I Thought Getting Married Was The Key To The Perfect Life. I Was Wrong

Photo credit: Brandi Neal

The day of my wedding, I went into the bathroom before the ceremony, cried and hyperventilated. Then I pulled myself together and, at age 31, got married in front of 80 family members and friends at a lakeside resort in my hometown. I thought now that I — like everyone I had grown up with — was married, I would begin to finally feel "normal." I had finally done the thing that had been expected of me since I was eight years old and my mom carefully wrapped my first communion dress, telling me, "Someday, you'll give this to your little girl." But instead of the relief I expected to wash over me when I achieved this milestone, all I felt was lost.

I grew up in a midsize, working-class, predominately Catholic city in Ohio, one that's been described by natives and writers as the epitome of Midwestern culture. The land is flat, the cities are surrounded by farmland, the family values are traditional, the beer is cheap, and football is everything. My Irish-Italian family has lived in the area for generations. While most people I knew growing up seemed content to stay in our city forever, I'd dreamed of escape for as long as I can remember. In the community where I was raised, differences weren't celebrated; as an artsy kid who suspected she was queer, I craved a bigger life with more options.

But even though I felt like an outsider, I also desperately wanted to fit in. My parents were divorced, I grew up poor, and I was bullied relentlessly through junior high. All of that made me feel like I had to prove that I could achieve success as set by the standards of my community. That I was good enough. I thought I could do this by eventually achieving what I and everyone around me saw as the perfect life — hitting unspoken milestones, like career, marriage, and children, by a certain age.

Photo credit: Brandi Neal

Some people love the Midwest, but it's not for everyone — especially, in my experience, if you're at all different. Though things are changing, when I was growing up in my hometown, anything that set you apart made you a target. People held tight to traditional values and were less tolerant of differences than other places I have lived. I knew I wanted to leave my hometown, so during my last semester of college, I moved to Maine to attend a documentary writing program. After graduating, I stayed in Maine.

I was in my mid 20s and I felt nowhere near ready for these responsibilities — but I also felt like I was falling behind.

While I was beginning my career as a reporter on the East coast, back home, most of my friends were already married and starting families. As I scanned social media and saw picture after picture of babies and weddings, I felt the FOMO begin to creep in. In my hometown, being single beyond your late 20s is rare, and one of the most asked questions from people back home is (still), "Are you seeing anyone?" If the answer is no, you might be met with a look of pity, and get a pat on the arm before the person says, "You'll meet someone eventually."

Seeing everyone I knew about posting their perfect lives made me feel less than. I was in my mid 20s and I felt nowhere near ready for these responsibilities, but I also felt like I was falling behind. I assumed there was something wrong with me because I wasn't getting married and planning for a family.

And as an older millennial from middle America, I still embraced the ideals of previous generations, even though they weren't what I actually wanted. My childhood insecurities crept in, and I heard the old taunts from those who'd bullied me in school in my head. Maybe they were right. Maybe I wasn't good enough. Maybe I didn't deserve these "normal" life milestones. I didn't even consider that maybe I didn't want to get married and have a family in my 20s, if at all.

It's worth noting there were a lot of fundamental problems in my family that likely contributed to my persistent anxiety. But while I could have benefited from counseling as a child, it's not something people I knew did in Ohio back then. If anyone went to therapy, they certainly didn't tell anyone. As Allyson Byers wrote in her Healthline essay about living with major depression, "Growing up in the Midwest, therapy was never discussed."

Photo credit: Brandi Neal

So without anyone to help me unpack these feelings, I did the only logical thing I could think of: I began to pressure my boyfriend to get married. A fellow Midwesterner, he knew himself much better than I knew myself. He made it clear he wasn't ready for marriage then, and didn't know if he'd ever be ready for kids. I told him if marriage wasn't in our future, I didn't want to continue the relationship. He eventually proposed. And even though it was what I claimed to want, I didn't feel the euphoria I thought I would when we got engaged.

"When I do these things, I will be 'normal,'" I told myself.

While I was excited to finally be on the "right path," I thought there was something wrong with me because I didn't feel more enthused about walking down the aisle. Everyone I knew who was married seemed happy, so I pushed my apprehension to the back of my mind. I started planing an out-of-state wedding while working full-time and getting my MFA. I made sure that I was so busy I wouldn't have time to entertain any doubts.

I thought I would feel a sense of relief after my wedding, but instead, I felt uneasy in the marriage almost immediately. I attempted to squash these feelings by pushing for family planning and buying a house, the obvious next steps to achieving the "perfect" life. "When I do these things, I will be 'normal,'" I told myself. I was convinced that having a family would quiet my anxiety.

Photo credit: Brandi Neal

My husband pushed back, but agreed to talk about starting a family. That's when I began to panic and question whether or not this was what I actually wanted. It's the first time I truly understood the saying, "Be careful what you wish for, you just might get it." There were a lot of problems with our relationship, and instead of continuing down the path I had pushed for, I found myself thinking about divorce. This came with a side of shame, as I beat myself up for not loving my husband enough to work it out. But eventually, I asked for a separation. I didn't want to commit to a mistake just because I'd spent a lot of time making it.

As I was explaining all of this to a friend, she asked, "Why is his happiness more important than yours?" I'd never even considered this.

I realized that I'd spent my adulthood pushing for the "perfect" life, because I was unhappy as a child. My parents divorced when I was three, my dad disappeared from my life for long stretches of time, and I was raised by a single mom in an apartment. My child's mind thought things would be better if my parents stayed married and we lived in a house. (Never mind the fact that after they got divorced, they were unable to spend a single minute in the same room without fighting.) This was reinforced by the fact that children of divorced parents were called out of class each week at my Catholic grade school to meet with the school counselor. This emphasized our differences and made us targets for taunts from classmates.

As I considered what was driving me, a close friend was in the process of getting divorced. I always thought she'd had the perfect life I was after: marriage, a house, and a baby. As she told me what had been going on behind the scenes in her relationship, I had to consider that maybe this perfect life was nothing more than a perfect illusion.

Photo credit: Brandi Neal

I began to acknowledge just how much I was willing to give up in order to achieve my idea of the perfect life. I wasn't happy living in Maine — it was freezing most of the time, and there weren't very many professional opportunities for me — but my husband had a thriving career there and loved the area, so I decided I'd just work whatever job I could find. His happiness, I told myself, was more important. Whether or not I wanted the life I had carefully laid out, it was clear that my husband didn't and I was willing to make major concessions to convince him it was what we needed to do.

I also started to accept that I was attracted to women, and by staying married, I was denying myself the opportunity to explore that part of my identity. As I was explaining all of this to a friend, she asked, "Why is his happiness more important than yours?" I'd never even considered this. I had been living my life on autopilot.

***

My husband and I had a very civil divorce where the only thing we argued about was who would get the good tweezers. During the separation, I started seeing a therapist to help me figure out why I was pursuing things that clearly weren't making me happy. She helped me realize I was following a life plan based on the societal pressures I had absorbed growing up. In addition, a series of traumas in my early childhood prompted me to seek a life that prioritized safety and security over happiness.

I spent a lot of time in therapy trying to figure out what I wanted out of my life. Eventually, I moved to Los Angeles, where things were very different than what I was used to. In L.A., nothing is considered "weird;" people seem to be perpetually single at every age, or they marry because they want to, rather than out of pressure. I finally felt like I belonged.

Photo credit: Brandi Neal

In the end, my experience is pretty similar to conclusions that a lot of people my age are coming to: millennials are getting married at lower rates than previous generations, and those who do get married are doing so later than ever before.

"Marriage is clearly not for everyone and no one knows that better than millennials," Susan Gadoua, LCSW, said in Psychology Today. "They will not be pressured or shamed into getting married unless and until they choose to. Instead of 'settling down,' the younger generation is choosing to focus on education and career first and then maybe head toward having committed relationships."

While I went through was incredibly difficult, I don't regret it. I needed to have these experiences in order to truly get to know myself. I only regret that it was at the expense of another person.

Ultimately, I learned that there is no such thing as the perfect life. Social media is not real life. Behind those happy photos of weddings and babies are real people struggling with their own lives. After all, I'd posted my own happy wedding photos while struggling internally with my decision to get married in the first place.

Right now, my "perfect" life is about being single and focusing on my career. While I am open to being in a committed relationship, I'm not sure I ever want to get married again, and that's OK. If you truly want to get married, don't let anyone stop you. But if you're doing it because you think you should, pause and consider whether striving for that false notion of perfection is really what you want. My motto is now "progress not perfection." Because the real "perfect" life is whatever makes you happy.