The night I asked for a divorce, I wasn’t thinking about anyone else’s reaction. I wasn’t thinking about the stigma surrounding divorce, or how we’d been married for such a short period of time ― less than two years. All I could think about was how I’d changed.
Slowly, over time, our priorities had stopped lining up. No one had done anything wrong, but I just wasn’t the same person I’d been when we met nearly a decade before. And as much as I hated myself for hurting him, I’d fallen out of love. I was just … done.
In terms of the divorce itself, I figured that I’d navigate that the same way I’d managed every other one of life’s hurdles: Google it. I mean, how hard could this actually be? We didn’t have kids, we were renters ― we barely even shared a bank account.
So you can imagine my horror to learn that, even in the least complicated of circumstances, divorce is one of the most complicated things you will ever do. Some websites offer to walk you through the process for $150. Others, like the extremely online “It’s Over Easy” promise to streamline the process for a mere $1,500.
And that’s just if you don’t need to hire a lawyer, which you almost certainly will, depending on the state you live in and how contentious things are with your soon-to-be ex. According to Google, the average divorce costs about $15,000 per person, which includes but is not limited to: attorneys’ fees, court costs and the cost of hiring outside experts such as a real estate appraiser, tax adviser or child custody evaluator.
I wasn’t prepared to drop $1,500 (never mind $15,000), so I opted for the $150-level service, which fills out the forms but does not file or serve them and plainly called itself “NetDivorce.” You get what you pay for, I guess.
And so begins the harrowing journey of even a baby divorce like mine. And since no one ever bothered to explain it to me, let me explain how it works (at least if you live in the state of California).
Divorce is basically broken into three stages. In the first stage, you print out a godforsaken number of forms to fill out and take to the court. (Or if you want to play a fun game of U.S. Postal Service roulette, you could take the lazy route and mail your forms in, like me.) Oh, and don’t forget to include a court filing fee of $435 in that first batch.
Then you pray to the god you don’t believe in that the forms made it to the court and the court will send some forms back to your address. And that’s only the beginning. Are you tired yet?
Next, you get a kind friend or family member to serve your spouse their batch of papers, also by mail. (I asked my longtime friend Megan to do the honors while simultaneously trying not to think about all of the times my ex and I had gone to her and her husband’s house for movie nights.)
Also in the stack of papers you serve to your spouse: bank statements, paycheck stubs, credit card statements, tax records ― basically everything short of your dental records and a cheek swab. This is all so that if he or she wants to contest the divorce, they’ll have what they need. Otherwise, they do literally nothing with that stack. They sign and date the served document, mail it back to the person who served them, then you wait a month, print out another batch of documents and mail everything back to your now-best friends at the county court.
Six months from the date your ex signs their one ― one!!! ― document, you will be divorced. And again, that’s just the simplest version of events. California throws in a six-month waiting period in case you want to back out.
The average amount of time a divorce takes to process varies. If you involve lawyers, mediation or arbitration ― third-party players meant to settle things between a warring couple ― the entire song and dance could last up to three or four years.
Is anyone else sweating?
Anyway, as I crouched over my printer, catching the first flood of court forms that must ― must ― retain their order and be hole-punched and signed just so, I wondered, “Why does nobody talk about how hard this is?!” Yeah, I knew how hairy divorce could be with shared property, money and kids, but at this level? I felt lied to. I felt dismayed.
Moments later, sitting at my kitchen table with a two-hole punch and stapler, two office supplies I definitely did not own pre-divorce, I wanted to tear my hair out. Not only had I been banished to the super-analog world of court forms and endless legalese, I had almost no one to talk to about it. No one I knew had lived through the logistical horror I was currently experiencing. And if they had, they definitely weren’t talking about it.
That’s the OTHER thing about divorcing young: It’s really lonely. In your 20s and 30s, divorce just isn’t something people do that much. Most of us are still in the getting-married phase of life.
I mean, yes, of course people get divorced at my age. It happens every day. Miley Cyrus is doing it as I write this. And hey, I’m enough of a grown-up to know, intellectually at least, that ultimately, no one really cares that I got divorced at 32. But I’m at an age where society arguably has a lot of expectations: get married; have kids; buy a house; work; don’t work; save for retirement; cook at home; don’t buy coffee or avocados; wear sheet masks.
So when that Instagram-perfect marriage ends, how do we not feel like a failure?
Getting divorced is not just a breakup with more paperwork; it’s feeling like a dislocated bone in the skeleton of society. It’s guilt and shame and more guilt. It’s a newfound fear of attending weddings and other couple-y activities by yourself. It’s paralyzing anxiety around whether to tell people at work. It’s questioning your own viability as a partner. And in this particular case, it’s been guilt and anxiety around publishing this very essay: Writing had always been the method through which I’d processed emotions and major life changes before, but, because I chose to initiate my divorce, writing things down and opting to publish them feels selfish. In my worst moments, wanting to be selfish has crossed over to feeling like a downright cruel person.
I can’t imagine that breaking the news of your divorce is easy on anyone who goes through it.
At work, I told only my boss and immediate team members. But as the post-separation months wore on, I’d find myself blindsiding other co-workers with trying-to-be-casual mentions like, “Oh, yeah, I’m not married anymore.”
“I’m sorry!” they’d exclaim, because that’s the first thing anyone can think to say at times like this.
“It’s OK. I’m not! Ha. Ha,” I’d reply.
A lot of people in my life surprised me when I told them. My grandparents, from whom I expected immediate disapproval, said all the right things, like, “Better you do this now than in 20 years.” My parents met me with a mixture of bewilderment and patience. My step-aunt called to tell me about her two divorces, the first of which happened in her 20s.
Other people sounded unsure how to proceed when I told them ― as if things had suddenly gotten much too personal, too quickly. Some people offered to set me up. Megan dubbed me a “sexy divorcee.”
Despite the relief and certainty at having done the right thing, my divorce catalyzed an incessant, nonstop feeling of insecurity and aching fear of judgment. I hadn’t felt so emotionally naked in years. And, not to put too fine a point on it, I felt 1 million percent alone.
I briefly thought about reaching out to some other people my age who appeared to be recently separated. According to my Facebook and Instagram, I loosely knew a few (you can usually tell by the overnight disappearance of wedding photos and emergence of feeling-yourself selfies), but I knew of no graceful way to slide into their DMs and inquire about the most personal aspect of their lives.
So I quietly deleted my own wedding photos, posted a few of my own feeling-myself selfies and hoped that acquaintances would learn of my newly single status via social media osmosis.
It’s now been seven months since I got separated, and my divorce will be final in just a few days. I’ve started saying “I’m divorced” when it comes up in mixed company without wanting to disappear into the floor. I’ve been going to therapy to better understand the qualities 32-year-old me needs in a partner. I started dating again.
Life goes on. It always does.
But if I can offer any takeaways from this experience, it’s that we need to talk about the hardest things in life. Out loud. Not just on an anonymous Reddit thread and not just to our therapists. If we can start to verbally confront the hardest things in life with each other, it might make it easier to confront those things in ourselves.
We also need to confront the societal forces that urge people to get married when they very likely have no idea what’s in store if that marriage doesn’t work out. Because if we knew ― I mean, really knew ― what lay on the other side, we might be more careful before doing it at all.