The shame of ending a marriage before its first anniversary

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Olivia Clement

In our social media age, the feelings of failure associated with divorce are exacerbated.

In our social media age, the feelings of failure associated with divorce are exacerbated. Photo: Stocksy

In an interview with Chelsea Handler last week, Drew Barrymore opened up about her recent divorce, reiterating that she felt like "the biggest failure". Last month, the actress announced her divorce from Will Kopelman after almost four years of marriage. "You get divorced and you're like, 'I'm the biggest failure. This is the biggest failure'," she told the host.

My own marriage lasted less than a year. We'd been together seven years but shortly after our wedding, the relationship began to disintegrate. During those final months, as I contemplated our mutual unhappiness, I knew that ending it was the best option. My husband and I were living in a pressure cooker and there was weightlessness, on the other side of our relationship, which I craved desperately. I needed air. Yet the feeling of failure loomed over me. We had spoken vows in a room full of loved ones. We'd signed the dotted line; evidence that our love was official and long term. We'd each made wedding toasts, clinked our champagne glasses and partied long into the night with our nearest and dearest. Had we been fooling ourselves? I felt like I'd been allowed to sit at the adults' table and then somehow proved I wasn't capable. Mistakes are human nature, but mine now involved wasted money, lawyers, and an album full of photos I wasn't quite sure what to do with.

Recent ABS data shows the number of divorces in Australia has been steadily declining. Statistics tell us there are fewer divorces now than there have been in the last 20 years, as both the divorce rate and divorce numbers continue to decline. Furthermore, though one in three marriages still ends in divorce, they are lasting longer than they did two decades ago.

It's not only for tax benefits that the queer community is fighting to legalise marriage; we want to believe in everlasting love. If not forever lasting, at least some semblance of a long-lasting partnership, of commitment through thick and thin. Marriage stands as a kind of proof that people are still willing to be in it for the long run. It makes sense then, that when it ends after a very short period, it can feel like a huge failure on more than just a personal level. A friend of mine was overwhelmed by feelings of failure when she divorced her husband after a two-year marriage. She felt as if she'd not only let her relationship down, she was disappointing everyone who had believed in their proclamation of enduring love. There's no exit strategy for a love that fails to stand the briefest test of time.

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During my own breakup, I was restless, confused and irritable. "I have to stick it out," I remember telling my sister repeatedly. "But you're so miserable," she'd reason. "You gave it a go and it didn't work out. It's okay." But it wasn't okay. I recalled the weeks leading up to the wedding, in which friends had elatedly congratulated us over and over again. I remembered my own words, how I'd told everyone "it felt so right". In the past, I had never felt like marriage was necessary; I believed a partnership required trust, respect and love, not a certificate. The choice to wed was more of a practical one, yet something I came to embrace intuitively. In the moment, it felt romantic and beautiful. But within the year, I was a walking example of my own trepidations and the irony embarrassed me.

In our social media age, the feelings of failure associated with divorce are exacerbated because we make very public declarations of our commitment to our partners. But we're not prepared for how it feels to also share the fallout. I felt like a fraud, even if I wasn't trying to trick anybody. I remember posting a photo of my wedding day on Facebook and being inundated by messages from people I hadn't spoken to in years. Society is invested in the concept of marriage and when yours ends after only a brief stint, you suddenly feel guilty of having trivialised something sacred. Like you didn't try hard enough.

But at the end of the day, isn't life the most sacred thing of all? You only get one. Nothing should be deemed a failure if it allows you to live a more truthful and happier existence. Sometimes the wrong decisions only reveal themselves in hindsight and that is simply the nature of living. You trust an instinct, only to discover you were misguided. For others, it may not even have been the wrong decision; the marriage just ran its course shorter than was expected. But from your experience will inevitably come growth and eventually, a greater understanding of who you are as a person – and isn't that ultimately, the greatest victory?