Chapter 1 Getting Started on a Starter Marriage
Isabel always wanted to get married. Atwenty-nine-year-old public relations executive from a New York suburb, she never lacked for male attention, though she says, “I mostly dated the wrong people. I just dated whoever liked me instead of trying to find the best person for who I am.” Despite a steady stream of monogamous relationships, Isabel was afraid of ending up single. “That’s why I married my husband,” she explains with a wry laugh.
At twenty-five, she decided to marry a man she’d been dating for eight months. “My friends were starting to get married, and they had had their boyfriends for years before,” she explains. “I felt like they were moving on with their lives, and I wanted to as well. I was pretty sure this was the right person, and I was tired of getting screwed over by men and at least he wasn’t doing that. We were both sick of the New York dating life, so we were pretty relieved to be getting married.” Marriage was something Isabel felt she was supposed to do. “You’re expected to get married, buy a house, have two kids. I think everybody gets caught up in that, and I definitely did. When you’re twenty-five suddenly you think you’re old and the thought of being twenty-seven or twenty-eight and still being single is such a bad feeling. You think everyone is judging you.”
After she got engaged, Isabel noticed several of her friends doing so quickly thereafter. “It’s like this snowball effect. Once one person gets engaged, everybody has to get engaged. And then you get so wrapped up in whose ring is bigger and who’s getting married where and how much everything costs.”
Isabel expected her marriage to be “a nice life with nice things,” but mostly she devoted her attention to the wedding. Over her year-and-a-half-long engagement, she and her fiancé planned the big day, which she now describes as “a three-hundred-person circus.” During the engagement period, whenever she and her fiancé fought, which was often, Isabel wrote it off as prewedding jitters, assuming that once they were married, things would change. They didn’t.
“Everything was a problem,” she says. “I don’t think we had any respect for each other. I didn’t feel comfortable with him. I knew, pretty much right away, that something was definitely not right.” Screaming matches and power struggles ensued. Isabel lost weight, grew depressed, and “didn’t feel like myself.” After only a year of marriage, they decided to divorce. “It was the one thing I hated to do because he came from a divorced family and I don’t believe in divorce. But after a while you say, ‘I’m too young. This is wrong. This is not what life’s supposed to be like.’ ”
“I rushed to get married,” Isabel explains. “My marriage was an unfortunate mistake, and it wasn’t worth saving because we were not meant to be.”
Isabel describes a typical starter marriage.
Starter marriages, like all marriages, are meant to last forever. But they don’t. Instead, they fizzle out within five years, always ending before children begin.
Starter marriages usually start young. While the age of Americans entering marriage has increased slightly over the past century (the average woman today marries at age twenty-five, the average man twenty-seven), many people still marry in their early and mid-twenties. Starter marriages end young too, with divorce papers often delivered before the thirtieth-birthday candles are blown out.
Divorce has long been common within the first five years of marriage, but today marriages are ending progressively earlier. And the new young divorces are a bit different from their predecessors; rather than becoming single moms and alimony dads, we’re divorcing before having children. Because while we still marry relatively young, we increasingly delay childbirth. The average age of first-time mothers has been steadily rising since 1972, and more couples are delaying children for three, four, five years into their marriage. First marriages aren’t exactly new, but starter marriages are more prevalent.
Pop culture is packed with new starter marriage icons. Drew Barrymore, Uma Thurman, and Angelina Jolie all jumped in and out of marriage and are already onto their seconds. Courtney Thorne-Smith, former Ally McBeal star, divorced her husband after seven short months of marriage—while still posing on the cover of InStyle Weddings magazine. Milla Jovovich was married for two months, alongside such temporarily committed people as Jennifer Lopez and Neve Campbell. Even Hollywood’s reigning bride, Julia Roberts, had a starter marriage. Starter marriages have practically become trendy. Self magazine described the phenomenon with the snappy headline “Just Married, Just Split Up.” And in September 2000 Entertainment Weekly included “divorcing in your 20’s” on its list of “in” things to do. In 2000 more than four million twenty-to-thirty-four-year-olds checked the “divorced” box. Jane magazine heralded the trend in April 2001 with the headline, “Young, Hot, and Divorced.”
But starter marriages are not to be glamorized or trivialized. To those who’ve had one, the very term “starter marriage” can sound dismissive and, frankly, demeaning. Some people still use the expressions “training marriage,” “practice marriage,” or “icebreaker marriage”; others prefer the generic umbrella “first marriage.” This book will use the somewhat uncomfortable and imperfect term “starter marriage” when referring to this brief, twentysomething take on matrimony. Whatever they’re called, these are marriages—in every sense except “till death do us part.” A starter marriage isn’t a whim or a fantasy or a misbegotten affair—it’s a real marriage between a man and a woman, bound together by love, personal belief, state law, and, often, religious oath. A starter marriage doesn’t feel like one when you’re engaged or when you’re inside it. It is charged with all the hope, expectations, and dreams that inspire almost all marriages. All starter marriagees truly believe they are getting married forever.
A starter home is that first house you buy knowing full well that the bedroom is smaller than you’d like, the kitchen has no windows, and the insulation will have to be replaced. You accept these faults and make certain compromises knowing that you’ll only be there temporarily or that you’ll improve it. The difference between a starter marriage and a starter home is that virtually nobody who enters a starter marriage thinks he’s in it for the short term and will eventually upgrade to a better marriage. “I had a firm belief in the fact that you only pick one partner for life,” says James, thirty, a Seattle-based multimedia designer whose marriage dissolved after thirteen months. “I didn’t have a thought in my mind about divorce. I had very strong values.”
Indeed, today’s young marrieds often think they’ll improve on the institution of marriage, even when their relationships are less than ideal. Existing problems and doubts are submerged to the larger desire to marry and the overwhelming giddiness of love. All will be solved, everything will be fine, we will be happy, once we’re married. Everyone who enters into a starter marriage, like most people who wend their way down the aisle, has dreams—and often fantasies—of what married life will bring.