did most of the sharing for me, with my permission. My mum told some of my extended family, and my boss told my workmates. I told my friends, and 95% were understanding. Most workmates were supportive. However, the number of invites for ‘coffee chats’ I received from acquaintances was a bit odd. I realised quickly that some people love ‘good gossip’ - which I apparently was able to provide - and I was much more careful with my time following that.
Even though my psychologist sessions were relatively infrequent, I found them extremely useful. I had spent the last two years of my relationship being told that I was unable to cope with the world around me, to understanding that I was, actually, fairly resilient. My psychologist recommended that, when I felt ready, I should go and meet new people. I needed to be able to understand that people, on the whole, were decent, and to understand that the shame I felt in the wake of the break-up was not justified. I also needed to be able to learn to spot some of the behaviours exhibited my by ex-husband, to avoid those in the future.
Of course, when I did start to date again, I received some interesting responses. Some people thought I was a gold-digger, and others felt like they could get whatever they wanted from me, given I was - as one Tinder match described me - ‘damaged goods’.
However, when I met my current partner, I was completely honest about my situation. He appreciated that, and later told me that he was impressed with how resilient I was in the face of a really challenging time. After all, like everyone else at some point, he had been through a difficult break-up, too. While not everyone will be as understanding as he was, you need to surround yourself with people that will support you. This goes for friends as well. I’ll always remember the understanding and caring people that took the time to ‘check in’ on me following the break-up. I wouldn’t have survived without their support.
As someone who has worked hard at their career, I was worried about how the divorce could be perceived professionally. Would my poor judgement in picking a life-partner reflect on me as a professional? Luckily, I have found that most people - even those in happy, committed relationships - are able to differentiate between your professional and private lives. This has been a huge relief for me, and I’ve enjoyed the opportunity to advance my career since being back in New Zealand.
If I was to say just a few things to anyone that is going through a similar situation, the first would be that you are not alone. It’s horrible and messy and challenging, but it happens, and more often than you realise. No matter how hard you try, sometimes things don’t go right in relationships. We praise people that are able to overcome obstacles in their lives, whether private or professional, and this is no different. You have every right to be happy, and the opportunity to have a fulfilling and successful life is not outside of your reach.
Secondly, New Zealander’s aren’t very good at talking about money and lawyers. However, you need to make sure you are protected. To anyone in a long-term relationship - talk about money. Talk about what happens if things go wrong. It’s not being dramatic or negative. There is no shame in wanting to protect what you have built up. New Zealand actually recognises de-facto relationships fairly quickly. It’s better to have the conversation upfront.
I’d also recommend that you pick wisely when seeking legal advice. Use someone that specialises in the area, and have some free and frank discussions with your partner. I got this half right. I had a pre-nuptial agreement with my ex-husband, but it did little to protect me - removing clauses that accounted for income disparity, despite my husband knowing that his salary would likely outstrip mine by a very large amount. Make sure you both understand what you are signing. In an ideal world, your marriage - or relationship - will be absolutely wonderful, and you’ll never have to worry about acting on the agreement. However, if you have the agreement, you can be comfortable that both of you will be able to support yourselves if things don’t go as well as planned.
Lastly, even though there have been a few people who are less than supportive about what happened to me, most people are great. Don’t lose your faith in the world. People do want to help. They’re often not sure how to talk about it - which leads me back to my original point, that we need to be more open about this sort of thing - but will offer support in the best way they know how. It might be baking you interesting casseroles or offering to set you up with their cousins best-friend’s mechanic, but they mean well. They recognise that you, along with all other people, deserve a chance at happiness.
If there is one thing we can all do to support one another, it is to make sure that people who have experienced a relationship break-up - of any type, but particularly marriage - can talk about it without feeling judged, or belittled, or shamed.
Despite everything that has happened, I do not regret getting married. I entered into my relationship based on the information that I had at the time, and I wanted it to work. I do believe that people enter into relationships wanting the best, and a break-up doesn’t mean that you are purposefully trying to destroy the sanctity of marriage. Being free to choose your own path in life is much better than staying in an unhealthy relationship where you are not supported. A break-up is never easy, so let’s show each other a little bit of kindness.”
George*: “From the outside everything looked like we were a perfect couple”
“I separated from Leah at 28 years old and, while it was both the hardest thing I'd ever done, it was undoubtedly one of the best. We'd been together for 8 years and from the outside everything looked like we were a perfect couple. It even felt that way from the inside, so it was as much a shock to us as to our friends and family.
Neither of us saw it coming when I told her that I'd developed strong feelings for someone else and, although I'd not acted on this, it was making me question how I would feel in the long term. Was this a one-off apparition or the start of a serious undermining of our relationship? It had been building for six months but I'd only just had a sudden realisation that it wasn't simply going to go away. We discussed it at times, argued about it at others, but within a couple of days we'd agreed that I should go and see someone to discuss this.
It took a single session with a brilliant psychiatrist to work out that my gut feeling was right but I went along to another, just to be sure. It was very expensive but, to this day, it might well be the best money I've ever spent on myself. I learnt a lot about myself in a wider sense than just what was happening in this particular scenario.
Leah was perfect. She topped her class in University, had made a successful start to a career focused on helping people who really needed her expertise, and she brought absolute joy to everyone she came in contact with (including me). We'd never really argued, our political ideals aligned near perfectly, we both loved to travel and socialise, and our sex life was outstanding. I found her extremely attractive in all senses and, even today, there's nothing that I can pinpoint as any reason at all to leave her other than a strong gut feeling.
And, so, we separated. She moved out very quickly. In fact, before we'd officially decided to part ways she moved in with a relative to give me space. Within a a couple of weeks we'd made it official and told our family and closest friends. In another sign of how perfect this woman was, I still remember telling some of our friends together and saying we'd still all hang out. Having a drink on a Friday night and a bit of a laugh about the weird future where we still hang out together. Both of our hearts breaking just below the surface. Of course, we never really did hang out.
I'd started a new job that week and I managed to hold it together well enough for my workmates to be completely shocked when I first mentioned it to them a year later. But the wheels would fall off as soon as I walked out the office door. I'd struggle to hold tears in as I walked through the city, my eyes would well up on public transport, and burst into uncontrollable sobbing the moment I walked into our now empty house every evening. I would go to bed with a headache from crying every single night. I threw myself into exercise. The only times I really stopped crying in those first few weeks, were when I was running, cycling, talking to friends or family, or at work.
You make a lot of important friends between 20 and 28 and, of course, many of ours were (or had become) mutual. As I was the one 'in the wrong', according to the way we're taught to believe, I left her to these friends for support. I spent a lot of time turning down invitations to things over the next 6-12 months so that she could have the support she needed and socialise without the constant reminder that I was around.
There was shame, of course, and the emotional pain is one that has only been equaled by a family member or close friend dying.
All our friends accepted it really well on the face of things, though I've never been one for gossip or rumour so nobody came back to me with their stories of who'd said what to whom. My family were great, too, especially my mum who I'd figured would tell me I was an idiot or that I'd let her down. She may well have thought it but she never showed me anything other than unconditional love and support. She gave me the right amount of space but also checked in on me from time to time.
In many ways it felt like a death. A few months later, a wise older friend who had been through his own divorce told me that it would take around half the time that we were together to fully get over it. I would say he was just about right, although I'm not sure I'll ever be 100% over it (and I don't necessarily think that is a bad thing. Sometimes our scars - emotionally and physically - are a positive reminder that we've really lived).
To this day it's still a shock for many people when they find out that I was married before. Though I never feel any bad vibes about it and it's been many years since I've felt any shame. I'm always intrigued to discover people who've been through the same, like the guy I met last week who is younger than me and is on his third marriage already! It's like we're all members of a club and only we really know that it will all be OK in the end.
As for Leah and I. We have both gone on to have other relationships. We have families and, although we live in different cities and don't hang out, we've slowly eased back into becoming friends again. She still remains perfect.”
Katie*: “We should own our own truths and the decisions we made”
“I was almost twenty-five when I got married. We had been together for 6 years, and living together for two of those years. He was my first “real” boyfriend and with him it was the first time that I really started thinking about a future, about a family together. He was my first “true love”. Almost two years into the marriage and we were already going our separate ways. We decided (well, he decided) to divorce (me). I just decided to move out of the house one day because the situation was getting nasty. We still talked and saw each other often, until one day he arrived out of the blue and gave me the divorce papers. He had always been a bit of a coward, but I had never expected that after almost nine years together he would just “surprise” me in that way.
Every relationship that stops, that breaks, that ends is painful in several different ways. For me ending my relationship was worse than mourning someone’s death. I had not only lost the only thing in my life that was “secure”, I had lost “common” friends, his family that had become my family, as well as a place to live. I left “our” house with a couple of bags and “our” dog that became mine. And even if I felt so lost, so lonely and somehow so numb, I felt a deep sense of relief and of freedom.
A divorce is nasty business, even if it has been consensual and there is no bad blood between the two. A divorce at 28 years old comes with a whole lot of other surprises. People, your closest friends, some family members, even some people that you haven’t seen since your wedding day, suddenly have opinions. Suddenly they knew it was meant to end up in a divorce. We weren’t meant for each other; we were only two children playing to be grown-ups; we come from two different worlds. But (and here comes the BIG but) you are young, thank god you don’t have children, go live your life. People don’t take the time to really think or wonder if the person is suffering.
At the end a divorce is always a divorce no matter at what age.
I have always lived my life, my truth, made my own decisions and therefore have also accepted my defeats and my victories. Coming from a Catholic background, at the beginning I saw my divorce as a big defeat, as something to be ashamed off. And of course, our society does not help either. I have learned to own it, to talk about it freely, to find the humour in it. We should own our own truths and the decisions we made. When he asked me to marry him I was 23, but for me it wasn’t about the age it was about the situation we were in and for us marriage was the next step in our relationship. Every decision you make is going to determine your life, so just ask yourself if the life you are living is the life you want. We can always change, evolve, improve.
What have I learned about my experience?
I have learned to be proud of who I am.
I have learned to be proud of being a “Divorced Thirty-Year-Old”.
I have learned that other people’s judgement shouldn’t bother you, some people always have something to say and that’s OK but it’s not the way I live my life.
I live and let live.
I have learned that some “friends” are not your friends - hard times will reveal your true friends someone said - and I can totally agree.
Don’t change or lose your identity for someone else, remain true to your beliefs, values and ideas. It takes two to tango, so not everything is or was your fault, sometimes its nobody’s fault, sometimes people just grow apart. Life happens, and we should accept it. Trust that little voice everyone has inside, that thing that people call intuition, that voice that sometimes is so quiet that we can barely understand. Don’t see a divorce as a defeat, see it as a new opportunity.
Changes are scary, changes are tiring, but changes make us grow. Take care of yourself, go out with yourself, be comfortable with yourself. Get to know yourself and your limits, as well as your passions, your tastes, your plans.
And above all LOVE YOURSELF.”
*All names have been changed.