The Starter Husband
You’d never buy a car without test-driving it
first right? So why settle into a lifelong marriage before trying one on
By Gretchen Voss
“I’m just really not ready to be committed like this.” That’s
what Andi said to Tucker, her husband of 11 months, after she came home
from a crazy day at work two years ago with an overwhelming urge to quit
her marriage. Today. Right now. “This just isn’t for me.”
She spoke stoically — no tears, no histrionics. She had been imagining
this moment since she moved out of their condo a few months earlier, but
she wanted to ease him into the inevitable — to somehow tiptoe her way
through the minefield of Tucker’s emotions.
But now, having scored a direct hit with those crushing words, she
watched Tucker crumple against the dining-room table. “I don’t
understand,” he said, over and over. “We’re married.”
“Look, we can do this now, or we can do this five years from now
when it’s a lot messier,” Andi said, softening her voice but not her
position. “I want a divorce.”
The guy didn’t really do anything to deserve this, she thought, looking
at Tucker’s ashen face. He must think I’m a monster. Watching her
husband shuffle to the door of her temporary apartment, Andi felt awful.
But mostly, she felt unbelievably relieved.
Hearing her words, I flinch slightly. We’re talking about an event
that’s supposed to be a turning point in life, and she sounds so
cavalier. And yet, Andi is only articulating what the one in five women
under age 30 who get divorced every year must think.
She’s a perfectly modern gal, a gorgeous mess of neuroses and
contradictions — the kind who never pictured herself married by 27,
divorced by 28, and remarried with two toddlers at 35.
But along the way, she met Tucker. “He was what I was supposed to marry.
He was what everybody else in my life wanted for me and what the world
tells you you’re supposed to want,” she says. “I got sucked into the
Within months of promising to love and honour and cherish Tucker
forever, she knew she had made a huge mistake. The problem? He was
boring. “Wholly uncomplicated,” as she puts it. “The idea of spending my
life with someone like that seemed stifling,” she says. “It finally just
got to me that he was so . . . sunny.”
I’m struck by her casual disregard for the institution. Marriage used to
be a big deal. How could she slip in and out of it so easily? She’d
plodded along for nearly 12 months, passive-aggressively avoiding her
relationship by consuming herself with the restaurant openings and
black-tie benefits that were part of her job. But then Tucker started
talking about having children.
“To me, once you have kids, you can’t get out,” she says. “When he began
asking about a family, I felt like that was too final of a commitment.
That’s when I had to say, ‘Okay, I’ve got to fish or cut bait here.’”
Andi and Tucker got divorced almost a year to the day after they had
vowed to be together forever.
They sold the condo and split the profits, and that was that. She
felt bad about hurting his feelings, but she never doubted her decision.
I raise an eyebrow. “Never,” she repeats.
“I think marriage is the new dating and having kids is the new
marriage,” she proclaims loudly. “It’s true. I wouldn’t have married him
if I didn’t think I could get out of it.”
When it comes to relationships, her attitude is pure pragmatism: Clearly
she’d messed up — best to press delete. And I bet there isn’t a married
woman out there, if she’s really honest, who hasn’t flirted with the
thought of doing the same.
I know there have been days in my own five-year marriage when I’ve
dreamed of reclaiming my freedom. Not many, but a few. But then I wake
up, not just because I love the guy — and I’m damned lucky to have him —
but because I’m married. That is supposed to mean something.
Andi was my introduction to the concept of an icebreaker marriage but
certainly not my last. Burning through a starter husband is almost
becoming a rite of passage: While newly-marrieds everywhere fear the
one-in-two-marriages-fail statistic, the more relevant stat is that
while the median age at which a woman first marries is 25, the median
age at which she first divorces is 29. In fact, 20 percent of marriages
fail within five years, and of those, one in four end within two years.
So much for until death do us part.
Of course, our generation can afford to chuck the Cinderella story
when the glass slipper doesn’t fit. While our grandmothers were forced
to remain shackled to unhappy unions for monetary reasons, most women
today have the financial wherewithal to bolt whenever we get
For some, a starter husband is like a starter home — a semi-commitment
where you’re willing to do some of the surface work, like painting the
walls, but not the heavy lifting, like gutting the whole foundation;
he’s just not a long-term investment. Others compare a starter husband
to a first job, where you learn some skills and polish your resume
before going after the position you really want.
In our everyday life — one where we’re encouraged to pursue the bigger,
better anything — how can you commit to something, or someone, forever?
“That’s a huge promise. We live in an incredibly fast-paced consumerist
culture,” says Pamela Paul, author of the book The Starter Marriage, who
herself was divorced less than a year after taking her vows at age 27.
“Ours is a culture where you go out and buy 10 cheap items for the
season, then toss them. More and more women have that throwaway
mentality with their first marriage.”
“Simply put, my 20s were freaking me out,” says 29-year-old Elisa
Albert, a wavy-haired brunette and adjunct assistant professor of
creative writing at Columbia University.
“I felt unqualified to be barreling into adulthood alone — I felt at
loose ends in regards to my career, my ability to support myself, even
my post-college social identity. I was lonely and scared. At the same
time, I’m watching Sex and the City and going, okay, so should I spend
the next 20 years getting my heart broken and pretending that it’s all
in good fun? Or should I marry this dude I’m dating, have a gorgeous
party, and make my parents really, really happy?”
It all started over a steaming cup of coffee in a New York City diner.
Elisa’s mother suggested she give a family friend a call in the wake of
his sibling’s death (Elisa’s own brother had died a few years back).
“We talked about our brothers, which was intense, and then somehow we
went from there to falling in love and having this 100-mile-an-hour
courtship,” Elisa says. “We were talking about naming our unborn
children after our dead brothers. It was totally crazy.”
From an outsider’s perspective, you could see trouble ahead: They
crashed between breakup and make-up like a game of pinball. But during
one warm-and-fuzzy reconciliation, they decided to get hitched.
Suddenly, the relationship snowballed into something bigger: getting
“I totally bought into the wedding-industry machine,” admits Elisa, who
spent more time obsessively planning every detail of her nuptials for
300 at a Malibu estate than she did working on her master’s thesis. From
the five-star vegan menu to the Japanese lanterns to the play list,
Elisa’s focus was all wedding, no marriage.
“I had a totally misguided notion of what a wedding was about,” she
says. “You work toward this giant event and have an enormous party. Then
an hour after you get married, reality sets in.”
You can almost forgive a girl for thinking about the party and
forgetting about the hangover. After all, it seems that we don’t have a
clue what the heck marriage is anymore.
Like a fat promotion to the corner office, we aspire to it — the
sparkler on my finger means I’m a success, receiving the final rose
means I win — but what is the prize again? For that cluelessness,
apparently, we can thank our single moms and alimony dads.
My own parents’ bitter divorce — many, many years in the making — played
out right around the time of my engagement. I knew all too well what the
seamy underbelly of marriage looked like, and it had made me incredibly
cautious about commitment — it took me seven years of dating my husband
before I could consider the concept of “forever.”
Still, it’s a legacy that cuts deep. “We were both like, we’re going to
do this right! Divorce is for losers,” Elisa says of her and her ex’s
attitude toward their own parents’ divorces. But she knew in the back of
her mind that there was a plan B, that marriage was not necessarily a
binding contract. And when she realised that she didn’t even have a clue
what a good marriage looked like, let alone what one felt like, she
didn’t hesitate to produce her Get Out of Jail Free card.
Pulling the trigger was easy; dealing with the fallout was not.
“Every time I ran into somebody I knew, I wanted to die,” Elisa says.
She briefly moved back to her childhood home in LA to regroup. “Even if
they were nice, I just felt this pity from them.”
Looking for guidance, she joined a divorce support group out in the
Valley. It was an eye-opener. “It was full of women in their 50s with
kids and mortgages,” Elisa remembers. “They knew their marriages were
doomed straight out of the gate but stayed shackled to them for 20
Confronted with that alternative, Elisa’s confidence in her decision was
restored. Today, three years later, she considers her first husband the
perfect warm-up for the real deal. “I could not be more grateful for
that experience,” she says. “I’m in a really good relationship right
now, knock on wood, and I would never have been capable of that without
my first marriage — learning how relationships work.”
It’s easy to write these women off as callous or self-absorbed. And yet
on some level, they just might be pioneers: Why stay put in an empty
shell of a marriage — an arrangement on paper only — instead of calling
it what it is? “This generation is reinventing marriage,” says Paul.
“I think women our age are like, we’re either going to fix this, or
we’re going to end it, and that’s for the better,” says Kay Moffett,
coauthor of Not Your Mother’s Divorce. She married her own starter
husband in a funky, flamingo-filled Florida wedding at 27, then divorced
him four years later after realising she could never make the real
commitment of having children with him.
But don’t call her divorce a failure; in this enlightened world, it
was simply a relationship that ran its course. “I think maybe we’re
moving more toward a serial-marriage society — maybe you have three
marriages in your life and several different careers. That’s where I’m
heading,” she says.
Still, even unapologetic Andi admits that the process is not always
easy. “On the one hand, I felt empowered, like, woo-hoo, I have the rest
of my life in front of me. But there were moments of, Oh, my God, I’m a
divorcee — does that mean I’m all washed up?” she says.
That was why, she suggests, she turned to drinking heavily for several
months after her breakup, trying to reconcile those thoughts — and
perhaps, I suspect, dull some of the pain she’s so sure she never felt.
Then she met David. He was supposed to be her rebound relationship.
Three years later, she realised that she wanted to have kids with him —
and that was the clincher.
Andi lifts up her two-month-old daughter in the middle of the café. I
ask if her second husband is The One, since they have kids and all. “I’m
happy, but I try not to think about it,” she says. “It’s like, if I
thought I had to have my hair the same way for the rest of my life, I’d