You’re reading Shout Out To Your Ex, our series on breakups, bouncing back, and why the end of a relationship can be the start of everything else.
Gracie Tyrrell was 24 when she met her ex-husband outside a nightclub in London. He seemed “really soft, quite the gentleman and had a chilled attitude towards everything”. By 28, they were married.
The fairytale relationship was not all it seemed, though, and by 30, she was divorced and asking herself: “Where the fuck do I go from here?”
“I felt every emotion possible, from anger, to hate, to regret. I even felt sorry for him,” she tells HuffPost UK. “My emotions were tested way beyond anything I could have ever imagined.”
Tyrrell, now 33, says the story of why she got divorced is long and complicated one. She worried about the stigma of being a young divorcee and threw herself into growing the snacks company she runs with her sister, Sophie, as a distraction. Seeing the business boom helped to restore her confidence, she says, and in time, she’s been able to learn from the experience of divorce.
She now describes it as “the greatest gift I could ever receive, a rare, life-changing opportunity to grow as a human being.”
“I used to think he was lazy, now I realise I was unable to relax,” she says. “I used to think he didn’t work hard enough, now I realise I was putting my personal expectations onto him.
“I used to feel angry when he didn’t message me, now I realise I was unable to fully trust. I used to think it was all his fault, now I realise I played a part too.”
Getting divorced by the age of 30 is less and less common, but mainly because getting married before 30 is no longer the norm. The number of marriages happening each year has steadily declined since the 1970s and at the same time, the age when couples tie the knot has increased.
The latest Office for National Statistics data shows that in 2018, the average age at marriage for opposite-sex couples was 38.1 years for men and 35.8 years for women. For same-sex couples, the average age was even higher, at 40.4 years and 36.9 years respectively. The most common age bracket for divorce was 45-49 for all.
This all makes being a young divorcee even more usual. Laura Jones*, 33, from Liverpool, says there is “definitely a stigma” attached to the label, which she’s noticed more since getting engaged for the second time.
“When I explain it’ll be my second marriage, I’m definitely judged for it,” she says. “I get a lot of: ‘You don’t look old enough to be divorced.’”
Jones’s first date with her now-ex was pretty run-of-the-mill. They met on a dating site in 2012, went for drinks and hit it off. When he proposed two years later, Jones, who was 26 at the time, had no doubts. “We decided to get married as we were in love,” she says. “We believed it was the next step.”
Once married, her ex became emotionally abusive, stealing money and manipulating her in a way she now recognises as “gaslighting”. She was signed off work due to anxiety and depression and started to be wary about going out.
Towards the end of their marriage, she confronted her husband about a suspected affair. He trashed the house and became physically threatening, which led to his arrest. Jones fled to her dad’s house and in the three years since, she’s started to heal and has found love again.
“I have learned so much about myself since divorcing,” she says. “I didn’t realise how much of myself and my personality I had lost until friends started saying how it was like having the ‘old Laura’ back.
“I put myself first a lot more have learned a lot about self-love and know my worth, which has resulted in me meeting a great man who compliments me, not complicates me.”
Esther McCann, 33, from Bristol, also felt herself slipping away in her marriage, but since initiating her divorce, she’s worked on reclaiming her identity.
The life coach met her ex-husband through work 10 years ago and married when she was 23, after a “whirlwind romance” of under a year. By 24, she had a daughter, alongside his two children from a previous relationship, but McCann had a growing sense that something wasn’t right.
“I became isolated from my friends, most of my hobbies weren’t supported and my emotional needs weren’t being met,” she says. “At 29, I initiated the divorce. It was one of the hardest decisions I have ever made as there were three children involved, but I didn’t know who I was anymore. And even though I didn’t know what life looked like on the other side of divorce, I knew there was more joy available to me, and for him too.”
McCann doesn’t regret her relationship, because it gave her a daughter – “the biggest gift in life so far” – and was the catalyst for her reconnecting with spirituality. It has changed the way she views marriage, though.
“Marriage isn’t important, not by today’s standards,” she says. “The sacredness and true meaning has been lost along the way somewhere. It’s a day that’s become more about pleasing the guests and the lavish details than about two people really connecting and celebrating their love for one another. That shouldn’t be stressful and it all too often is. If I ever remarry, nobody will know about it and it will be just myself and my partner. It’s not about anyone else.”
“Even though I didn’t know what life looked like on the other side of divorce, I knew there was more joy available to me, and for him too.”
– Esther McCann, 33
McCann might plan to do marriage differently, second time round, but Charlotte Luis*, 36, from Dalston, London, can’t imagine herself ever walking down the aisle again. Aged 25, Luis was training with a city law firm when she broke up with her long-term university boyfriend. A colleague offered to introduce her to a friend and the pair went for drinks. By 28, they were married.
“My ex was completely different to my university boyfriend in all the right ways, and this was a big part of my attraction,” she says. “Looking back, I realise how young I was, but it felt perfectly normal to be getting married at that age at the time.”
What started as a happy marriage soon went downhill when the couple’s son was born. “We were both shattered and poured all of our energy into our little boy without making much time for each other,” says Luis. “Things unravelled quite quickly from there and we decided that we would be happier apart.”
When she started dating again, Luis was nervous about telling people she was divorced, fearing it made her “less desirable, less of a catch”. To her surprise, she’s never had a negative reaction.
“I’ve met some wonderful people along the way. It seems to help that my ex and I still have a good friendship with one another,” she says. “A friend once said to me that ‘all the glamorous people get divorced’, and I try not to see it as a negative thing. In fact, being divorced has made me more attuned to what I want and need from a partner, which can only be a positive thing.”
Far form simply surviving divorce, the women we spoke to all emphasised how they are thriving after divorce. Luis has found the experience so utterly life-altering, she’s currently writing a book about it. A key learning, she says, has been the value of alone-time, particularly because she was in a relationship from 18 (when she started dating her university boyfriend) to 31 (when her divorce finalised), with only three months of being single in between.
“Having had some time to myself, I now have a much clearer idea of the kind of man that I need. More importantly, perhaps, I also now know that I don’t need a man or a marriage to be happy,” she says.
“My relationship with my little boy – who is now five and who splits his time between me and my ex – has never been better, I am surrounded by a supportive and eclectic group of friends, I’m in a well-paid job that I enjoy, and I bought my own house in a cool part of London last year. I also now understand that marriage is not for everyone, and that it may not be right for me, but that there are other forms of commitment.”
Any breakup can spark a period of reflection, but divorce – when you’ve boldly proclaimed your love and commitment in front of friends and family – seems to spark even greater introspection. One thing is clear: divorce by 30 is not the easy way out, but it may be the best thing you ever do.
*Some names have been changed to offer anonymity.