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When The Vows Aren’t True

This week we wanted to explore the idea of unexpected outcomessome good, some difficult. In the end, what is wedding planning (and hell, marriage) other than one giant practice in letting go of the idea that we have perfect control? Today’s post from Jacki Souza about very young marriage, very early divorce, and figuring out who you really are is, for me, the most perfect sum-up that there is. This was the story of so many of my close friends growing up (our big burst of friend weddings came between nineteen and twenty-four). For me, the process of finding yourself, even through divorce and hardship, is always a story of great hope.
I cry at weddings. Start saying things like “For better or for worse… for as long as you both shall live,” and I need waterproof mascara.

Something about listening in as two people make a binding oath of love and loyalty in front of their family, friends, and deity just gets me, because it reminds me of just how beautiful I think the whole idea is—lifelong partnership. Standing shoulder-to-shoulder with your chosen mate through whatever life throws at you.

I didn’t cry at my wedding.

Instead, I cried the night before. My dad and I were making last-minute changes to the iTunes playlist I made for the reception, and I found myself squeezed into the chair next to him, weeping on his shoulder, unable to articulate the nagging doubts I felt about the next day’s events. How I had been doubting my decision for months. How I feared that my role in the marriage would be more parent than partner. How I was too ashamed of the failure and the wasted money and too afraid of starting over to back out. How I felt like, even though I hadn’t yet made the vows, hadn’t signed the license, it was already too late.

And I cried the night after. Alone in the honeymoon suite with my new husband, I unzipped my gown and began pulling hairpins from my elaborate updo, and as I watched them piling up, I began to cry. Because now it really was too late.

The planning was over; my distractions were gone. For months I had been focused on the party. I scored an Amsale sample sale gown that fit me perfectly for 50% off; I found the exact shade of green I wanted my bridesmaids to wear and negotiated discounts for them; I found a local florist who could recreate the Avi Adler bouquet I wanted using seasonal, affordable flowers. And all day I had been “on,” putting my party face on and executing the plan. But that night, I crumpled.

Back then I couldn’t have told you what “cultural narrative” was or identified how it was driving my decisions, but when I met the man I married, I was a nineteen-year-old sophomore at a small denominational university, and I already knew, by watching my friends, classmates, and the people I’d known my whole life, how my life was supposed to go: go to college, meet a good Christian guy, date exclusively throughout college, get engaged as an upperclassman, get married shortly after graduation, live happily ever after. (Throw in strong undertones of “if you don’t meet a good Christian spouse now, you probably never will” for good measure.)

My parents never pressured me to find a husband, and I know if I’d chosen to break my engagement they would have been my biggest supporters. (My mom broke an engagement, once, before marrying my dad—and their story deserves its own post!) But the message our church, my school, and my own low self-esteem were sending was, “Snag a spouse while you’re here. It’s going to get really hard to find one once you leave.”

And I wanted to get married someday. As a young girl I’d admired my parents, happily married since 1980. They had what I wanted for my future. They were partners, teammates. They had that whole “we’re in this together no matter what” thing going on, and they had a really happy life to show for it.

At nineteen, I was painfully shy, afraid to approach guys, and was rarely approached by them. This only compounded the internal pressure I felt to find someone. So when a friend introduced me to her older brother and we hit it off, I latched on—fast. He was in graduate school a few states away. Six years my senior, fun-loving and kind, he was more laid-back about life than I knew how to be, but I was drawn to his playful personality, and after ten months of whirlwind long-distance dating, we were engaged.

In retrospect I see many things clearly. While we had a lot of fun together, especially in those early days, there were signs all along that we weren’t a very good fit. And it was me who glossed them over—especially when my focus turned from the excitement of a new relationship to the excitement (and stress!) of planning a wedding in my home state from eleven-hundred miles away in Tennessee, while working full time and taking a full course load my final year of college.

Even with the example set by my parents, I had a pretty deficient understanding of marriage. Naïvely, I thought it was enough to pick a person you cared for and say the vows—that saying them made them true. And I did care for him; our happy moments always pulled me back just before walking away. I convinced myself that once we were married, things would get better. The vows would find us jobs and an affordable home; resuscitate our ailing sex life and make our personalities more compatible, would give me the conversation and intellectual connection I craved. The vows would make him see how desperately afraid I was of his staggering, ever-growing mountain of debt and convince him to stop accruing more (no amount of begging, pleading or crying on my part had worked so far).

The vows would change us into people worthy of being married to each other and make our marriage strong.

It didn’t work that way. We said the vows, but… they weren’t true. And I think deep down I knew that, even as we said them. I think I didn’t cry because I didn’t fully believe what we were saying. We didn’t honor and cherish one another. We weren’t shoulder-to-shoulder against life’s struggles. Instead, being married to each other became the struggle.

During the eighteen months between us saying “I do” and me saying “I can’t do this anymore,” we both became the worst versions of ourselves. He struggled to find—then keep—a job, and dabbled in pyramid schemes while unemployed. I took the first full-time job I could find and spent the next year seething with resentment. I was constantly on the defensive, refusing to combine finances or co-sign the new lines of credit he wanted to open for expensive purchases like a flat screen TV. I sank into a deep depression, self-medicating with food and gaining thirty pounds in one year. First our emotional, then our physical relationship withered, and one night, eighteen months to the day after the night I cried over my hairpins in our honeymoon suite, I told him it was over.

In the years since our separation and eventual divorce, I’ve laid a lot of blame at his feet for what happened. I’ve hypothesized that we could’ve overcome the personality stuff if not for the financial stuff, but I’m not sure that’s true. When I started writing this post I was still blaming him, but as I wrote, the post kept changing as I discovered just how deeply at fault I was in the mess our marriage became—and in the fact that we went through with it in the first place. It’s easy to look back and feel ashamed of myself, to wonder how I could have been so willfully blind, but the woman I am today is not the woman I was five years ago when I asked for a divorce, or six years ago when we got married, or eight years ago when we met. Those younger versions of myself didn’t, in many ways, know any better. I didn’t realize how much my actions would hurt—him, me, our families.

At twenty-four, I was starting over, single and not so sure anymore that I really cared about finding a spouse from the same church, or finding a spouse anytime soon at all. It turns out that starting over—while emotionally and financially messy—isn’t as scary as I once thought. It gave me the opportunity to learn who I really am and what kind of life I really want to have… and eventually, to find a partner to share it with. A partner whose values I share, whose judgment I trust. He’s divorced, too, and we both understand now that it isn’t simply saying the vows that makes them true. You have to mean them and live them—even before you say them in public for friends and family and deity to hear. The vows should already be true when you make them.

I want to get married again, and now I know what to do differently. It may be soon or it may be… not so soon. But I can tell you this: the vows are going to be true before we ever set a wedding date. And I’m gonna need waterproof mascara.

Photo by: David Murray from Jacki’s personal collection

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