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, or 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, and 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 altogether 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 twenty-five, 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. Thirty 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 when 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 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. 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 among millennials. I had underestimated the far greater consequences that came with being solely focused on achievements rather 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 had 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 about 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.
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.
BY Kate Arends - February 19, 2019
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.