Three weeks ago, two days after our wedding, my new husband Paul and I borrowed a car and drove into the Colorado Rocky Mountains. Our shared future rolled out before us, as epic and seismic as the landscape. We nestled ourselves on the bank of Boulder Creek, intoxicated with the charged intimacy of being newlyweds on a mountainside soaked with sun, and I simultaneously tried to luxuriate in this awareness of love and also shake off my awareness of the history that preceded it.
I’m newly, and ecstatically, wed to Paul, but I’m not new to being wed. When I was twenty-five, I married my college boyfriend. The wedding was gorgeous and the union brief and sad. Our divorce was finalized fifteen months later. Two and a half years after that, I married Paul.
I have always been especially predisposed to feelings of shame, but when I ended my first fledgling marriage, I felt something more acute: a sense of true ruin. While my rational self was well aware that divorce didn’t mean shame, my emotional self was resolutely masochistic. Long-term married couples seem like society’s victors, and terms like “failed marriage” intimate that choosing divorce means acquiescing to defeat and personal weakness. I worried that failure was my lasting lot, and when I started dating Paul, my happiness felt barbed and undeserved.
I tried to take ownership over my nuptial excitement. On a modest budget, we planned a very small celebration. Intimacy appealed to my good side and it appealed to my shame as well. I was embarrassed to extend too many invitations, projecting my own self-disdain onto family and friends. I assumed that many who knew the circumstances of my first marriage could not take my second wedding seriously. How could I, the woman who had left her first husband eight months after marrying him, indulge a second joy?
I compulsively assured everyone that this wedding would be a modest and simple affair. The idea of compiling a wedding registry turned my stomach. I refused to entertain the possibility of another wedding gown, in part because of my fashion predilections but primarily because I was terrified of seeming gauche and entitled. At the bottom of all of these feelings was a secret hope that my wedding to Paul might serve as atonement for my blink-of-an-eye marriage and divorce. This was wildly unfair to both of us as well as contradictory to my actual beliefs.
I had left my first husband with near uncharacteristic confidence. In many ways I acted selfishly, which was unsettling enough for me, and in the aftermath I realized how women are treated when they put themselves, unconditionally, first. The raised eyebrows, askance looks, and—mercifully rare—unsolicited critiques were excruciating. I felt like everything else had been negated through this single, although certainly weighty, act of self-interest. I was reduced to a rough caricature: the selfish woman.
Women are not supposed to be selfish. In her capacity as the advice-bequeathing Dear Sugar, Cheryl Strayed responded to five women who sought her advice regarding predicaments uncannily similar to my own. (In a beautiful and weird stroke of fate, The Rumpus published this column a month after I separated from my husband.) Paying heed to these women’s impulses to leave their relationships—and their abiding fears—she writes, “Doing what one wants to do because one wants to do it is hard for a lot of people, but I think it’s particularly hard for women. We are, after all, the gender onto which a giant Here to Serve button has been eternally pinned.” Here to serve, but not to serve ourselves. And, by extension, here to be desired, not to pursue our own.
I could parse the circumstances, but, ultimately, I left my first marriage because I needed to do it. I was twenty-five, childless, and needed to rewrite my world before I was written into a narrative I didn’t want. But these sorts of decisions have the capacity to induce panic not just in those of us who make the choice but also in those who witness it. It made me anxious to follow the long-suppressed impulse of basic need. “Go, because you want to,” writes Strayed, “Because wanting to leave is enough.” Sobbing alone in my apartment, I whispered okay.
Through all of this I’ve never felt jaded about marriage itself. I am still inspired by romantic commitments that thrive across decades. When my parents snuggle together on the couch I want to pinch their cheeks and kiss them. My paternal grandparents celebrated their fiftieth wedding anniversary almost a decade ago, and I continue to marvel at the way they fascinate each other.
But somewhere along the way I learned that relationships don’t gain moral strength simply because they have endured. Relationships are too messy for such clean parallels. So much humiliation and self-loathing comes of treating divorce as the dark underbelly of intimacy. We don’t get one shot at long-term monogamy—if monogamy is even what we want. It occurred to me that, whether or not I wanted to remarry—and in the beginning I was not sure—divorce did not render impossible fifty years of mutual love and couch co-habitation.
By the week of my second wedding, I was stunned by the bigness of love surrounding me. Part of me had feared that the celebration would feel uncomfortably familiar, but it didn’t and it wasn’t. My family and friends gathered around me, affirming our bond. On that day, Paul and I read vows that we had written for each other, kept secret until we spoke them aloud. I made weepy faces that resemble Dawson’s expression when Joey rebuffs him for the I’m–not–sure–what time. My eighty-year-old grandmother cut a rug in a circle of twenty- and thirty-somethings, as Robyn thumped from the sound system. Paul and I danced our first dance to The Sundays’ cover of “Wild Horses,” and if you are eternally devoted to Buffy the Vampire Slayer like I am, you know that one of my dearest adolescent wishes was thus fulfilled (and that Paul is a tolerant man).
And while it is true that I love Paul in a way that I did not love my first husband—and that this affection shaped our wedding day—what is most important here is not comparative. I loved my first husband too, in the best way that I could in that moment, and I loved—still love—so much about our wedding. My wedding to Paul had nothing to do with my first; it was an exquisite day in the life of our own romance. The wedding was ours, and if it is not unconnected to the rest of my life, it still claims singularity—in the little particulars and in its celebration of a romance that can only be lived by Paul and me, together.
Rachel Vorona Cote is an English doctoral candidate living in Washington, D.C. She also writes creative non-fiction and personal essays at positiveandpromise.wordpress.com. You can find her on Twitter here:@RVoronaCote.