Many of us who’ve divorced recall that sticky limbo period when our split was so fresh that it wasn’t even public yet. We had told only our siblings or parents, and maybe our closest friends. We hadn’t yet been out in the world as a, gulp, separated person. Two weeks after my husband moved out, and I was still emerging from the shock, I was scheduled to be at my 25thcollege reunion and shortly afterward, not one, but two family weddings.
As the dates approached, I had no idea how I was going to present myself to people I hadn’t seen in 5, 10, or 20 years. There would be classmates, cousins, gossipy aunts, and of course, happily married couples of all ages, dancing up a storm. Would I mention that my husband and I were splitting up? Would I deliver a soft lie and say that he had a conflicting work trip? Or would I sidestep the questions entirely and do as my mother advised, “just keep the focus on them!”?
At my cousin’s wedding, our split was so new that I asked (or did I demand?) that my soon-to-be-ex don his black tie and show up. Looking back, I wish I hadn’t. My sister and brother knew our situation, which made it impossible to successfully playact the happy couple. Meanwhile, the rest of the family had no idea. It hardly felt right to drop the news on them during the celebration, so we limped along in an anemic performance.
It was an excruciating four hours.
Thankfully, he left early. Sometime during the dessert course, I was able to slough off the cloak of fakery. I sought out a beloved cousin I hadn’t seen in years. It turned out that she was struggling with her own marital problems due to her husband’s chronic illness. Soon we found ourselves in deep conversation over wedding cake and champagne. At one point, I realized that while everyone around us was trading pleasantries of the banalest sort, we were having a substantive talk about the future of our lives. At a certain point, she suggested we skip out to a party thrown by a mutual friend where we ended up dancing till the wee hours. What a rich and memorable evening it turned out to be!
At the second wedding, a month later, I was in a very different place. When people asked me what was new, I just came out with it. This triggered all sorts of responses–from theatrical expressions of sympathy to statements of outright envy. But there were some people who genuinely connected. A few had been through it and offered helpful advice or showed me the resilience I needed to witness (“that guy over there, he really was a pretty good first husband!”). Others shared that a friend or sibling was going through a divorce and voiced their genuine empathy and interest in getting together. My willingness to be truthful became a sort of litmus test. At the end of the summer, those weddings I had dreaded because they forced me out of hiding as a newly divorced person, had actually jumpstarted a whole new social life.
Here are five suggestions I hope will help buoy you through your first wedding season after your split:
1. Dare to go solo. Don’t bring a date unless you really want to spend the evening talking with them. Sure, a date can act as a protective shield, but it shuts out possibilities, to–not just romantic possibilities, but possibilities of meeting someone you might find a real bond with or at least share a great conversation.
2. Be Honest. If the question comes up about your status, consider telling the truth (provided it doesn’t send you into a paroxysm of tears). Have a line ready, and practice it if you need to – “Dave and I are splitting. It’s been a tough year, but I think we’re both relieved to have some clarity and the freedom to start moving forward.” Or “Jeb and I split up… I can assure you the worst is over.” Aim to be frank without oversharing, and to telegraph that you are okay, (at least okay enough to come to a wedding).
3. Be Open. Yes, you will receive those awkward words of sympathy– and they are almost always awkward if not downright cringe- inducing: Cue sad face, and voice dropping to low, pitying whisper, “Oh, I’m so…so sorry” followed by uncomfortable silence or nervous chatter as they make a hasty getaway to the bar. But the coolest people at this gathering will respond differently –they won’t give you the wooden pity line. Instead, they’re going to say “Oh, my God, I’ve been there!” and share a story from their split which will make you feel less alone. My favorite was from a friend who knew me in high school; “Oh, honey, once you get through the early hurdles, you’re going to love being divorced!” Realize that your honesty and vulnerability are invitations to real and substantive conversation. If they’d really rather talk about the weather, let them shuffle off to the bar!
4. Don’t make room for envy. At weddings, just like everywhere else, there are plenty of miserable couples out there masquerading as happy ones. You know better than anyone, since you’ve been there.
5. Connect!. Even if you aren’t ready to date, divorce requires reshaping your social life. Weddings are a great opportunity to spark new social connections. Use this opportunity to re-ignite old friendships that got squeezed out during your marriage, or meet new people and broaden your circle. For the first time in years, you actually have room in your life for new friends. If you are ready to date, weddings are great opportunities to find out who is single or to telegraph that you are. Think your old friend in advertising seems likely to know interesting people? Let him or her know that you’d be open to meeting someone. Make a note to invite them to do something, and be in touch.
Weddings celebrate a bride and groom beginning a new adventure. In a very real way, you are beginning one, too.