Writer’s Note: I am compelled to preface this essay with this: I made a promise to my first husband I wouldn’t talk about the details of our relationship, the fallout, the story behind our divorce (and everyone involved) on this website. I honor that promise and respect his and his family’s privacy, and ask you to do the same.
This is a cautionary tale told by a woman with the benefit of hindsight. It is written with love and understanding for those of you who feel you need to check off certain boxes in order to feel good about your life, only to find you feel empty inside once you’ve become who you thought you were supposed to be. It’s for those of you who crave validation from someone other than yourself, for those of you who seek out that feeling of love and security in places you thought you’d never go. For those of you who have hurt people in ways you never thought you were capable of doing. I see you and my God, I get it. That was me. But it doesn’t get you off the hook. Life has a way of revealing our truths.
The game of life, to me, seemed simple. With a timeline, dedicated work ethic, and timely goals, I could dive and dance through the hoops it took to declare the first half of my twenties a success. Even with a clear understanding of my eating disorder and depression, I had mastered the art of keeping them hidden from the outside world and I had all but left any relationship or friendship that cared for me enough to ask if I needed help. I drank, I partied, I excelled at work. I had my heart broken enough times to keep my eye out for a partner who was a grown-up, who was loyal, stable, and solid— anything but the explosive and codependent relationships I so deeply lost myself in during high school and college. It was time to grow up and get real. What looked good on paper was a safer bet than following my heart.
My carefully curated self became a mask so easy to wear I all but forgot it wasn’t who I really was. It felt great to be in a relationship that wasn’t volatile and full of drama. I loved my job, loved my friends, and felt like I had hit my stride. I started Wit & Delight, considered quitting design all together to be a doctor (what!?), and then began to feel more confident as a designer at work. All that was left was to get married and at 25, I became obsessed with checking off that box.
I was on my way to Florida for vacation when I picked up Eat, Pray Love. It was at the height of the buzz around Elizabeth Gilbert’s coming of age story and I thought it would be a nice beach read as I started prepping for my upcoming nuptials. 30 minutes into the book my stomach hit the floor. As Elizabeth found herself on the bathroom floor overcome with the realization she would need to leave her husband and “perfect” life, my intuition sounded the alarms. I knew that would be me. I quickly turned the page and shook off my terror with a nonchalant flip of my hair. I wouldn’t think about this moment again until years later when I was unpacking boxes in the first apartment I’d live in alone.
It was so cliche, for my first tiny warning sign to come from such a prolific part of pop culture, but her truth beamed down like a voice from the future. I saw my story unfolding through hers.
In hindsight, there were many moments where the cracks in my facade began to show. I began drinking heavily and working out more, pouring myself into hobbies like this website to feel better about myself.
My sister told me later, post-divorce, that after my bachelorette party I had cryptically described my fears about the upcoming wedding. That I felt like there was a woman trying to break out of the walls I had built around her. Little did I know that was my true self’s way of trying to get me to LISTEN. She was going to burn the whole thing down if I didn’t wake up and hear her out. I believe that I had begun to find some sense of real confidence through strong friendships, great mentors at work, and the ability to navigate my professional life without a parachute. That little feeling of confidence I saw in myself and in owning those little failures and successes only fueled the authentic person behind my mask to grow restless.
Later, my sister told me she regretted she hadn’t asked me about it in the morning. But I was the older sister who had it all together. It was just cold feet, she thought.
After that night of my bachelorette party, I showed no signs of anything amiss. The anger that came from suppressing my real feelings scared me, so I handled it the way I knew best: by using my willpower and strength to just bury it so deep I forgot about it. I still cared more about checking off those boxes than following what was right for me. And it worked, for a little while.
As you know, few things that are meant to be buried remain so. The truth has a way of coming out. After the wedding, there were a new set of hoops to jump through, ones that required a strong marriage and an even a stronger sense of self. Staring down at the next phase of this game called “Life” I couldn’t see a way forward. I didn’t see a future. For the first time, I could no longer deny what my true self revealed: I had no idea what I wanted out of life and I had hitched my wagon of issues to a person who had no idea he had married a person who only presented what she thought he wanted to see.
When the truth came spilling out, I scrambled to find some way of feeling like less of a failure. For a while, I continued to avoid my reality and escaped the inevitable by creating a secret life outside of my marriage, with a boyfriend and all. My double life soon was exposed and in the truth of my transgressions, it was clear that I had landed at rock bottom.
The years of therapy began, followed by a few years of dating myself. It felt good to meet people and not feel compelled to fit them into my life’s plan. In fact, I didn’t really have a plan now that I had blown up my perfect life. There was nowhere to go but forward and I understood the danger of hiding from reality.
The pain and trauma of the fallout I caused others were created by me and me alone. I was afraid to make decisions that went against what I thought made me a “good successful adult” which is a very common feeling amongst millennials. I had underestimated the far greater consequences that came with being solely focused on achievements than figuring out how to listen to my needs and make decisions that best suited my unique set of strengths and flaws. Had I had those hard conversations earlier, had I the courage to let people see me without my mask, had I understood that it wasn’t up to me to decide how other people would react to making decisions with my best interest in mind, it would have saved the people from being swept up in my hurricane of victimhood. My internal pain was taken out on them, and it hurt people far more than the truth would have.
If you learn one thing from my story, I hope it is this: be honest with yourself and what you want out of your life because when you don’t treat yourself with respect, you can’t be good to others. A marriage doesn’t give you a happy ending. An affair won’t offer an escape from your insecurities. An amazing job, perfect figure, and heaps of money won’t save you from yourself.
What will save you from making the mistakes I did is empathy for your authentic self—- who you are and what you do when you are not seeking validation from others. That person is the one who will give you security, confidence, validation, and support. What happens when that authentic version of you is seen and loved for all its light and darkness is greater than we’re able to plan for.
I’ve found writing to be incredibly therapeutic, and for me personally, getting it out of my head and onto paper is almost better than therapy. If you are like me and need to just get it out, we’ve created a space for you to share your story anonymously, or you can send your story directly to me. We will never share any content without your explicit permission.
Writer’s Note: By no means does my experience reflect ALL the possible reasons one should or shouldn’t marry their partner. “Loving your true self” isn’t a quick fix and shouldn’t be a one-size-fits-all solution for those dealing with abuse, PTSD, and other emotional abuse that can be suppressed over a lifetime. What I do know is a lot of us strive to be the best versions of ourselves, sometimes at all costs. And so, I do hope my story resonates with someone who is struggling to untangle their authentic selves and what society deems “good.” And hopefully, it saves a few families from experiencing the fallout my breakdown brought into the lives of the people I love.
Some additional resources:
National Coalition Against Domestic Violence: https://ncadv.org/resources
Finding a Therapist (a jumping off point!) – https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/therapists
Kate is currently learning to play the Ukulele, much to the despair of her husband, kids, and dogs. Follow her on Instagram at @witanddelight_.
BY Kate Arends - February 19, 2019
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Thank you for being here. For being open to enjoying life’s simple pleasures and looking inward to understand yourself, your neighbors, and your fellow humans! I’m looking forward to chatting with you.
Loved this piece—thanks so much for your honesty.
(Just a note: It’s Elizabeth Gilbert, not Emily!)
thank you Kate!
Love this. Thank you for sharing. I am in a similar boat and appreciate your honesty.
Reading Eat, Pray, Love gave me the courage I needed to NOT get married at 21. I didn’t want to admit it and in his pain, my ex loved to proclaim to people that I broke it off because of the book (making me seem silly and weak), but the truth is that the desire to end things already existed. Her ability to own her story gave me permission to own mine and be honest about what was in my heart. It gave me permission to elevate my own vision of myself and my life over someone else’s. It taught… Read more »
I had a remarkable similar experience; thank you for sharing yours here. It’s reassuring to not feel alone in succumbing to the perceived pressures of perfectionism and societal expectations, and to read a story of someone else who has grown from that experience.
Thank you so much for sharing this, Kate.
Your honesty is so refreshing and I feel if we could all (men and women) move toward that we would learn so much from each other and become stronger because of it.
I appreciate that. I shared the post with Joe before it went live and it was nice to talk about what my mask looked like and why communication is so important in our marriage today. Thank you for your comment!!
Really beautiful, Kate. Thanks for sharing your story. I’ve found in my own story that the path to true self acceptance comes with some major falling flat on your face moments. I don’t think anyone comes to be strong or self sufficient without major struggles — and those struggles don’t look the same for everyone. There’s certainly beauty in every version.
thank you for sharing, Amy! and I agree on the strength that comes from these struggles. I feel in many ways I had to learn my lesson this way. Sharing my story is I guess my way of paying it forward. <3
It’s a rare honor and a privilege to read such an honest account of your life Kate.I married for security and have always regretted it.
My soul felt betrayed and I have had to learn to forgive myself.
Deep soul work and love.We are all stumbling through it together.
Thank you again for your depth,insight and life lessons.
thank you, Sharon. this one really shook me to write but felt it was important in helping others know the dangers of hiding from your authentic self. Appreciate your support!
just in time when you are wondering how to truly appreciate yourself and stop to force things. thanks!
thank you, grace! I’m glad it resonated with you <3
thank you for your honesty and vulnerability in sharing this story – while no one’s path is ever the same, i echo certain sentiments and can appreciate how lonely and scary the journey of life can be at times.
thank you Traci!!
I think this piece is far to cryptic to have any real impact or meaning.
to each their own.
Thank you. The pain is real. I know it well. Try to be free. Peace.
sending you love!
Thank you for this! I recently got out of a nearly decade long relationship (engaged, not married) and I what you wrote about cultivating friendships, giving even just a little space for your authentic self to find some courage, and gaining some confidence, rings SO true with what I experienced. Thank you for your honesty in sharing your story.
YES! finding intimacy in healthy places is so important.
I have read and reread this about half a dozen times since you posted this about a week ago. This speaks to all of us who feel our 20s is a time to check the boxes, stay ahead of our peers and maintain a facade of effortlessness while we do it.
Thank you for your transparency.