While weddings are a common conversation among friends, divorce isn’t. For young women, having the strength to file for divorce while in their 20s or early 30s can feel isolating but as Refinery29 UK discovered, they all have zero regrets.
When Adele announced her divorced divorce from Simon Konecki at the age of 33, people acted like getting divorced at that age was a complete rarity. But it isn't unique among the lineup of young starlets who married with high hopes only to move onto better things when the relationship fell apart. Britney Spears divorced Kevin Federline in 2007 at the age of 25; Angelina Jolie divorced Jonny Lee Miller in 1999 at the age of 24; in 2011, Scarlett Johansson divorced Ryan Reynolds at the age of 26; Katy Perry divorced Russell Brand in 2012 when she was 27; and Reese Witherspoon divorced Ryan Phillippe in 2007 when she was 31. Why, then, do young women feel alone – and a bit of a failure – in the process of divorcing their once-chosen spouse?
"We got married very young and we very much turned into two different people," Kaiva Kaimins, founder of London-based florist My Lady Garden, tells Refinery29 of her previous marriage. Opting for a small, intimate ceremony at Chelsea Old Town Hall, she was wed at the age of 21 – prompted by her husband’s job offer in New York City – after a year and a half of dating and feeling "very in love". The couple had planned to have a "real wedding" further down the line but in January this year, aged 25, Kai left the marriage. "We didn’t have to get lawyers involved because we literally had nothing to split," she says of their finances. They did share custody of their dog for a while but, in the end, Kai gave the pet to a family friend because she "didn’t want to be reminded of their relationship".
Their divorce was finalised in September but Kai believes she should’ve done it sooner. "I think that we were clinging onto the idea that we were married, we had paperwork. But probably the pivotal moment was when he asked to have an open relationship," she says. "I probably should’ve left then but I didn’t and I just waited for, like, two years. But at the start of this year I decided that I was really sad and then I left." Kai found that her parents – who got divorced a few years ago – were "supportive" while her friends were "really shocked" but stepped up to help. Not one of them asked: are you sure you want to do this? This led to Kai sharing details about her marriage that she’d previously withheld. "There was almost an element of shame that I was getting married so early and yet no one talks about young people getting divorced. It’s such a buzzword," she says on reflection. In 2018 the average age for divorce among opposite-sex couples in England and Wales was 46.9 years for men and 44.5 years for women.
Like Kai, Micaela Sharp, an Interior Design Masters 2021 contestant and owner of Micaela Sharp Design, knew she had to leave her marriage after a pivotal moment. "I guess it’s a bit more unusual to be married and divorced so young but also the reason you get divorced so young is normally because there is a catalyst," says Micaela, 34. "I don’t know of anyone who is divorced in their 20s or 30s because it just didn’t work out. It’s like, normally someone has done something. And that can be a lot more devastating than gradually growing apart over decades. You’ve kind of had this expectation in your head and you think you’re working towards a long life together, and then the rug is just pulled out from underneath you. So it can be really difficult." Micaela filed for divorce after she found out during the pandemic that her husband had been having an affair, when the woman he was having the affair with told Micaela about it via messaging.
"Maybe there are couples in their 20s or 30s who have worked through that," she says. "But for me, I can’t spend the next however many decades looking over his shoulder and thinking: Is he feeling fulfilled yet? Or is he up to his old tricks?" Although Micaela’s friends and family were fully behind her getting a divorce – which should, hopefully, be finalised by the end of this year – she has found that people have tried to console her in one common way. "Everybody wanted to say to me, 'Oh, at least you don’t have children,' like that made it better for me." But Micaela – who was with her ex-husband for nine years in total, married for three and a half – thought he was going to be the father of her children. "Now I have to reset all of my expectations, and it’s not easier because we don’t have children. In lots of ways I feel like if I’d had children, it would have made those 10 years feel worth it and I’d have gotten something out of it that was positive." Instead, the comment has made her feel more isolated. "I think that’s one of the things when you’re getting divorced in your earlier years, the overriding feeling is that you feel very isolated."
Finding comfort in Samantha Baines’ podcast The Divorce Social and How to Heal a Broken Heart by Rosie Green, Micaela is keen for other young women not to feel so alone throughout the divorce process – especially as the COVID-19 pandemic has played a part in relationship breakdowns and higher divorce rates around the world. "I’ve seen a huge increase in break-ups from couples that didn’t really see it coming, they thought it was all going to be good," confirms Sara Davison aka The Divorce Coach. "In some cases, there is quite a lot of stigma around it and it can be seen as a failure… A lot of people think: Well, you know, you’ve got married and you should be. If it doesn’t work out, then that means that there’s something wrong with you or maybe you didn’t try hard enough. But I think once you go through that process of divorce, it can leave you and your self-confidence very low."
But like Kai and Micaela, Helly Acton, author of The Shelf, believes that having the courage to get divorced and start afresh at the age of 27 was "the best thing that ever happened to me". Prior to getting married in her 20s, Helly had always thought that having a boyfriend gave her "worth" and "value". "I always sought that sort of validation from relationships," she says, admitting that she jumped from one relationship to the next. "Some of them were short, some of them were longer, but I never really stopped to pause and think about what I was worth or what I deserved from a relationship." Helly, now 38, met her ex-husband in her early 20s when they were working for the same company in London. He was about 10 years older than her and Helly found him "good-looking, charming, hilarious, fun, wild... We just had a really good time." However, she adds: "There was almost a bit of a danger element to him. He was quite volatile in terms of his temperament," including "mood swings" and "disappearing acts". Deciding to move to Australia together and doing some travelling along the way, Helly admits that she "allowed this pattern to continue" in their relationship.
Just like her other friends at that time, Helly got engaged. "I think looking back, it was more the excitement about being engaged and planning a wedding than actually considering what it was going to be like to spend the rest of my life with this guy. And for him to be the father of my children – if I was lucky enough to have them." The couple opted for a small wedding in Australia and Helly now realises that him "not wanting to invite any of his friends or family" should’ve been a "red flag", acknowledging that there were many red flags in their relationship that she "chose to ignore". Three days before the wedding, Helly’s mother said to her: "You know, you’re not married yet. You don’t have to go through with this." "And it sounds terrible but I thought: It’s actually going to be easier to get a divorce than cancel the wedding," she recalls. The marriage lasted six months. For Helly, it’s all worked out for the better because she’s a completely "different person now" and says she "definitely wouldn’t tolerate what I was tolerating at the time". Splitting assets was easy because neither of them owned property so Helly chose to "walk away and give him everything". Now, having remarried in 2019 and with an 11-month-old son, Helly knows she made the right choice. "I actually dread to think what my life would have been like if I just, you know, stuck to the marriage out of some kind of misplaced loyalty," she says. Unlike previous generations, young people today don’t appear prepared to stay in an unhappy marriage in the hope that things will get better. Maybe that’s why marriage rates have more than halved since the 1960s and 1970s.
"I don’t know if I’d get married again, but I’d have a big party," says Kai, who has started dating again. "Marriage does just feel like paperwork. If I did, I wouldn’t rush into it." Micaela feels similarly. "I don’t think I’d get married again," she says. "I think it’s just too complicated to get divorced." It costs £593 to file for divorce in the UK but there is no obligation to get lawyers involved. "The most important thing for me, mental health-wise, is to just get divorced. I hate this interim period. I think this is probably more complicated and more emotionally draining," says Micaela. However, she’s made dating part of her healing process. "I didn’t want to put it on this pedestal and be terrified of it. I didn’t want to start thinking people were bad and that I didn’t trust anybody," she says. "I have had positive experiences. It has played quite a big part for me being able to confidently look to the future. I don’t know what that is yet – whether it will be long-term relationships or not – but I’ve realised that there are really lovely people out there. If you give people a chance and keep an open mind, great things can happen."