Things You Only Know If You’re Divorced Before 30

Leaving her husband proved to feminist writer Helen Lewis that you never really know a man until you have divorced him...

Celebrities divorced before 30

by Helen Lewis |
Updated on

My wedding, in May 2010, was beautiful. Great dress. Cool venue. Fun speeches. That inevitable bit at the end of the night when everyone sways along to New York, New York. But within two years, something unexpected happened. I fell in love with someone else.

When I confessed this to my best friend Laura, we quickly realised that neither of us really knew how to get divorced. I was 29 and I had a responsible job – I even wrote columns about feminism. And yet I had paid more attention to the small print on my honeymoon insurance than
I had to the implications of legally uniting myself with another person.

Politicians have been talking about ‘no fault’ divorce for decades. Currently, though, if you want to exit a marriage quickly, one of you has to take the blame, admitting to either adultery or ‘unreasonable behaviour’. If you want to go for the neutral grounds of ‘separation’, you must wait for two years – or five, if the other spouse contests it. Most people don’t want to wait that long. And so our fault-based divorce laws needlessly ramp up any bitterness.

In our case, the person to blame was clear: it was me. So we started divorce proceedings. I took off my wedding ring, which no one noticed, and changed my name, which they did. We had taken each other’s surnames, going double-barrelled, which at least made the process of changing back an equal one. The majority of women still take their partner’s name, so they are the only ones deciding when, and if, to change their Facebook and LinkedIn profiles – a moment that feels a little bit like posting a status update reading: ‘Hello everyone. Yes, my marriage did fail. Pity me!’

Helen Lewis
Helen Lewis ©Helen Lewis

For women who’ve built up a public profile in their married name, the choice is even harder: do you want to nuke your Google results? (There’s a reason that Vivienne Westwood and Diane von Furstenberg still carry the names of men who have long since left their lives.)

Getting divorced is also lonely. You lose the friends you made as a couple, and those who don’t want to choose between you and your ex. You lose the friends you only saw as part of a group – a group from which you are now excluded. And, of course, you lose your own best friend, the person you saw first thing in the morning and last thing at night. No wonder psychologists believe that divorce is as stressful as a bereavement.

Then there’s the money. We didn’t have kids or own a house, so the legal side was simple. But looking at my bank account, it was immediately obvious that renting in London hadn’t left much cash at the end of the month to go into savings. After staying for a few weeks with a friend, I moved into a shared flat, scraping together the deposit and first month’s rent. My new place didn’t come with curtains, and I couldn’t afford any for a while, so I got undressed at night in the dark.

Like most traumatic events, getting divorced taught me hard lessons about myself. When I went to pick up my stuff from our old place, I wasn’t fussed about the fancy coffee maker or the matching towels from our wedding list; I just wanted my books. They were what I really treasured. The friends who did stick by me matter even more. I know how much they’re worth.

I was angry at the wedding industry, pushing the idea of a ‘perfect day’

Getting divorced made me feel both angry and grateful. I was angry at the wedding industry, pushing the idea of a ‘perfect day’ to sell me frills, flowers and favours (seriously, almonds in a bag?). I had thought a lot about my Special Day and much less about my Mundane Post-Marriage Life.

The sources of gratitude were just as revealing. My ex-husband is nothing but a gentleman and behaved with incredible generosity. He proved the truth of Zsa Zsa Gabor’s motto: you never really know a man until you have divorced him. But his goodness reminded me that not everyone is so lucky, and I was grateful to all the feminists who have fought to make marriage, and divorce, more equal. Imagine leaving a violent man. Imagine leaving a man when you only have a joint bank account. Imagine leaving a man knowing you might never see your children again.

Until 1870, married women couldn’t own property. In 1912, the Suffragette Una Dugdale was told her marriage wouldn’t be valid unless she vowed to ‘obey’ her new husband. Until the 1970s, there were no women’s refuges in Britain. It took until 1991 for rape in marriage to become illegal. Generations of women fought, in the law courts and the court of public opinion, to get all that changed.

I didn’t know any of this history when I got divorced, but I benefited from it just the same. For several years afterwards, I was reluctant to talk about the end of my marriage. It felt too raw, then too revealing. But for women, the ability to get divorced means something particular – it means the law considers you an independent person, not merely property to be passed from your father to your husband. We fought for that. By getting divorced, I learned that I owed a debt to women that I will never meet.

‘Difficult Women’ (£16.99, Jonathan Cape) is out now

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