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Why divorcing young feels so hard, and what to do about it

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Victoria Lewis remembers how awkward it was telling her colleagues that her email address had changed. “Typically they would ask, ‘Oh, are you getting married?’ ” Lewis says. “I would make some self-deprecating joke and say, ‘No, I’m getting unmarried’ ” — and then smile and carry on the conversation as the other person tried to figure out what to say.

Lewis, 27, got divorced in August after a year and a half of marriage. Growing up, she constantly strove for success: good grades, a college education and a rewarding career. Divorce left her questioning her identity and self-worth. “That’s where the stigma and shame creep in,” she says. “It can be perceived as failure, and as someone who’s always been a higher achiever, failure is not something I typically am comfortable with.”

Divorce is incredibly common, including among younger adults — according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau, 7.1 percent of women who have ever been married divorce between the ages of 20 to 24; that jumps to 13.4 percent of those ages 25 to 29 and 22.3 percent of the 30-to-34 cohort. But the dissolution of a marriage at a young age can bring stigma.

Amanda Yetter got married at age 20 and divorced at 22 — and even decades later, she remembers how it felt: like she had a giant, defining “D” stamped on her forehead.

“I felt like a failure, and like every time I walked in a room, people could see it whether they knew me or not,” says Yetter, 52, a life coach based in the Pittsburgh area who’s remarried with three children. She was the first in her family to divorce, and she couldn’t shake the nagging guilt that her loved ones had invested time and money in her short marriage.

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“The biggest difference with young people is that it’s a bigger blow to their self-esteem,” says Sandra Radna, a divorce and family law attorney based in New York and the author of “You’re Getting Divorced ... Now What?” In 25 years of practice, she has seen many young divorcées — and says that the fear of what others will think often causes her clients to delay the inevitable. She recalls one woman whose husband became abusive and cheated on her, and while the couple eventually separated, “she didn’t tell anybody he moved out for four months because she didn’t want to be labeled as a divorced girl.” Another client still had unopened wedding presents, and she didn’t know what to do with them when announcing her split. As Radna put it, “Nobody gets married planning to get divorced.”

Divorce creates complicated feelings. People often worry that their friends and family will hit them with the dreaded “I told you so.” The person who chose to end the marriage might feel guilty because of the ripple effect, like hurting their spouse, children, parents or friends, or think they didn’t try hard enough to make it work, says Nancy Fagan, a divorce therapist based in Plano, Tex. The partner who was dumped, meanwhile, might feel like “they weren’t good enough or weren’t able to make their partner happy, and afraid people will see them as a fool.”

Taylor DuVall tied the knot at 19 and called it quits at 22. It was hard for her to shake “the idea that people who are married work hard, and people who are divorced are lazy,” she says. “Of course, that’s a wildly untrue generalization, but in the hard moments, your brain can start spiraling: ‘Was I lazy? Should I have worked harder? Is it all my fault?’ ”

DuVall, now 30 and a writer in Charleston, S.C., has since flipped her perspective. “It feels isolated and shame-filled at the time, but it’s honestly great — you have so many more years ahead to write a new story. I felt ashamed and embarrassed at the very same time I was feeling relieved and empowered.” She received “an incredible amount of support from friends and family,” so any sense of failure was largely internal.

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“I thought I was the only one, but over the past eight years, I have met countless women who were divorced in their 20s,” she says.

Here’s advice on how to cope with the stigma that often accompanies divorcing when young:

Remember: Divorce is not a characteristic. The label “divorced” is often assigned to those whose marriage ended. Fagan notes that it’s important to remind yourself that divorce is an action you took, not a characteristic or personality trait. “Don’t merge the divorce with who you are,” she says.

Focus on how you’ve evolved. Lewis has catalogued the ways she has grown and lessons she has earned as a result of getting divorced — and it’s “turned what’s traditionally a not-so-great situation into something I can have positive takeaways from,” she says. “I’ve learned I am incredibly resilient, and that’s something I now know going through life. If something comes up, I’m going to be able to handle it.” She also feels more confident and compassionate, and that she’ll be a better romantic partner in the future.

Write an “introduction script.” Write down one or two sentences that you would have used to describe yourself when you were married. Then write a couple sentences about who you are now — and “you can’t include the word ‘divorce’ or ‘getting divorced,’ ” Fagan says. Finally, write a paragraph about who you want to be in three years. “It’s reframing and retraining yourself” to get used to your new identity, she explains.

Practice self-compassion. Instead of blaming or berating yourself or your ex for the split, spend time caring for yourself and your emotional needs, says Rebecca Phillips, a licensed professional counselor in Frisco, Tex. “Think about how you would treat a friend,” she says. “What would you say to that friend? How would you try to comfort them?”

As Lewis put it: “Be gentle with yourself. I tend to be my harshest critic, and that doesn’t do you any favors.” One of the toughest parts of her divorce process was figuring out the “administrative burdens,” like finding a lawyer. “It’s so overwhelming, and if you’re also coming down hard on yourself or adding on layers of shame, you’re going to burn out,” she says.

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Create an “explanation narrative.” Write down a short explanation you can use to let friends and family know you’re getting divorced. Cut it down to one sentence, and then “rehearse it until it’s memorized,” Fagan says, perhaps with a fellow divorcée. That said: You don’t owe anyone an explanation for your divorce. If you’d rather not reveal any details at all, that’s your right. Simply say “That’s very personal — I’d rather not talk about it,” Fagan recommends.

Join a divorce support group. This is an ideal way for young people to “learn they’re not bad for wanting to leave an unsuccessful marriage,” Fagan says. You might be able to find one through your religious community or online. She also recommends checking Meetup for local options. Eventually, “your friends and family will say, ‘I’ve heard enough’ ” about your divorce, Fagan notes. “So that’s when you need people who are going through a divorce, too, because they’re going to talk about it as much as you need to talk about it.”

Go to therapy. “Therapy isn’t just having someone to talk to about your feelings — it’s so much more than that,” Phillips says. “It’s about helping you grow into a better version of yourself. One where you’re able to manage your emotions, communicate effectively, assert yourself and your boundaries, and be more patient with yourself and others.”

Practice affirmations. It might sound a bit silly, Phillips acknowledges, but her clients routinely tell her it helps. Any negative messages you’re hearing from others — or from yourself — need balance. A few recommendations from Phillips: “Divorce is not failure.” “It was wonderful while it lasted.” “It wasn’t working anymore, and that’s okay.” “My happiness matters more than the judgment of others.” Try writing your affirmation down and putting it where you’ll see it often, like on a sticky note attached to your mirror.

Allow yourself time to grieve the relationship. “You may face a lot of societal pressures that encourage you to just get over it,” says Nyanda A. Sam-King, a licensed mental health therapist based in the San Francisco area. That could unintentionally invalidate the feelings of loss that are natural after a marriage ends. “Heal and process the end of your marriage at your own pace,” she advises.

Look forward to a bright future. “Sometimes we don’t know what’s on the other side,” says Yetter, the life coach in Pittsburgh. “I couldn’t imagine when I was going through my divorce that I would meet my husband that I have today.” Getting divorced young doesn’t mean you’ve used up your one shot at happiness — plenty of joy awaits.

As DuVall says, “That cliche of a light at the end of the tunnel is 100 percent true of divorce. But while it’s fully dark, it can feel miserable and painful. Light a candle. Find the little things that help each day feel at minimum tolerable, and at best maybe even beautiful. Then day by day, you will walk yourself back into the light.”

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