5 Things I Learned About Marriage From My Best Friend’s Divorce

By witnessing the demise of my best friend’s marriage, I learned not to ignore these five fundamental issues.

My best friend, Beth, married her college boyfriend the summer after graduation with no job to speak of and a mound of student debt. Her fiancé’s parents were wealthy and made it clear they had no intention of supporting the young couple, financially or otherwise.

A week before the wedding, in what Beth always claimed was a last ditch effort to dissuade the union, her future in-laws asked her to sign a prenuptial agreement. She was crushed. That anyone could envision the demise of her love story offended and spooked her; that the request came from her fiancé’s parents fueled Beth’s feelings of inferiority. But mostly, that her fiancé didn’t tell his parents to go to hell before news of the prenup reached her felt like a betrayal.     

Beth didn’t sign the prenup, and they obviously went ahead with the wedding, but being asked to legally acknowledge his family’s uncertainties festered doubts. Fifteen years and two glorious children later, when the couple cited irreconcilable differences as grounds for divorce, Beth rejected her lawyer’s advice and refused any support – even that which was justly hers. She did not want to give her in-laws the satisfaction of being right.

I witnessed all 15 years of wedded acrimony, watching their marriage erode, knowing that despite the couple’s sporadic attempts to recoup their love, it wouldn’t end well. By the time the divorce was final, all parties involved had behaved so intractably that any memories of happiness were tarnished.

As her friend and confidant through it all, Beth’s experience gave me a sobering look at the immutable red flags she naïvely ignored. Her relationship failed and the subsequent parting was painful, but her divorce taught me five indelible things about marriage:   

When you marry someone, you marry their family.

As fabulous a duo as you are, holidays and offspring are guaranteed to attract extended family, and the honeymoon dynamic will soon shift. If you don’t get along with your future in-laws during the engagement, don’t expect that marrying their child will improve your rapport.

In Beth’s case, being asked to sign a prenup was perhaps less a deterrent than a protective maneuver, given her student loans, but the way it was executed portended a passive hostility that should have been addressed immediately. Like countless failed marriages, my friend’s grievance against her husband’s parents was a constant source of conflict.

The wedding should never be bigger than the marriage.

A wedding is one day of your life, one meal, one party, one scripted event that you have the luxury to plan for, where everyone will be on their best behavior. It does not resemble real domesticity in the least.

Many couples believe in the fairy tale version of their weddings so blindly that they’re slammed by the gravity of “till death do us part.” I suspect Beth had second thoughts about getting married, but postponing or canceling the wedding was not a viable option after all the time, effort, and money they had invested. Too bad she hadn’t. Brides and grooms need to evaluate the idea of a marriage independent of a wedding

Honesty is not always the best policy.

Beth and her husband used to brag that their relationship was based on complete honesty, but being completely honest requires a nuance that these two lacked. You can’t tell your wife you hate the sound of her chewing or find her stories boring, unless you don’t care about her reaction. And when you confess to your husband that you’re turned on by your co-worker, well, ouch. It may be the truth, but at what expense?

Pronouns matter.

When Beth was a newlywed, she had quite a chip on her shoulder about not appearing dependent, so she took to using singular-possessive pronouns when referring to stuff. She’d say, my kitchen table instead of ours (because it came from her parents’ house), his TV, his sofa, my laundry basket, etc. It became habitual, and before long, her husband started doing it, too. When she heard him say his garage, his yard, and his roof, she seethed but wouldn’t confront him; instead, she dug in her heels and gave him her cold shoulder.

“In sickness and in health” are easy promises compared to, “even after gaining 35 pounds.”

Beth, like most of us, struggled with her weight. She was the thinnest version of herself the day she got married, but it was not sustainable. During her first year as a bride, she gained 10 pounds; then she got pregnant and gained 25 more.

Her husband was initially sympathetic – especially with the baby weight – but when Beth didn’t drop back down to a forced size six, he became spiteful and cruel. The meaner he got, the more isolated she felt; the more isolated she felt, the more she ate and resented him. This was the saddest and most predictable part of their collapse to watch.

There is no denying that getting married young, before you’ve had any responsibilities to speak of, increases your chance of divorce, but ignoring these five fundamental issues seals the deal. I learned this painful lesson the easiest way possible: from my best friend’s mistakes.