We all know that more women than ever before are waiting until their 30s to marry and start families. This societal shift has been so broadly discussed and well documented, that it’s easy to assume 30 is the new 20 when it comes to marriage. But, despite how much lip service this phenomenon has garnered, the reality is that a woman’s 20s is still the most popular decade in which to get married. That’s right — the average age for American women to marry is 27. And, as most women who have married and divorced by 30 will tell you, while people are often shocked to discover that a twentysomething is a divorcee, the circumstance really isn’t that rare.
What The Numbers Tell Us
Why are so many of us getting hitched in our first decade after leaving the nest? First, Americans in their twenties are a pretty romantic and hopeful bunch: According to a Louisiana State University study, 88 percent of twenty-something American women and men believe that there is a soul mate somewhere in the world for them. Another fun fact: Neuroscience has proven via brain scans that our brains are still in developmental stages until the age of 25 or 26. And the last portion of the brain to develop is the part that’s responsible for foresight, planning ahead, and decision making.
So in our twenties, we tend to be romantic and hopeful about eternal love, while, at the same time, not playing with a full deck of cards when it comes to mentality and the ability to step outside one’s self and act in a less impulsive manner.
When we think about it, it’s not at all strange, or frankly, unlikely, that a woman will be married and divorced before she’s thirty. More than half of women who marry in their twenties end up divorced, with 37% of them having been married between the ages of 20 and 24.
The Feelings Piece Of The Story
Such was the case for three of four women interviewed for this story, who each married at age 23. For Shandra*, 37, the time felt right to take the next step with her high-school sweetheart. “After high school, we went to the same college and we kept going down the path. After I graduated, we lived together, then we got engaged and got married," she says. “It felt like the natural thing to do. For me, I wasn't a dating-around type. So it was kind of a 'Everything’s fine. There’s nothing bad. Why not get married?' mindset.”
Similarly, Naheed*, 36, had traveled, “done the going out thing,” and finished school by the age of 23. After connecting with a Brit while on a girls' trip in London, and cohabitating with him for more than a year in the States, she decided to take the walk down the aisle. Though the conversation was sparked by his need to get citizenship in order to work Stateside, after some soul searching, the couple decided that they were marrying for love first and logistics second. “I was looking for the next thing; I felt like getting married was the right thing to do and that it was an appropriate time time make a commitment,” she says.
Brooke*, 32, who married her college sweetheart at 27, after seven years together, echoes the feeling, saying that at the time, “he was my best friend and it felt like, looking ahead, this [marriage] was the next step and what we should be doing.”
The first-comes-love-then-comes-marriage logic runs deep. And while these women didn’t feel as if they were making impulsive decisions at the time, some now feel that they were too young to say “I do.”
The Reality Of Growing Apart
“I think it was kind of one of those situations where we were playing house rather than having a real marriage or relationship — probably because of our age, because we were soo young. My marriage now is so completely different,” Shandra says.
“This capacity for metacognition — to think about thinking, reflect on things and not be in the moment so much, can lead a person to say ‘this isn’t good for me’ or ‘this is outrageous’ or ‘I don’t want to do this anymore’ and that’s big,” says Dr. Mark Banschick, a New York-based physician, psychiatrist, and author of The Intelligent Divorce book series, who also notes that metacognition doesn’t usually take place until we are about 25, when our brain has finished developing.
Another common occurrence among people in their twenties is a heightened sense of identity development. In our twenties, we are exploring what we like, what works for us, and the kind of person we want to be. Through travel, education, even partying, we make lots of changes in this decade of life. And that can be an unpredictable set of circumstances for fresh marriages to weather.
“One of the major reasons that these marriages break up deals with a person who is changing,” Banschick says. “Identity development really is happening in this period. You’re figuring out who you are, what you want to do, and what you stand for. This is a dear part of the 18-25 year-old period.”
Even though both Shandra and Brooke married men they had been with for seven years each, both women eventually felt a distance growing in their relationships by way of evolving interests, which varied from their spouses.
“We were best friends, but somewhere along the way into my 20s, we started to change a little bit,” Brooke says, noting that she and her college-sweetheart husband split amicably and she is still friends with him. “We left college and moved to a different state. You’re figuring out your life in your 20s, what makes sense career-wise; it’s such a moment of exploration — you’re no longer under the wing of your parents. I was developing into who I am today.”
Shandra, who married her high-school sweetheart, also saw her first year of marriage as a time of developmental change in herself and her spouse. “We were living in San Francisco and I wanted to go out and he wanted to study. I had changed so much,” she says, adding, “It always scares me now when I hear young people talk about wanting to get married and being together forever. I think, ‘Hold on! Because you are going to change so much.’”
The Perks Of Breaking Up
Although divorce is challenging and mournful at any age and for anyone, research shows that women fare better post-divorce than men do. Pioneering family and gender researcher E. Mavis Heatherington, a preeminent psychologist who specialized in family interactions, found (in her landmark longitudinal studies on divorce with the University of Virginia) that while men tend to do better economically, socially, and psychologically in a marriage — even an unhappy one — than when they are single, women do better post-divorce.
Her research found that, “even though they often face economic hardship, many women are enhanced after divorce. They develop competencies they probably would not have if they had stayed in conflictual, unhappy marriages. Two years after divorce, women are less depressed than those who remain in conflictual, unhappy marriages. Some women look like ‘super women’ — they achieve success at work while being good mothers and active in church, philanthropic, and community activities.”
Each woman interviewed for this story reported a personal upswing in the shadow of her divorce. Naheed, after having been married to a man she met abroad for four years, received an email (!!!) from her husband, in which he dropped the big D. Out of necessity, she bought a house in the wake of her divorce. And it ended up being a powerful move for her.
“I was having trouble finding a place to rent that would take me and two dogs that was in a place where I felt safe. I didn’t have family to help me. So, I bought a house.”
Soon, she found herself uprooting a wonkily placed pole in the backyard and tackling a stream of home-improvement projects that she might not have taken on before, like remodeling her bathroom, with vigor and success.
Sara*, 28, after splitting from her husband of four years, found herself 28 and single with a one-year-old daughter and in a very different financial situation from the one she had been in as a housewife and stay-at-home-mom. Now, having taken her first career-oriented job and a staring down heck of a lot of bills, she says she finds herself in a powerful position.
“Sometimes, shitty decisions need to be made and you have to do things that are unpleasant to get to where you want to be. It’s a harder time to try to make it right away, especially if you’re a housewife, like I was. It’s a huge process to break out of that and become an independent woman or man. But it’s very empowering, too,” she says.
Brooke, who divorced her college sweetheart, a man she fondly calls “wonderful” still today, experienced a lifestyle, rather than economic shock, right after her divorce. Suddenly, she didn’t have her best friend to confide in, to cook for, or to hang out with on a Saturday night. “It changed the whole structure of my life,” she says. “I spent many Saturday nights home alone. All my friends were out partying, but that’s not who I am.”
Instead of jumping into the arms of another man, she has spent the first few years post-divorce nurturing herself. “I said, I’m going to be good to myself and cook and exercise and do the things that are good for me. If I was having a shitty day, I would get a mani/pedi or do something that made me feel good. For me, it was about health, not forcing myself to do things I didn’t want to do.”
The result, two years later? “I feel so much more centered today. Truly. I feel a greater sense of understanding and of what I want. I don’t feel that I need someone else to feel complete.”
The Emotional Cost Of Breaking Up
But obviously, that's not the whole story. Yes, the research and personal stories show that women thrive immediately after divorce. And yes, divorce has become so common that it has shed its stigma in many circles. But, Branschick reminds us that the process of divorce is tough and long-term recovery requires time and mourning.
“Divorce is a death,” he says. “It’s the end of a dream of an intact family that’s loving and that stays together forever. And when there is a death, you have to grief. Grieving, it’s appropriate in divorce. To be happy [immediately] after divorce means that you were never really connected in the first place or you were so unhappy that you did your grieving a long time ago.”
The Truth About Grieving
Grieving the death of divorce is quite different from grieving the death of a person. Branschick says, “When someone dies, the community comes to support you. People invite you over and talk to you. When you get divorced, you’re grieving, but your community disappears. Your cousin doesn’t call because she feels awkward. You pastor wants to be good, but somehow feels anxious around people with divorce.”
Branschick suggests people reach out to family, friends, members of their faith, or a counselor or therapist, in this time. There are also affordable grief-processing tools available — for example, he suggests this online family stabilization course for just 25 bucks.
“Grief requires community. And yet, people who go through divorce grieve alone. That, I think that is a terrible shame of our culture. That we don’t reach out to people who go through divorce and let them know they’re loved and normal,” he says. “Grief requires witnesses.”
Another social complication of a post-divorce twentysomething is that while peers may want to support a new divorcee in her twenties, they often don’t know how.
Sara admits that her friends — many of whom are in school starting their careers, and very far away from having marriage, let alone babies, on the mind — don’t understand what she’s going through, despite the best of intentions.
“There’s no way to explain to someone who’s never experienced divorce what it’s like to go through it or to struggle as a single mother. There’s not a way to make someone understand that. I don't think it’s in a malicious manner my some of my friends haven’t been there for me. It’s just, how could they get it,” she says. “I don’t think anyone mistreated me purposefully because of my situation. But, I think it changed a lot of my relationships.”
And in the absence of a fully supportive community, Brooke says what helped her most was ignoring any negative chatter from both strangers and people in her life.
“There’s always someone who wants to put that bug in your ear and beat you down,” she says. “I just focused on me and what I needed to develop within myself. And that was the most important thing.”
Banschick confirms that these relationship adjustments are a normal part of the process. “You’ll be surprised at who’s going to be there and shocked at who is not,” he says. “Sometimes your best friend is simply not there. Maybe she’s too busy. But, you may meet somebody at work who was not a friend, but understands and wants to hang out with you. Quietly shift to that new person. You don’t need to get angry at your friend who is not there for you. Just accept that she doesn’t have what you need,” he says, reaffirming the importance of grieving the end of a relationship as part of long-term healing.
A Different Kind Of Happily Ever After
While the grieving process and its many stages can take a few years, each woman interviewed for this story, having been divorced for two years or more, has found strength, confidence, and newfound focus in her life.
Though Sara, a single mother of a three-year-old, has little time for R&R, she affirms, “for me, I can say it’s been worth it. It’s so hard and it’s so worth it. Because in the end, it’s powerful to start fresh and in the way you want [life] to be.”
Naheed, who is now remarried with two kids, opted to keep her maiden name this time around, because she feels stronger in her identity. “Divorce is so commonplace. It’s not a picture of you. There are two people in a relationship and you only have control of a portion of what happens,” she reflects. “Your real job is to pick up and move on. Take what you learned and know that you don’t have control over everything — and that that’s okay.”
Brooke, whose divorce led her to a path of self-discovery and authenticity, says that although her split was painful, she doesn’t view the relationship in the same light. “I don’t see it as a failure,” she says. “I see it as a time in my life that is very special.” Still, after emerging from the stages of grief, she is happy to feel balanced and content.
“I had an amazing relationship with a wonderful man. And it didn’t work. A marriage isn't the thing that finally makes yourself complete. It’s a wonderful piece of the puzzle and hopefully this person complements you and makes you a better person,” she says, “But ultimately, You make yourself complete.”
*All names changed, at the request of the women interviewed.
Illustrated by Ly Ngo