I was on the way to the gym when my older sister called me from New York to discuss my upcoming 30th birthday. It was six months away, but with such a big milestone, she wanted to start planning way in advance. Did I want a huge party or a small dinner? Casual dress or cocktail attire? Whom would I invite? Did I want to go somewhere? Vegas? Miami? Or did I want to stay in L.A.?
Illustration by David Plunkert
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As I pondered these options, one definitive thought struck me: Regardless of what city I was in, what I was wearing or what I had planned, I didn’t want Dan on the guest list. I didn’t want Dan to be anywhere near me on my 30th birthday. I wanted my 30th to be free of status quo mediocrity.
This thought was both overwhelming and freeing, and struck me with such force that I burst into tears. I quickly got off the phone with my sister, citing bad reception, pulled into the gym parking lot and sobbed. Dan was my husband. And as I cried for the first time about the state of my marriage, I knew I would be divorced by 30.
There are countless paths to getting divorced by 30, and this is a guide to the most common ones — 15 simple steps to guide you on your way to ending your starter marriage. But if you are a traditionalist, storybook romantic or just lazy and don’t want to get divorced by 30, then read this article and do the opposite of what my friends and I did.
Yes, five of my closest friends all got married around 27 years old, and all got divorced by 30. To protect the innocent, I will call them Michelle, Aaron, Alise, Robert and Liz.
My parents, who have been together for more than 35 years, also believe in getting the first one over with. My mother’s first husband was a charming, philandering cad, and my father had so little to say to his first wife, he avoided being alone with her even on their honeymoon. Because their second choices seemed to go so well, they are big believers in the get-divorced-by-30 philosophy.
Dan and I met six years earlier, when we both worked at the world-famous Hollywood Improv on Melrose. I was a writer/cocktail waitress. He was an actor/bartender. It was a romance made in L.A. heaven. I had only weeks before broken up with my live-in boyfriend when Dan and I had our first date.
I had met my previous boyfriend at a Seder when I was in college. He was 10 years older than I, had just returned from a Peace Corps stint building villages in Africa, and was about to finish his veterinary schooling. I believed he was much smarter than I was, and because I felt intellectually inferior, I allowed him to bully me constantly. At first, his condescending antagonism was exciting and challenged me to become a well-rounded person. I read nonfiction. Figured out where Chad was on a map. And even went camping. But my admiration of his intelligence soon turned into resentment, and we couldn’t get through a day without screaming at each other. He relentlessly corrected and nitpicked at me. The last straw came at a Peruvian restaurant three years into our relationship. A girl walked in wearing a purple pea coat. I said, “I like her pea coat.” He said, “Well, technically, it has to be navy blue to be a pea coat.”
So weeks later, when I got to know superchill, pot-smoking, laid-back, friendly, smart-yet-not-hostile Dan, I thought: This is the guy for me! And that is the first step to getting divorced by 30.
STEP ONE: Jump from your horrible early-20s relationship right into a mid-20s relationship without learning or growing or pondering what you really want out of a mate — then marry that person.
By your late 20s, you’ll realize you were merely over-correcting the first person’s flaws and that the one you married is just as wrong for you as the one you didn’t, but in very different ways.
STEP TWO: Marry an actor.
When I mentioned to family friend Buck Henry that I was marrying Dan, he said one of two things would happen: Dan would never succeed as an actor, and I would resent his constant struggles and feelings of inadequacy and leave him. Or he would succeed and leave me for someone younger and skinnier. Either way, it would not end well. Buck, as always, was right.
STEP THREE: Believe that opposites attract.
From day one, I knew Dan and I had major conflicts. I liked to go out. He didn’t. He liked to smoke pot. I didn’t. He was a meat-and-potatoes-eating, plaid-shirt-wearing, baseball-obsessed Chicago guy. I was a turkey-burger-and-salad-eating, pointy-boots-wearing, reality-show-obsessed Miami Beach girl. But we pushed all those inherent differences aside and were determined to make it work. For a time, we enjoyed doing things the other enjoyed. I went to a few Cubs games. He went to a few dance clubs. But as time passed, we became comfortable enough with the relationship to stop doing things the other person enjoyed, and only did the things we enjoyed. So, although we had happy times curled up in bed, we didn’t spend any time together out in the world.
After two years of dating, we decided it was time to move in together. Our fundamental oppositeness, however, was reflected in where we lived. I lived in Miracle Mile and loved being surrounded by fun bars and restaurants and museums. He lived in Venice and loved being surrounded by the ocean, the grime and the homeless hippies.
But I was looking forward to living together and putting an end to the constant overnight bags, so I gave up my love of Hollywood and headed west. We rented a cute, two-bedroom bungalow on the canals, and I did enjoy the ducks and the jogs on the beach. But I felt isolated from my friends, who were just miles away. And I loved complaining about it. So now I was unhappy living in Venice, but happy to have something to complain about. And Dan was happy living in Venice, but unhappy I had something to complain about.
STEP FOUR: Adhere to an arbitrary timetable.
In the back of my mind, no matter how independent, untraditional and nondomestic I pretended to be, I always had a timetable. Date for two years, and then move in. If that goes well, get engaged at three years. And then get married.
The night before our three-year anniversary, I stayed up fantasizing about how Dan might propose, the ring he would painstakingly pick out for me, and how we would shop for a condo together. By the end of the next day, it was apparent that not only was Dan not planning on proposing — he had actually forgotten it was our anniversary!
I yelled at him, and all my quiet hopes came loudly spilling out. He was dumbfounded. He had no idea he was supposed to propose, no idea I had a relationship schedule in my head, no idea that even though I pretended to hate clichéd romantic gestures, I still craved them. Dan told me he didn’t quite see the point of marriage. And, of course, I came back with the age-old, “Well, if it doesn’t matter one way or the other, then why not just get married?”
Which led to …
STEP FIVE: Give a passive-aggressive ultimatum.
Three weeks after our three-year anniversary, Dan rolled over in bed and said, “So, how do you want to do this?” And I knew that was a marriage proposal. Not the kind I really wanted, but I took it.
His complete lack of enthusiasm toward our three-year relationship, and my focus on our future instead of our present, should have been indicators that it was a great time to walk away. To realize our best days together had passed. But in the same way you might continue to watch a TV show years after it jumps the shark because the first season was so good, Dan and I both plodded on. Because our first season together was amazing at times. We would get off work at 2 a.m., steal carrot cake from the Improv fridge, and eat it in bed while reciting hacky comedy bits we had heard that night for the 80th time. We would laugh hysterically, until we started choking on that amazingly sweet cream-cheese icing. In the beginning, Dan had no money, so he would give me bouquets of sour-apple Blow Pops — my favorite flavor. And I would happily clean out the piles of head shots and soda cans from his car. Soon the Blow Pops stopped coming. And instead of me cleaning his car, I nagged him to do it.
I was so invested in my timetable that I didn’t give myself the option to not get married. Instead, I gave him a lot of attitude about not wanting to marry me. And he fell into the trap of begrudgingly giving me what I thought I wanted.
If you feel your mate is moving forward in the relationship only because it seems like the thing to do, because you have given him a passive-aggressive ultimatum or because you have been harping about it for weeks, go for it! You will be divorced in a few years. Guaranteed.
STEP SIX: Get married for a down payment.
My desire to get married was caused by a combination of factors. My backwards notion that being married would make me a complete person; my rigid internal clock; and the fact that I really, really wanted to own property in Los Angeles, and at the rate my career was going, I would never be able to afford a place on my own.
My father always told my sister and me we could have either a big, fancy wedding or a down payment. And I wanted that down payment. It wasn’t my only reason to get married, but it was a reason. That, and I loved Dan, of course.
STEP SEVEN: Plan the divorce while you plan the wedding.
After the rollover proposal, I went by myself to a jewelry store and bought my ring. Dan paid me back with a check. It might have been the least-romantic purchase of an engagement ring in the history of courtship, but I bragged to friends and family that we were such an amazing couple that we didn’t need the usual silly traditions.
We were the type of couple who could be honest with each other about how many people we had slept with. Dan could smoke pot and play Grand Theft Auto for hours on end without me getting upset. I could go out with my friends, get drunk and come home in the middle of the night, and he wouldn’t be fazed. We never felt jealous or threatened, and we rarely fought. We were the couple that other couples envied.
While trying on rings, I was vaguely aware that I specifically picked something nontraditional — dozens of beautiful, glistening pave diamonds instead of a larger stone — so I could wear it on my right hand after the divorce. Of course, I kept this to myself. I was planning my divorce at the same time I was planning my wedding.
STEP EIGHT: The invitations have already gone out.
So if I was already thinking about divorce, then why plan the wedding? Because the train had already left the station, and it felt too late to turn back now. And because planning the wedding was fun, exciting and a great distraction from my usual life.
We had only 38 guests, lots of cupcakes and no cheesy band. It was held at my close friend Michelle’s house.
Michelle had just gotten married three months before. The big diamond rock on her finger came with an over-the-top Beverly Hills wedding with fake snow and a fairy-tale dress. Her husband was a successful standup comic. That, incidentally, is STEP TWO, Subset B: Marry a comedian. Comedians are even worse than actors because they are not only battling between total self-absorption and insecurity; they are constantly trying to be funny.
My wedding was perfect. I walked down the makeshift aisle to Joe Jackson’s “Is She Really Going Out With Him?” My friend Mat, who is a talented comedy writer, got ordained online at the Universal Life Church and married us with a tight seven-minute set. Our vows consisted of jokes about Dan’s countless fruitless auditions and my bouts of neurotic rewrites of movie scripts. Nowhere in our vows did we say anything about “till death do us part” or words like love and forever. I ate for the first time in months at our reception. And everyone laughed when Dan’s best man raised a glass and toasted us with “To the best five years of your life.”
STEP NINE: Compromise to the point that both parties are unhappy.
After the wedding, Dan and I bought a condo in the Valley with the money my father gave us for a down payment. I hated living in Venice. Dan hated Hollywood. So we settled on a place we’d both hate: Sherman Oaks.
STEP TEN: Cling to distractions.
The other big postwedding purchase was a giant flat-screen TV we named Ruby.
Dan sat in his chair and smoked pot. I sat on my couch and constantly did my nails. And we watched Ruby together. Hours and hours of TV watching. The next two years became a blur of previous seasons of Amazing Race, Deadwood and Lost. One summer, we watched so much Alias that my cat Spork actually learned how to meow to the opening song. It was as though Dan and I never needed to say another word to each other, because we were now married.
I went to work. Dan went to work. At this point, I was getting writing jobs and he was getting acting jobs. Years before, when we worked at the Improv, we needed each other for support and encouragement and a sense of stability in a crazy, scary town that will eat your soul and then puke it up because it has too many calories.
But we both got to a point where we didn’t need each other so much anymore. And although there was plenty of general contentment, there was no more need. And at the time, we both mistook need for love. So once the need was gone, there wasn’t much to fill up the space. Except for Ruby.
On a Saturday night, soon after my realization that I didn’t want Dan at my 30th-birthday party, he and I were watching Match Point on Ruby. Toward the end of the movie, he pressed pause, turned to me and said earnestly, “If you ever want a divorce, just ask. No problem. But please, don’t kill me.” I laughed and at the same time felt a deep pang of loneliness. He knew me so well. While watching Jonathan Rhys Meyers get away with murder, I was in fact thinking I could just kill Dan. In a warped way, it seemed a better solution. Instead of becoming a cold-hearted, baggage-laden divorcée, I would be a grief-stricken, mysterious widow. Assuming I didn’t get caught, of course.
And how could I want to divorce a man who not only knew what I was thinking, but also had the sense of humor to joke about me murdering him? But watching Dan rock in his chair and take another hit off his pipe, I became certain that knowing someone doesn’t mean you should be married to him or her. Sometimes truly knowing someone makes you see you shouldn’t.
Once I realized I didn’t want Dan at my birthday party, I started to confide my unhappiness to my closest friends. Maybe divorce is catching. Once a friend does it, you realize it is a viable option — like suicide. Most people who commit suicide have had a close friend or family member previously do the same. Or maybe divorce isn’t contagious, and it’s just a coincidence that at 29 years old, most of my friends were also unhappy in their marriages. Their experiences add to the list of steps to take if you want to be divorced by 30. Such as …
STEP ELEVEN: Move in together to save money.
After being married for five years, my friend Aaron was a shell of his once-acerbic self. His path to getting divorced by 30 was to move in with his girlfriend way too quickly because it made financial sense. Then, once moved in, they fell into wedding plans and a marriage. Their wedding was spectacular. Guys in gorilla costumes and everything. But once again, the wedding does not make the marriage. Like many men, Aaron did not leave his wife. He just brooded in quiet misery until she left him. Now single in his early 30s, he has never been happier, in his usual curmudgeonly way.
STEP TWELVE: All your friends are doing it.
Like a Christian kid doing the bar mitzvah circuit in eighth grade, you can feel pretty left out if you’re not part of the 27-year-olds’ wedding circuit. No parties. No presents. No center of attention. That’s how my friend Liz felt, so she decided it was time to get a boyfriend quick, and get married even quicker. She married the first person who came along. Even though he was in an awful band, called her the wrong name in bed once and never paid for dinner.
Liz’s marriage lasted only three months. She is now 30, much wiser, and I’m pretty sure she will be more discerning before getting engaged again.
STEP THIRTEEN: Marry your high school sweetheart.
Although marrying your high school sweetheart is a safe bet to end in divorce by 30, we continually view it as the height of romance.
Robert and his HS GF briefly broke up in college, only to decide two weeks later they couldn’t live without each other. They got married their senior year and enjoyed the constant cooing whenever anyone asked how they met. It was 10th-grade biology. He sat behind her. She passed him a note. And after their first date at the mall, nothing was going to get in the way of their intense, I-will-die-for-you first love. Except when at 28 years old, he realized they had little in common other than lots of memories. Which brings me to …
STEP FOURTEEN: Ignore your spouse and dive into a new addiction.
To escape from his daily discontentment, Robert started playing World of Warcraft. Once he hit level 70, his wife had an affair with a co-worker. And he was divorced soon after.
STEP FIFTEEN: Beat a dead horse.
This general late-20s relationship melancholy transcends sexual orientation. Although not technically married, my friend Alise went to the West Hollywood courthouse to get domestic-partner papers with her live-in girlfriend of three years. A year later, Alise was tired of the lesbian bed death, the constant talking riddled with miscommunications, and the biweekly therapy sessions.
Marriage shouldn’t be that hard, and if it is, it’s time to leave. The brink of 30 is a good age to realize that beating a dead horse won’t make it move any faster.
Once You’ve Made It Through the Steps
Aaron, Alise, Liz, Robert, Michelle and I all got divorced within a month of one another. Michelle and I actually left our husbands on the same day.
Each couple had different degrees of fighting and sadness and aftermath. After struggling with my feelings for a few months, I couldn’t ignore my despondency any longer. I waited for Dan to come home, and the minute he walked through the door, I said, “I’m unhappy and think we should get a divorce.” He said, “Okay.” It turns out he was unfulfilled as well. I was just the first one to say it. Which makes sense, since I was always the chronically list-making, perpetually planning, compulsive organizer. And he was the laid-back, pot-smoking, expend-as-little-energy-as-possible guy.
Like Aaron and Robert with their spouses, Dan waited for me to decide to leave. Men are more comfortable with the status quo. Even if that status sucks. Even Alise, who was sort of the “girl” in the relationship, made the decision to leave her wife. My theory on this is that men are ultimately too lazy to get divorced. The numbing misery is better than the paperwork.
A few days after Dan and I spoke, I flew to Miami to get away and to tell my parents I was getting divorced. Minutes after being picked up at the airport, while driving over the causeway, I blurted out that Dan and I were done. My mother sighed and said, “It’s very sad when a five-year marriage only lasts two and a half years.” Then my father asked if I had a quarter for the toll.
Their casual attitude calmed me down considerably. It was just divorce, after all. Scary, yes, but I would get through it and come out the other end new and improved. When Dan told his family I wanted a divorce, they were convinced I was just trying to avoid rewriting my latest script. I thought this was extremely funny but not at all true. And just to prove them wrong, I finished my rewrites before we even divided up the china.
I got back from Miami, and Dan and I began the unpleasant process of sleeping in separate rooms, reviewing where it all went wrong and putting the condo on the market. He jokingly blamed MTV for our divorce, since I had been working there for the past year. I jokingly blamed the Cubs, since they, of course, hadn’t played well for the past year.
Dan and I didn’t need a lawyer, because we weren’t contesting anything. We would sell the condo and split the profits, if there were any. We each took a bookshelf. Dan would take Ruby and pay me for half of her. And I, of course, would keep Spork, who had been my cat pre-Dan.
As we were packing up our divorce documents, I started telling Dan some story, and he said, “We aren’t married anymore. I don’t have to feign interest.” And the reality of the situation hit us. We were doing the right thing by not fighting to keep the marriage together. There were no kids. No reason to live in misery year after year. Better to cut our losses now and never look back.
The plan was, Dan would move out once he found his own place in Venice, where he really wanted to live. And I would stay in the condo until it sold. A few uncomfortable days later, he signed a lease, and his best man came over to help him move out his chair and bookcase and Ruby. I didn’t mean to be home for this but timed it a bit wrong and walked in just as Dan was walking out for the last time. He gave me a knowing nod and said, “Well, bye.” And I said, “Bye.” And Dan was gone.
I slowly walked around the now half-empty condo in a daze, feeling like I was in purgatory. Everything was in flux. It wasn’t my home anymore, but I didn’t have a new one. I would be legally divorced soon, but technically wasn’t yet. I was on the precipice of a seemingly momentous birthday, but wasn’t quite there. This overwhelming feeling of transition was paralyzing, and I just stood in the center of the living room and stared at the blank walls. And then I glanced into the kitchen and saw the garbage.
Dan had been taking out the garbage for years. It was my least-favorite job, and one he naturally adopted once we moved in together. Maybe I’m setting women back 20 years by writing this, but taking out the garbage is dirty, smelly, unwieldy and, plain and simple, a man’s job. And all of a sudden, it hit me: From now on, I was going to have to take out the garbage myself.
Before I understood what was happening, the tears welled up in my eyes, I crumpled to the floor, and I sobbed. This was the second time I cried during my entire divorce process.
I wasn’t really weeping about the trash, but about the death of my relationship. But it was much easier to concentrate on the garbage. So after a few minutes of self-indulgent keening, I picked myself up off the floor, marched over to the garbage, pulled the bag out of the can and bravely took it to the dumpster down the hall.
After tossing it into the stinky dumpster, I felt a surge of accomplishment. I thought, If the worst part of divorce is taking the garbage out, I am going to be just fine.
That week, I bought myself a new TV, 2 inches bigger than Ruby, and named it Stringer Bell. I was on a Wire kick. I frantically cleaned the condo so it would be spotless for the hordes of people who came to the open houses. And I marveled at myself in the mirror. I had effortlessly lost 15 pounds.
One night, a few days after Dan moved out, I met Michelle for drinks at a bar off Pacific Coast Highway. A strange phenomenon occurred as two newly divorced 29-year-olds watched the sunset. We both saw each other’s eyes for the first time in years. We stared at each other in amazement. We were independent. Unchained. Free. Ready to make a whole new set of mistakes in our 30s.
For my birthday, I decided on a small lunch with close friends, afternoon shopping with my sister and mother, who had flown into town, and, in the evening, a big party at a bar with lots of acquaintances. I didn’t drink much, and was in bed by midnight. The whole thing was anticlimactic. But I fell asleep that night as a 30-year-old who knew I would never again be unhappy on someone else’s terms. I would only be unhappy on my own terms.
And with that thought, I slept soundly.