"A walk down the aisle in a white dress doesn't guarantee a happy ending. You write your own happy ending." Photo: Stocksy
A 20-something divorcee is a bit like a four-leaf clover, or the perfect-fitting pair of jeans. You know they exist, but you're always surprised to find one. And yet, in 2011, the divorce rate among Australian women was highest in the 25-29 age group, with the under-25 age group not far behind. There are more four-leaf clovers out there than you might think.
I separated from my first husband (who was also my first boyfriend) when I was 25 and the divorce went through the following year. We had been together since I was 18. Our relationship came to an abrupt end (or so I thought at the time), but in reality the cracks had been there for some time.
I know, despite everything, that we loved each other in the way only the young and naive do – but we had been little more than kids, playing at being grown-ups. My expectations were very unrealistic (probably unfair, too) and I adopted a very passive role in my young marriage. Keeping my husband happy was my priority, even at the expense of my own needs. And it was 2002, not 1950.
So, only four years after we'd said "I do", instead of living in the spacious house in Melbourne's outer west that we'd moved in to only nine months prior, I found myself in the outer CBD sharing a house with two muscular male athletes, one of whom I saw completely naked the day I moved in.
Being so young, my misery and grief were all-consuming. Most people I knew were only at the start of building a life with someone, not heading to a divorce court. I'd listen with a sad smile to my sisters' and friends' happy news of engagements and babies, and fight back tears as I saw wedding cards on display in the post office or overheard romantic songs playing as I grabbed groceries for one in the Coles Express in Melbourne Central. Engaged at 19, married at 20, I had never actually been out in the world as an independent adult before.
I felt I was a walking contradiction in many ways – heartbroken over my failed marriage and deeply ashamed of what I felt it said about me; yet excited about the freedom and possibilities that the end of my marriage opened up for me.
But still, divorce is a club no one wants to join. And there's something about joining it before you're 30 that's particularly awful and isolating. While it was definitely a blessing that there were no children and that I had enough youth on my side to, in theory, be able to put the whole thing down to experience, it wasn't something most people in my life could relate to. Searching the self-help section in bookshops during this time was also fruitless – divorce was something that happened to people in their 40s, not anyone my age.
It was hard not to feel like a social pariah. Yet strangely, as time went on, I became proud of it – both of the fact I'd got out of a marriage that wasn't working early (rather than sticking it out for another 20 years and then leaving), and of the person I became because of it.
I learnt to embrace the fact that everyone makes a mess of their lives once in a while, and that our mistakes end up being our greatest teachers.
I got a much-needed crash course in independence. I learnt to love my own company and to meet my own emotional needs rather than seek external validation all the time, something that improved all my relationships. I learnt what I needed to work on as a partner – all things I simply wasn't capable of at age 20.
I learnt that the greatest failure in life is not a divorce, but refusing to take responsibility for your own happiness. Let's face it, that's how so many of us end up with the wrong people in the first place. We look everywhere but ourselves to feel whole and complete. And that was something I needed to learn to do if I had even the remotest chance of ever making another relationship work.
Nearly 10 years on, I'm very happily remarried, enjoying a true partnership that contains everything that was missing the first time around. Love is the ultimate leap of faith – it requires you to be brave, to trust even though you've been hurt before, and demands the presence of your real self, not the self you think someone else wants.
My wonderful and truly life-affirming second marriage is the main reason I can never regret my first. It simply wouldn't have happened otherwise.
I would never have fled Australia with a backpack and a broken heart, started a new life in London and attended a birthday party on a whim, where I met my future partner. That big "failure" led to my greatest life lessons and my greatest happiness.
While I do occasionally wonder what on earth was going through my 20-year-old self's mind, I'm grateful she became that resilient 25-year-old who learnt something that some people take decades to realise – that you're stronger than you think, and even when it seems your world has smashed to pieces, it really hasn't.
A walk down the aisle in a white dress doesn't guarantee a happy ending. You write your own happy ending.
Philippa Moore is the author of The Latte Years, published by Nero.