I married myself on top of a picturesque mountain. A man I met that day who was intrigued by my plan walked me down the aisle. I said my vows. There were tears of love and joy.
That same weekend, my ex-husband, whom I had been with for 25 years, married a tall blond fitness instructor with a fabulous figure. She was everything I am not. While my adult children traveled from other cities to attend their father’s wedding, I gathered some of my best friends to be with me while I recited vows to myself halfway across the country.
Two friends traveled from the West Coast, and two of us came from the East. I had sent them email invitations cordially inviting them to my wedding ... to myself. There was some initial confusion, but they were game.
I am unsure how the idea to wed myself came to me. I was working hard on self-care and self-love after a lifetime of self-hatred. I was using affirmations to boost my spirit. Why not have a ceremony to reinforce my work? Having others bear witness to my commitments to myself could increase my accountability to my goals and new practices. My ex was remarrying. Why couldn’t I?
I researched places that would be conducive to lifting my spirits. I settled on a mountain resort in Colorado that had seasonal specials, campfires, fun activities, great food and natural beauty.
Nature feeds me. I wanted an outside setting to send my vows out into the universe. I wanted to manifest abundance for myself and, in a way, scream from a mountaintop my vision for my new life and new relationship to myself.
My wedding guests came with wedding gifts and a floral tiara that I wore at the ceremony. I did not share my plans with my adult children, who already knew that their mom was a bit out there.
Other friends not in attendance supported my decision. People usually reacted with glee when they learned of this milestone I had created for myself. We can create new stories and narratives. We can find creative ways to combat the negative thoughts all of us have when life throws us curveballs.
I wanted to surround myself with those who helped me be the best version of myself that I could be. The women who attended my wedding do that. We have been friends for 37 years. We met in law school in Charlottesville and accompanied each other through weddings, births, deaths, job changes and life’s crises of many varieties. Our families vacationed together from time to time until some of us became empty-nesters. Now two of us are divorced. We fit the national average on that score.
“We can create new stories and narratives. We can find creative ways to combat the negative thoughts all of us have when life throws us curveballs.”
I knew the weekend would be an emotionally challenging one for me. Although I no longer want to be married to my ex-husband, I grieve the loss of our marriage and the irretrievable fracturing of our family unit. My parents had divorced in the 1960s, which then was cause for excommunication from the Catholic Church. I had no friends with divorced parents at that time. There were some classmates from my parochial school whose parents forbade them from coming to my house because my parents had been kicked out of the church.
My parents’ divorce still stung into adulthood and at various milestones in my life. It was awkward at graduations, weddings and baptisms. I do not think my father and stepfather have ever spoken a word to one another, despite decades passing during which they were forced to be in close proximity. I believe my father went to his deathbed still in love with my mom. A broken alcoholic, he would sometimes slur to me in a drunken haze, “Why did you leave me, Angeline?” I would reply, “I’m not Angeline! I’m your daughter!”
It was the end of an era for me when my ex-husband announced his engagement. I mourned the loss of the Norman Rockwellian family life fantasy I had constructed in my mind. My ex-husband often accused me of trying to live a Hallmark card life. I had tried to do so. I thought I could provide my children the childhood I had longed for, free of domestic abuse, secrets and alcoholic rampages, and full of travel, tony private schools and material accouterments. It turns out they did not even enjoy the country club life. And I did not realize that the seemingly perfect families I observed around me were mostly an illusion.
Every family has problems. While the magnitude of familial disharmony and the ability to mask dysfunction and pain may differ, virtually no family is immune because we are all human. We are all perfectly imperfect.
I did much work on myself after the divorce. I sought a spiritual cure ― and lots of therapy. I opened the Pandora’s box of my life’s secrets and dealt with them head-on. I went to five rehabs, one of which specializes in trauma. I lived for 45 days in a house of 11 other women who had been sexually assaulted or abused. As an impactful exercise, the therapists once put us in a maze, blindfolded. There was only one way out. I tenaciously fought to get out, chasing down all avenues. All dead ends. The only way out was to ask for help ― something I rarely did up to that point. I was the last to get out.
I finally learned that no one is responsible for my happiness but me. I lamented the years I had spent silently begging via achievements and doing things for others. I realized that much of my motivation for my actions was the hope that my efforts would yield outside affirmations of my self-worth.
Now I believe all that happened was necessary to bring me to where I am, emotionally, today. Every person and situation can be a source of learning for me, whether pleasant or not. Rather than fight it, I am learning how to discern the message. I see that certain things I dislike about others are frequently reflections of what I abhor about myself. I do what I can to mend my character defects and live a life in accord with my values, not the values of those around me.
I woke up feeling melancholy the day of my ex-husband’s wedding. I privately shed some tears. As my friends awoke that morning and joined me around the fire pit for some cowboy coffee, I let their good cheer and unflagging support buoy me. We enjoyed the day, reveling in the natural beauty around us and the comfortable companionship the years had bestowed upon us. We took a long hike and, as we sat on a smooth rock jutting out above a lush valley, I was struck by the thought that these women help me turn my gaze forward, not back, time and time again.
That night, after dinner, we gathered in a little stone pavilion near our cabin. There was a warm fire blazing and a new moon visible above. The kind man we met from a nearby cabin was delighted to serve as my surrogate father to walk me down the small stone path aisle. My “bridesmaids” had given me something old (a beautiful vintage necklace in my favorite soft pink color), something new (a handmade crown of flowers with a bit of tulle serving as a veil), something borrowed (a small handmade purse I had gifted to one of them years ago), and something blue (lovely earrings).
The “bouquets” I supplied them with were small canvases with a photograph of me with each of them in the center, surrounded by carefully calligraphed sentiments of what I admired and respected about each one of them. I read the words on each canvas during the wedding ceremony. We all cried; even the people we did not know who happened to be in the pavilion when we arrived. A young woman on the property who heard what I was doing embraced me afterward with tears in her eyes and said I had helped her with my self-marriage ritual in ways I could not imagine.
“A young woman on the property who heard what I was doing embraced me afterward with tears in her eyes and said I had helped her with my self-marriage ritual in ways I could not imagine.”
I spoke of my promises to myself: I would love myself. I would cultivate self-compassion, a practice with which I had been unfamiliar for years. I would be responsible for my own happiness. I would have confidence in my ability to tolerate pain and move on. I would make the most of whatever time I had left in this world. I would respect myself enough to be intentional about how I spent my time ― the most precious commodity that not one of us can get back. I am enough and do not need anyone else to make me feel whole.
The wedding reception followed. In the hot tub. Under stars that began to glimmer.
I still smile when I reflect on my wedding to myself. My friends in attendance remember the weekend fondly and treasure the wedding party gifts I gave them that declare the character traits I most admire about each of them. I learned the difference between being alone and being lonely. I enjoy my own company now.
Some may think this exercise silly or attention-seeking. I say to them: Live and let live. Do what feeds your spirit. And if I am too much for you, go find less. I found me, and I can and will celebrate that.
Maria Leonard Olsen is a civil litigation attorney, TEDx speaker, journalist, podcaster and author of “50 After 50: Reframing the Next Chapter of Your Life.” Visit www.MariaLeonardOlsen.com for more information.