I have a bit of an odd quandary. I am divorced, and I divorced young. My relationship was a very bad and abusive one, and that was a dark time in my life. I have gotten therapy, learned a lot about myself, and I think I’m doing well. It’s daily work to deal with lingering issues, but I typically feel most comfortable addressing those to my therapist or close family who knew me then. It’s intensely personal to me, and revisiting it in casual conversation isn’t something I’m interested in doing. I have PTSD, and it coming up usually sets me up for a good day of feeling anxious and awful.
I’ve since moved across the country and none of my new friends really know much about my divorce or that I was ever married. I don’t hide it, and a more in-depth peruse of my social media probably holds some clues, but I don’t proactively bring it up. I’m an age where many of my friends are getting married and navigating serious relationships for the first time, so it’s very plausible and even likely that none of this ever happened. People assume that (I never lie), and I don’t correct them.
That said, I’m fortunate that some of these relationships are becoming closer, which raises two issues:
1. It is normal to not tell a minor acquaintance your life story, but it is starting to feel like a purposeful omission to people whom I see often and confide in me. I know I’m not obligated to share it, but occasionally they’ll find out and when they do there’s a bit of “whoa, that was a pretty big thing to leave out.” I stammer and ineffectually mumble some sort of half-apology, but I have no idea how to even start. I don’t feel like I need to apologize, but I always feel like I kind of lied, even though I didn’t.
2. I’ve been asked, directly, a few times – “were you once married?” and I don’t want to lie. I also, however, want to be clear that it isn’t something I enjoy talking about without disclosing more about the relationship than I’d like to.
I want to set a boundary, I don’t want to lie, and I don’t want to sensationalize. I feel like I need to give a reason why I never said anything, but that gets into self-disclosure I’d rather avoid (“Yes, I was, but it was a difficult and painful time and not something I talk about” generally creates pity and curiosity and gossip and more prying, all awful.) Not giving a reason or changing the subject generally creates a weird, stilted conversation or doesn’t adequately communicate that it’s off-limits so then it comes up again.
I need a polite way to communicate that this is not a secret but not something I talk about without making it into a bigger deal than it is and not making anyone feel as though I’ve slighted them by leaving that out. I’d love to have scripts for either of these instances because right now I’m just floundering, it’s awkward, and it’s starting to become the elephant in the room, and I’m sad I can’t think of something better to say.
Thank you so much. She/her pronouns.
First, you didn’t lie and aren’t lying if your marriage/divorce/the whole subject never comes up and you don’t talk about it. It’s not a detail you owe most other people. If you’re asked, tell the truth, if you get a “Why did you never mention it?” from people, where the implication is that you *should* have told them, recognize this for a derail and hold fast: “Well, I’m mentioning it now. It’s not a big dark secret – it was so long ago, and over so quickly that I mostly never think about it, especially when I get to know new people who didn’t know me during that time.”
See also: “Here’s your daily reminder that humans are complicated.” What they thought about you is not as important as what is actually true about you.
Second, People will be curious and there is no magic shield of a script that will pre-emptively fend off that curiosity, so they might ask. There is no 100% “this is all put to bed, forever” script in my bag of scripts.
For when it comes up casual conversation when you don’t want to either lie or bring down the mood:
“Oh, I have been married before – it lasted about 5 minutes. You were saying?”
“I was married once upon a time. I’d probably forget except I have to check ‘divorced’ about twice a year when filling out forms.”
If people start prying about the details and you don’t want to talk about it:
“Well, that’s about my least favorite story. What’s new with [subject change]?”
“It’s a sad story with a real happy ending since I’m here now.”
“Less said the better.”
“Play any sad country song on the jukebox and you’ll get the gist.” I don’t know why all your scripts are coming out like you are some tough-talking dame that Dolly Parton would play in a movie but here we are.
If it came up before, you didn’t want to talk about it, and it’s come up again and you still don’t want to talk about it:
“I really don’t like talking about it. Ask me again in 50 years, maybe.”
“I’m gonna powder my nose and see if I can find a change of subject while I’m up.” (See, there’s Dolly again! What’s going on today?)
There a jillion scripts, from “Why do you ask?” to “I’d really prefer not to talk about it,” to “If it had lasted another month maybe I could have gotten my own Lifetime movie” to “It ended so long ago, sometimes I honestly forget” to “It was over before it started, and I generally think of myself as a single person” to “Don’t worry, I won’t do that again anytime soon!” to “It’s very much in the past, but it hasn’t yet turned into a story I can tell without reliving some of it, so I’d prefer to keep quiet until I know you better” to “I’m not hiding it; I just don’t think about it.”
We’ve talked before about how you don’t owe other people a performance of coming from a happy family, or feeling great about the holidays, or of being well off, or a pretense that everything in life is and always has been okay. You also don’t have to talk about anything you don’t want to talk about just because someone was curious. Try also to remind yourself that LOTS of people have marriages that don’t work out, and LOTS of people have stories that go “I was young and they were mean.” It’s okay to tell the truth about that, and if you can start shifting your narrative to remind yourself that the facts are nothing to be ashamed of, that you don’t have to manage people’s feelings about your story (or their bad manners if they pry into it), that might help you keep some composure in the moment. Our culture can be pretty horrible to victims of any kind of abuse, and I understand the visceral need to make certain that the information is need-to-know and maximally controllable by you. You can be a generally grown-up, cool, collected, has-her-shit-together-sort-of-person who has done the hard emotional work she needed to do AND have been abused once upon a time. You’re part of a pretty big sisterhood and brotherhood.
Knowing that, can you tell someone who is in your life now the whole sad tale? Maybe late at night, sitting in front of a fire, when you have a great, kind listening friend close by and saying anything becomes more possible, or on a road trip. Not in casual conversation, but in one of those deep conversations where all the “stuff” comes out and you chew on it together in a safe place with safe people. It’s up to you what/when/how to disclose, and you should absolutely take care of your PTSD and follow recommendations from your medical & counseling pros, so only do this if you think it makes sense to you. I only want to say that sharing the vulnerable stuff with trusted people is a way to let go of some of it go and to let them really see you. Even if it is all in the past. Even if you are “ok” now. Think of it as practice for re-shaping this narrative into a story you can tell without a particularly strong emotional reaction. The more you tell it, the less power it will have, as time and repetition do the heavy lifting to make this a story you can live with here in the Field of No Fucks Given.
115 thoughts on “#899: “Disclosing a long-ago marriage and divorce feels awkward.””
I’ve found the best way to get people not to pry is to make the story sound boring. Hint at a tragic past, and people get all curious and pry (I mean, they shouldn’t, absolutely people should respect your privacy, but they do). Make it sound super dull and they don’t. So I like the suggestions that go like, “It lasted about five minutes” or “sometimes I even forget it happened myself.”
(Again, this is purely pragmatic. You absolutely should be able to say “that’s a painful topic and I’d rather not relive it” without getting pity-prying. But from an effectiveness POV, “oh god, that story is so boring–tell me what you’ve been up to instead” works so much better in my experience.)
I’m a fan of ” *shrugs* Yeah it’s a thing that happened.” with the most casual affect I have, and just keep the conversation moving.
Yeah, a simple “Meh, I married a person and it didn’t work. Not much else to say. It’s whatever now, how’s the job search/house hunt/tv watching going?” with a shrug should help shunt people away from the topic.
Seconding Turtle Candle. I also had a brief marriage that I don’t talk about much. When I do mention it it’s usually to tell a funny story about the wedding itself (which was pretty epic), and I brush off the rest of the story with a “but it didn’t work out [shrug]. So anyway [subject change]”. That’s nearly always enough, but if people pry I usually respond with something like “it’s a long and complicated story…” said with a sigh. I’ve never had anyone press beyond that. If you can make it sound dull and boring and like it was no big deal, they usually lose interest.
This has nothing to do with advice for LW but I find myself majorly curious about your epic wedding!
Seconded! I had a brief first marriage and when it comes up, I say “oh yeah, I had a starter marriage (laugh). Like a starter house, you know? It helps you figure out what you want in your next house?” and then change the subject. It seems to work; I don’t ever end up having to divulge any details about the marriage or why it went bad.
This is precisely how I describe my marriage: “Perfect starter marriage–no house, no kids…no harm, no foul.” The last bit is not entirely true, as I do have PTSD from the emotional abuse. I’ve gotten more comfortable talking about that bit over time, but that’s a personal choice.
I’ve also used “I was married for a while, but I married the wrong person. Whoopsie.” People who don’t know me well seem to find both a bit…cavalier, but that tells me something about them, too.
a personal favorite is “yeah, a lifetime ago”, I don’t know if it works just as well in english but in my language it conveys very well that something is over and barely relevant today
That’s a common saying in English as well, and a perfect suggestion for the LW. Variations include “in another life” or “in my former life.”
Seriously, making it boring? Best thing ever. I literally came on this post just to mention it.
Cause see, for some kinds of people, they cannot be pried away from a topic with a crowbar. You can go through the “I don’t want to talk about it” thing until you’ve flipped your lid and are screaming and crying, and they’ll still. keep. asking. Because people just will not take no for an answer. But what are they gonna do if you make it uninteresting? Nothing, that’s what.
Alternately, I’m a big fan of hugely sarcastic answers that are clearly untrue, if you’re not into boring answers or screaming.
“I shot him in Reno, just to watch him die.”
“He was a prince and I was but a goose girl, and even with a fairy godmother it just didn’t work out.”
“He took me to the sea and told me this was where he killed his last six wives, so I pushed him into the ocean and drowned him.”
“Did you know that single women are statistically happier than married women?”
“I really just like paying a lot of money to lawyers. Everyone needs a hobby, right?”
“He just KEPT STEALING THE PILLOWS.”
“I did think about replying to your wedding announcement with “I was married once, it was totally shit” but I thought it might be a bit of a buzzkill, so I went with “Yay, congrats!” instead. How is the planning coming along? / It was such a lovely wedding!”
These are all amazing and I find myself a little bit sad I don’t have a failed marriage under my belt so I can’t use them.
This is my instinct too. I don’t even think people always mean it in an invasive way; sometimes people will take tragic backstory hints as a clue that someone wants to talk about it and doesn’t know how, so they may even be trying to be supportive by asking… but the end result is the same. The vibe you want, OP, is ‘this story is irrelevant and boring’. “Oh, it was a long time ago and it didn’t work out” is a good one too.
If someone doesn’t get the hint, I would jump right to, “Actually, I really prefer not to talk about it, what about [new topic]?”
I was going to say the same.
Referring to your marriage as painful and difficult is going to trip even the most accommodating persons curiosity sensor. I think humor is your best weapon here. Saying ‘it lasted longer than a Hollywood marriage but it was still too long’ or ‘I was married for like a minute’ is a better way to deflect curiosity.
It’s not that your marriage was a joke it’s that if you hint at backstory you’re going to unintentionally trigger unwanted questions.
Fwiw, LW, I am *currently* going through a divorce process and no one at my work knows either that I am (technically) married or that I am getting divorced (our legal seperation started shortly after I started this job; it just seemed like a bit much at the time and doesn’t really matter now). It doesn’t really come up and I see no reason to bring it up – I’ll probably cop to it if anyone asks directly or if someone pulls a “when you’re married” on me, but otherwise it is 100% irrelevant so I don’t worry about it.
And yeah, the captains advice is spot on
I was in the same position. I lost my job right around the time that I was starting to end my marriage. My next job was a one-year mat leave contract, which coincided pretty neatly with the transition period in my personal life; and by the time I started my next job after that, I was out of the marriage and into a new relationship. So nobody at my first job knew I was getting divorced, and nobody at my current job knows about my previous marriage. Or rather, it does come up periodically, but it’s really a non-issue at this point.
More “it gets better” anecdata: One of my neighbours is a single mom. She was married to her son’s father (A), but they were actually divorced before she got pregnant, so she has been single-parenting for his entire life. She was also engaged to someone else (B) before she met her now-ex-husband, and I always forget that part. On the rare occasions that she mentions B, I always have to take a second to remember who he is. Obviously he was a huge part of her life at the time, but now he’s just a part of her story – and a forgettable one, at that.
This will all happen to you too, LW. It’s not going to happen tomorrow, or next week, or even next year necessarily, but I promise there will be a time in your life where you really don’t think about him except when you’re filling out forms. In the meantime, follow the Captain’s advice about deflecting the conversation, and I hope you enjoy your new life!
This probably won’t help with the in-the-moment reactions, but it might help to have in mind that for young never-married people marriage is like this huge distant planet to which you jet off in a rocket and expect never to come back. When I was in my 20s I had a friend mention — after a few months of friendship — that she had previously been married (young, etc., like you.). At that age, I did honestly feel like she had just revealed that actually her parents were centaurs and I couldn’t believe how offhand she was about it. Now that I am in my 40s and divorced myself, eh.
So maybe the upshot is: you can’t control the reactions of people in your age set. But this part of your life, where you get those reactions, is just a few-year window.
I now really want the letter that goes, “Dear Captain, I was adopted by centaurs as a small child. I had a great childhood, but whenever I mention that my parents are centaurs, they get all freaked out and start asking really inappropriate questions. (I don’t ever again want to explain what kind of bed, let alone toilet, my parents use!) Can you give me some scripts for shutting this down?”
Hahaha Captain Awkward: Fantasy Edition! Love it.
I would buy that book. 😀
What a fabulous idea. Seriously. If the Captain wrote a book along those lines, I think she’d be financially set for life.
Oh gosh, you could totally do answers to all the traditional fairy tale dilemmas in there as well!
“My father’s new wife keeps glaring at me, talking to her magic mirror, and now has a weird obsession with making me eat apples! Help!”
Yes, please! I would read the stuffing out of that book. Or in this blog. They had to navigate some pretty difficult, dysfunctional stuff, the fairy tale people…
Well, I know what I’m doing for this year’s Nanowrimo!
I was literally just thinking that this would be a GREAT NaNo project (and only this morning had an interesting dream that I just finished writing out that would also make a neat novel). If you write it, I want to read it!
Yes, this exactly! I had a class in college with a woman in her early twenties who was married and had three kids. When it came out, we all acted like she’d announced she was from another planet and showed us her second head.
That’s very true. I think that it can be common in a friend group for a lot of the individuals to be in a largely… I’m not sure how to put this… homogenous stage of life. Like, my friends group after college was diverse along a lot of axes (racially diverse, GLBTQ diverse, diverse along disability/mental illness lines, etc.) but pretty much everyone was in a trajectory of dating in college > moving in together after college > getting married within 3-6 years of college > having kids within 8-10 years of college, if they were going to have kids. There was a period where it felt like everyone in the group got married over the span of about four years. (Not literally true, but a healthy majority did.) Older members of the social group might be farther along in the steps, but generally did them at the same approximate rate. (Even the poly people, of whom there were a number, often married or otherwise committed in the same timeframe–they just didn’t stop dating other people too.)
So for all that we felt in a lot of ways like a really diverse group, someone who seemed to be doing the life steps in a different “order” (the single guy with a daughter, the couple who had married at 19 instead of 3 years after college, etc.) definitely could have been seen as exceptions. Looking back on it I cringe and hope to hell that none of us treated them like they were two-headed aliens from Proxima Centuri, but is interesting how we were so diverse in some ways and yet so deeply homogeneous in other ways.
Another way we were painfully homogeneous: class. I felt that one personally because I grew up poor, although I currently pass quite well for middle-class, and had the unnerving sensation of running into a brick wall when I hit some of their unexamined assumptions….
Yes, that brick wall is persistent. I attended college out of sequence and it still throws people off. Some people get the strangest look on their faces when the cognitive dissonance hits.
The brick wall of middle class assumptions can be painfully dense.
Married at 18 and divorced at 19 to an abusive alcoholic druggie. The story: “I was young and it’s over now.” Repeated as necessary. I think my record is four repetitions before the nosy git who kept asking got the clue.
One thing I try to remember when disclosing things I don’t want to talk about/get anxious about is that I don’t have to offer an explanation, and frequently, a succinct answer is a giant “DON’T WANT TO TALK ABOUT IT” sign.
“Were you married once?” “Yes, briefly.” And, in my experience, most of the people who don’t get that, won’t get several steps of subtle later. Typically, any statement that heavily implies “Good times not held here.” is going to at least cause some pause in the conversation when people do get it, if only because the person talking to you has to ditch their six follow-ups (and possibly mentally file that as a conversation no go) and the natural flow of the conversation is interrupted.
When I’m the person asking the question, I don’t think badly of the person who shut down the line of questioning. When I’m the person answering, I do feel awkward, but I do try and recognize the situation for what it is. “Yes, briefly.” + subject change will let everything flow more naturally, but when I’m in that position, a subject change is sometimes beyond me (though easier if I’ve stuck to a short answer than letting my anxiety go boom).
tl;dr You don’t have to explain anything to set a boundary, and give yourself a break if you can’t get a smooth conversational transition.
LW, I think the Captain’s advice is spot on. I’d add that after almost any number of decades on the planet, we all have experiences we don’t necessarily want to share, especially straight away with new people. And I think it is perfectly okay to say something to that effect:
“I WAS married for a short time – but the best thing that came from it was the divorce. Let’s Speak Not of It, please!”
“I was married for a while but it was during the Pleistocene Era, so, you know. Let’s leave it there.”
Additionally, if folks are all, “Why didn’t you say so?”, you can honestly reply, “It’s still a tender wound, so I don’t feel comfortable discussing it.”
It will become easier, LW, and someday that time in your life will seem like something you read, about some other person.
Good luck and take care of you!
“It was in another country; / And besides, the wench is dead.”
Lazarus Long, I presume?
This may not help, OP, but I had a miscarriage at 17 weeks before I had my son. It makes me twitch a little when people ask if I just have the one, but a) it’s none of their business and b) I don’t want to relieve it by emotionally vomiting the details over them (… any more). I don’t see that as any more misleading than you not mentioning you were married previously. Not something you’re going to bring up the first time you meet someone, and anyone who’s rude/offended/nosy about it just proved you were right not to tell them earlier.
Again with PTSD this may not work, but I would want to practice it with a trusted friend/therapist until it’s boring to say (and the words are disconnected from the pain and trauma).
I’m so sorry for your loss.
My first child miscarried in the second trimester and would be an adult now. My other children came much later.
The year she would have graduated high school was rough. A neighbor had a daughter that age, watching their joy in shopping for her prom and planning a graduation party was bittersweet.
My mother and I have had a difficult relationship, but I’ll give her credit for understanding my loss and comforting me that year.
Much love to both of you, and LW as well. I miscarried the child of a man I later divorced, and damned if that doesn’t make for some awkward disclosures. I have a hard time not feeling like a psychopath every time I explain to a well-meaning sympathy-expresser that I’m actually relieved I miscarried, I was pretty sure I didn’t want children before and am damned sure I don’t want them now so it was actually the best possible outcome. That, and asking my mom to stop sending flowers for Mother’s Day since I am not currently raising children, nor do I plan to do so at any future date.
Which, as you might imagine, puts me in similar positions to you, LW. I am fortunate enough to have some friends that I do trust with the entire feelingsvomit (wine helps, though YMMV), and the rest for the most part are not that nosy. On the few occasions I have had to fend off nosiness, I rely on the phrases “It was a hundred years ago, and it all turned out for the better,” along with “I’ve changed so much since then, it was really a different pennyposh that did all that” which is just baffling enough to trip them into a subject change. And when all else fails, I fall back to my gee-isn’t-this-obviously-awkward eject button: loudly proclaim, word-for-word, “MY, SO, HOW ABOUT THAT LOCAL SPORTS TEAM? I HEAR THEY’RE SPORTSING REAL HARD THIS YEAR” + charming grin. I’ve never had anyone persist past that one.
As many commenters here have mentioned, it does get easier with time. And the Captain is spot-on in saying that telling the story makes it less painful and easier to tell. Not that you have to – you don’t owe anyone the full story, ever, for any reason. If you want to take it to your grave, you have every right to do so and it doesn’t reflect at all on the quality of strength of your friendships.
Hell, some of my friends don’t know I knit. That’s just as much a non-issue as some of my friends not knowing about the divorce or the miscarriage. LW, your divorce is just a thread. It’s part of the stunning tapestry that is You, but it’s not the whole thing – not by a long stretch. It’s just a little piece of the whole awesome pattern.
I really wish people would move past the idea that friends owe them an entire juicy backstory of all the things that happened in their lives before they met [friend], as if rehashing things that one is done with reliving will somehow level up the friendship bond. Some stuff is sufficiently painful that rehashing it can put one in a bad place, and other stuff is just over, forgotten, not part of who one is any longer. If someone isn’t volunteering or scattering hints that they’d like you to pry far and wide, leave it the hell alone.
LW, you don’t owe new friends a performance of past trauma, nor do you owe them a blow-by-blow of things which are long over and done with. You get to have some level of personal privacy. You get to have secrets, or even just shit you forgot about because it’s so far in the past. I really do not subscribe to the all friends know everything about each other and don’t get to have privacy because that’s a betrayal of the concept of friendship philosophy of interpersonal relationships.
I don’t tell anyone about my marriage at 18 who doesn’t need to know (for example, my spouse, who helped me secure a divorce, needed to know). Why would I? I also don’t tell anyone about my youthful drug use around that time period, give them blow by blow descriptions of the fights my sibling and I had as kids, or talk much about my sex life, because that stuff is personal and isn’t usually applicable to the questions of “how are the kids doing in Mr. X’s class?” or “what did you think about the last [franchise] movie?” or “how was your day at work with Terrible Co-Worker?” I’ll tell if it needs to come up, if it relates to the present, but not as a matter of course.
Talking about deeply personal and/or forgotten stuff can be bonding, but only when the person talking wants to talk and the person listening wants to hear (and be supportive), not when someone feels trapped or friendship-blackmailed into revealing their past.
tl; dr: I could be projecting here, but it sounds like your friends are trying to force intimacy based on their ideas about friendship, and view your reluctance to disclose as a personal affront, a betrayal of your bond or accusation that they are untrustworthy. I think this needs to be one of the Geek Fallacies.
True. Although I am an author and very socially awkward, and I admit, it takes real discipline not to pry about How to Human when someone asks. (Take note, LW: BUT I MANAGE NOT TO, and your friends can, too.)
For people who act like it’s a huge omission to never bring it up, you could offer a list of minor events you’ve never mentioned. Their viewing it in the same context as your appendectomy and your middle school tug-of-war blue ribbon might alter their perspective of this as a big deal.
Ahaha, I love that. “Yeah, I was married in x-year, and a few years before that I got to be chalk board monitor too!”
You never know when that strategy could turn badly for you, Chalkboard Monitor Vimes
*does the “someone got the reference!” dance” 😀
(The stick-and-bucket dance, you mean?)
LW, i just want to say i have 3 friends who married and divorced in their early-mid 20s. One may have some similarities to your past, one was for visa reasons, and one was a relationship that nothing was particularly wrong or anything, but it ran it’s course by the time the couple hit mid 20s. I met all 3 people long after they divorced and it eventually came up in conversation (all 3 are older than me by a few to several years, I’m early 30s now). I may have expressed some surprise like wow, i didn’t know that about you! But my reaction was absolutely not annoyance that i didn’t know earlier, and i was careful to ask if it was ok to ask more questions before doing so. After finding out, it’s something i often forget about. It doesn’t affect my friendship or opinion of these people at all. Just another thing in the past of a friend. So, i think you’re not weird and not alone, and it’s absolutely fine to tell people that you’d rather not discuss it further. You aren’t obligated to tell your new friends in order to be close if you don’t want to; you’re not lying or misrepresenting yourself at all.
As a lifelong Good Student, it took me a long time to learn that I am not obligated to answer every question. It gets easier with practice. Having a ready quip helps, such as “It’s a grisly story, and I’m not a tabloid! ” given with a cheery yet dismissive wave of the hand. “Yeah, still not a tabloid. “
I’ve used variations on “it’s uninteresting to hear about and even less interesting for me to talk about” for stuff I didn’t want to discuss. Once in a while someone will drop some sort of “no, but I really am interested” push too far and I respond “could be, but that doesn’t change that I don’t care to retell it so you’re just gonna have to trust me.”
Anyone who pushes past that isn’t much of a friend and has pretty well set you up to ask “why would you want to pressure me to tell a story I’ve told you I don’t want to share?” It’s no fun to deal with these sorts of jerks, but when they’re part of your circle you don’t change them by avoiding the opportunities for them to show you who they are – that just makes them landmines of jerky prying that will get set off by some other event.
I was going to recommend that the LW be aware not only about what they are saying, but how they’re saying it. People don’t only communicate through words, but also through body language and much as it may annoy some of us, saying something while laughing awkwardly or nervously, no matter if it’s just your natural reaction to discomfort, can still be read as a positive response and make people feel as if it’s okay to prod.
A way to manage this is having something like a ‘three strike’ system, like giving someone a few chances to ask while refusing them calmly and serenely, but if they pass a certain limit, have a very clear negative response, frown, put on your best angry face, use a phrase like “stop it, now” or “cut it out, or I’m leaving”, and actually leave the conversation, no apologies. Basically, don’t be afraid to own and express your discomfort, even if you have to rehearse it a little bit if you’re conflict averse; there will come a time/s where people will feel like leaning into your space until your only options are falling back on yourself and getting hurt or protecting yourself by pushing back and letting the other person know where you stand.
Being honest, pushing back can sometimes mean making people more curious, obviously it shows that your emotionally invested in the situation; but decent people, the ones who care and respect you will not put there curiosity and impulses above someone else’s emotional well being.
Love the Cap’s suggestions and the ones by in the comments so far. One thing that really works for me, when my abusive ex comes up in polite conversation (or just with people who aren’t in my Innermost Circle of Emotional Intimacy), is just conveying a general offhand disgust– which is mostly what I feel towards him these days anyway. Scripts like:
“Yeah, I spent a good chunk of college in a pretty shitty relationship. Anyway, during that time, [story I was actually telling]”
“Oh yeah, I was dating this guy at the time, he sucked! Anyway, [topic at hand]”
…In other words, I treat it like a footnote, just an unfortunate/unpleasant detail about a certain period of my life. Most people have been through something– whether a relationship or not– that caused a lot of stress and turmoil and has since been left in the dust and that they prefer not to discuss at length. Nobody needs to know the exact nature or scale of the pain you went through; “shitty relationship” is usually enough detail, and “shitty marriage” even more so.
If someone doesn’t immediately move on, you can continue to be honest in your brush-off: “Eh, it was a long time ago. Also fuck that guy. Anyway, [subject change/redirect]”
There was a really great CA thread (#694) a long while back in response to an LW who, for PTSD/mental health reasons, was unable to participate in certain corporate social events. A good chunk of the advice there was specifically about how to redirect people away from prying into deeply personal and painful trauma-related information, and I’ll confess I sometimes go back there when I need a reminder on how to stand my ground on this subject. (A point really worth noting: mental health is HEALTH, and it’s generally super impolite for a person to get ~so curious~ that they press for all the gruesome details on that illness you had a few years ago, or that thing that put you in the hospital a couple times, etc. Maybe try treating it like that’s the thing they’re asking about?)
I realize the tactics might be somewhat different for coworkers/bosses rather than friends, but maybe the LW here might find it useful too?
I was wondering if something like “Yeah, I got married young – oof, big mistake!” *wry face* *moving on* would work. I mean maybe “big mistake” would feel too intimate, but most people have had some episode in their life that was less than ideal and could be referred to as in such terms — and it puts it in that category.
I am now in my fifties and was married and divorced twice before I married the guy I have my kids with, and we are all hoping and believing this will be it for us! We just had our 20th anniversary and I still don’t quite believe it. But we made it this far! Hurray.
My first marriage lasted less than 18 months; my second marriage was a nightmare that lasted nearly nine years. No kids from either of them.
Both of those marriages were over, over 25 years ago now. Most of my current friends don’t even know they happened. If I got to know someone really well I would probably talk about them, but maybe not. They have exactly nothing to do with my life today. Except a lot of hard knocks and some growth in compassion that I try to build on. I do have a couple of lifelong friends who know the whole story, as does my sister and family, but I have made a lot of new friends over the years through my kids and through various jobs (I’ve changed jobs a lot; normal in my industry.)
Here’s hoping you can put it in the rearview mirror where it belongs, on your own terms, and I agree with the captain’s great advice. But you really don’t have to talk about it. Ever. You don’t owe that to anyone.
Jedi Hugs to You!
You are basically my mum. She is 61 now and while most people around here know that my father was a person who existed in our lives until they separated nine years ago (we live in my hometown), I don’t believe anyone is aware that my mum was married once before already. Like you say, that marriage has exactly no impact on her life today – she doesn’t have any kids with the first husband, nor any shared financial or property means, it was also on the other side of the country, and 35 years ago. It seems like the LW’s marriage hasn’t been as long ago so it’s probably more likely to come up in any conversation of the past years or so but it’s probably safe to say that it basically won’t come up at all once it’s been a very long period of time. Which might not help you much in the moment but might reassure you for the future.
I was just reminded by this (as it generally is totally forgotten about by me!) that my dad was married twice before my mom. The first time lasted about a year (no kids), the second however was about 8 years I think (she had a kid when they got married; I was a little surprised looking back later that my dad hadn’t kept in better touch with his former step-daughter). He married my mom, had two kids, and was happily settled in for life. His previous marriages just had very very little bearing on his life at that point, and if I, as his daughter, didn’t feel like he had been “hiding” something by not discussing it, surely new friends have no standing to feel that way!
I *did* feel like my father had been hiding details of his first marriage from me (and my mom and everyone), but mostly because he’s the sort of person who withholds all sorts of information and who it is nearly impossible to know anything of substance about. This is not the case of my adult friends who have patchworked histories which are more mystery to me than known, because I feel like I know who they are NOW and don’t need to go hunting for clues about who they have been in the past. I used to think of myself as a curious person (and this is true), but increasingly I find myself more alarmed when people share details of their traumatic pasts too early for the level of intimacy I feel with them than when I think there are things about them I don’t know.
My convos on this subject usually go like this.
Them: wow! You were married?!
Me: yes, for less than a year
Them: really? Why?
Me: *as perky as possible*seemed like a good idea at the time!
End of Convo.
*lots* of things seem like a good idea at the time.
Good Luck LW!
For people who are shocked you never mentioned it, I sometimes use some variation of “well, it seemed weird to start a conversation with a story about unfortunate things that happened when I was young. Like starting a conversation about my bathroom habits. I’d much rather talk about [subject].”
If you compare it to something that usually people don’t talk about (like poop), it helps them associate the subject with things that aren’t talked about.
I also married and divorced when I was very young. My go-to response when asked “why didn’t you tell me??” about this or anything is “it was a long time ago.” I adapt it as needed for the situation:
It was a long time ago, I hardly ever think about it.
It was a long time ago, it feels like another lifetime.
It was a long time ago, it’s hardly relevant.
It was a long time ago, it doesn’t define who I am now.
One time someone pressed me so much (not about my first marriage, about an assault when I was a teenager) that I snapped “I don’t talk about it because I don’t talk about it. It’s nobody’s business.” But that’s very rarely necessary. Most people give up after a couple of boring non-answers.
For the people who will not stop trying to pry I like one of two options:
Q: But why didn’t you ever tell me!?
A: Because I love butter on everything! (As they try to wrap their head around your confusing answer, you turn and walk away).
The pointed answer:
Q: But why didn’t you tell me that before??
A: Because I juuuust looooove having people pry into my personal life. (Coupled with a stern, pointed look. Gads – only a baffoon wouldn’t realize their gaff).
I’m sorry that you’re being pressured on this hard subject, LW! I’ve been in abusive relationships that echoed my family and now I get to have boundaries and it is a marvel. I was still acting as if I was a child, and everyone I encountered was a) perfect and b) ten feet tall. These days, every time the situation-appropriate version of No bubbles up out of me, it feels marvelous.
What I’ve also noticed is that the people who push where they shouldn’t inevitably reveal their own hard stories and lack of boundaries, and those stories aren’t ones I want to hear- plus, it won’t help them to tell me. PTSD needs specially-trained therapists.
I used to joke and say things like “It’ll all be in the movie” but that’s a sharp edge. I’ve been experimenting with refraining and relaxing in the moment (I’m safe, this is not the person who hurt me; I am protecting myself) and letting myself feel compassion towards them and their terrible pasts that hang over them. A smiling,”Isn’t it great that we’re here today” sounds goody-two-shoes, but it won’t to the person who had learned they can’t have boundaries and are pushing mine. By not using humor to deflect, I’m not acting as an apologist for their trauma. I’m learning that it lets all of us stay calmly in the present.
LW, I’m sorry that happened to you. If this helps at all, I do a lot of dating and as such I meet a lot of people who are divorced/in the process of getting divorced (FWIW I don’t date anyone with children so we’re not talking people where it would be obvious they were married or in a relationship that resulted in a kid in the past – as in, the only way I know if they were married before is if they bring it up or if I ask).
This may not be directly applicable to your situation because I feel like it comes up faster in a “you may be a potential romantic partner” situation than in a friends situation, but I think the point where it starts to feel like an omission that makes you uncomfortable or feel like you are hiding something is a pretty good point to be like, hey, this relationship/friendship has progressed to the point that I feel like this person can know this about me.
It is 100% up to you to disclose however much you want to or don’t want to. I feel like people are way less likely to pry if you present it just as “I was, it didn’t work out” and breeze right on. Personally speaking, the only thing I really want to know about people is if their previous marriage is going to affect our relationship, and if there’s no continuing entanglement there, there’s really not much else I want to know unless they want to share it.
My personal Big Dark Personal Thing is having been institutionalized for severe depression. I definitely find myself at the point in relationships that you’ve described – where not mentioning it feels like you’re hiding it. Everyone works through this differently, but I’ve found that being very up front and matter of fact helped me kind of drain the poison from a painful memory. Now my attitude about is is basically, I had depression, I got help, and if you’re going to treat me differently, go pound sand. I don’t put up with anyone digging for more information or treating me gingerly because of it, and honestly, it’s been a good way to weed out people who can’t handle mental illness early on.
I second (and 3rd and 4th and 5th) everyone saying make it boring. I rarely, rarely bring up the fact that I used to be married, and when I do it’s either relevant to the conversation (like now) or I’m telling a story in which I mention “my ex-husband” or “my ex” in a matter-of-fact sort of way. If people go, “Whoa, you were married?” I say, “Yup,” and move on. Nothing to see here. Most people, in my experience, at least, don’t press. Sometimes they’ll say, “Oh, I didn’t know!” But that’s usually about expressing their surprise more than it’s an accusation that you owed them the information.
Also, I know the Captain brought this up and not the LW, but I don’t think there’s any reason to even check the “divorced” box on most forms if you don’t want to. In the US at least, “divorced” isn’t a different legal status from “single” as long as you don’t have any ongoing settlement or custody agreement with your ex, or property issues the IRS might want to know about, and most of the forms that question shows up on don’t have any reason to need to know, anyway. Though if I’m wrong I’d love to be corrected by someone who knows better. I stopped feeling “divorced” fairly quickly (and really that’s just a weird stigma to expect people to identify with forever after), so unless I’m filling out something where I think the demographic info might be useful, I either check “single” or leave it blank (if that’s an option).
I’ve stopped checking the divorced box, and have opted for the single box for the past few years. Switching doctors’ offices is when I realized that it’s totally irrelevant to anyone but me. I claim my child every year tax wise, so I don’t answer the question on turbotax, and I can’t remember anything outside of maybe social security that it seemed important.
The only time I’ve found it required was on application forms for a passport and visa documents in the US and Canada, and both wanted my ex’s name, birthday, and I think the date of marriage and divorce. Otherwise, I agree it has never been much of an issue. (I had forgotten it was on turbotax; I answer it there, but they don’t want all the details like the passport/visa stuff did.)
I actually saw a medical history form today with the options “Married,” “Never Married,” “Widowed,” and “Divorced/Separated,” and I commented on that because it’s unusual, and because I could imagine reasons for treating separated (but still legally married) from either married or single, but not where single, divorced, or widowed would make a difference there. Nor did they have an option for “unmarried but living with a partner,” which is fairly common. This was a medical history form, not one of the few contexts you mention where divorced would be different from single or widowed.
I wonder, actually, if it is relevant for medical care? There are some differences between health for single and married cis het men, for example, so being single might weight for or against a certain kind of screening. Divorce and being widowed are also stressful, so they might want to ask to see if they need to offer some kind of stress-reduction options or referrals to particular social services.
It can be relevant for medical power of attorney reasons.
No option for common-law, or is that included in “married”? What you’ve just listed sounds like the marital status questions on a census form (former census enumerator here). I wonder if the person who drafted the form just copied from something like that? On the other hand, sometimes marital status can affect health, so maybe it’s relevant.
I will say as someone who works in the public sector, there are reasons that an official agency (VA, Social Security, Social Services, etc., etc.) needs to know sometimes even if it was just for a short time a long time ago. In my agency’s case, knowing about those former marriages can help with figuring out if you have any other family members who might be eligible for certain kinds of benefits (or if you might be eligible for certain kinds of benefits from them). I try to be as tactful as possible, and I don’t care about what the answer is other than in a professional way trying to make sure I do my job, but it IS important that we know at least the bare bones to do our job correctly.
We had two adoption losses that were terribly painful. It’s not the kind of thing that comes up in casual conversation and I rarely tell people about it. Anyone who knew us at the time knows the story at some level; it was 14 years ago and so we know a lot of people now who don’t know. I have no qualms about not telling them and honestly I have no qualms about lying if someone asks me a direct question. “How many children do you have?” “One; she’s 16” “Didn’t you have a baby about the time my Squidgy was born?” “Nope. You must be thinking of someone else. How is Squidgy these days, anyway?”
I’m not yet at a point where I can talk about it without the pain showing on my face. I’m not sure I’ll ever get to that point. I don’t think I’m a fundamentally dishonest person. I do believe that private is private, and I don’t owe anyone a display of my grief. No one needs to know about those losses to have a relationship with me now. When I develop a close friendship, I do have the kind of long, deep conversation that CA describes; that’s usually mutual, with some sharing of grief. I don’t feel like I’m on display and if I do go down the rabbit hole, I know the person will go with me.
I’m so sorry for your loss, and totally agree with your approach. It’s not dishonest at all: it’s a “white lie” told to protect yourself. Most people know it’s okay to spare another person unnecessary pain by fudging the truth when there’s no benefit to sticking to the facts. It’s okay to spare yourself that pain.
Jedi hugs, if you want them.
I agree with other commenters here that even if these folks are friends, you don’t owe them your back story. I assume they haven’t told you the entirety of their life’s nitty gritty details, so why is somehow having been married different for you? Marriage (and divorce) are things people of every age do. I hope you find a script that works for you and doesn’t cause too much anxiety.
I say this as a hugely nosy person who would LOVE to know all the juicy details of everything everywhere: if we were friends, this would be none of my business and even I wouldn’t act all surprised and injured if it came up and I hadn’t known about it. Anyone who wants to make the “omission” into a commentary on your relationship with them…well, that’s not great and I hope they move past that and realize their behavior is fairly asinine.
Yes, exactly this. I might express curiosity if you don’t indicate that it’s a topic you don’t want to discuss, but I’ll back off at the first deflection. I might also express surprise, but no woundedness would be implied.
… I thought “Yes, I was, but it was a difficult and painful time and not something I talk about” was a perfect answer. You JUST SAID you didn’t want to talk about it. And it’s over so you don’t need to talk about it. And you didn’t leave any dangling questions. Like, “it was a difficult and painful time, and I was kidnapped by William Shatner, and it’s not something I talk about” SHOULD shut people up, but I can see why they just have to ask.
But what about “difficult and painful” makes people think they should pry? But apparently they do *sigh*
And yes, I second the “boring” approach. I’d go for 80% boring and 20% difficult, so people know not to make jokes about it, and if you do ever want to talk about how bad it was they don’t feel you misled them, but emphasising boring so they don’t pry.
But as I’ve just seen, I completely fail to predict what will get people to shut up, so go with what captain said instead.
LW, Turtle Candle is spot on: the most effect way to make the subject go away is to present it as a non-issue as opposed to something you don’t want to talk about. You know it was a painful experience and had a big impact on your life, but you don’t have to tell people that. The only thing that makes your marriage stand out now is how young you were and how young you are, at an age when marriage is new to most people. As someone noted above, in a few years no one will raise an eyebrow, because most people just don’t go around talking about their exes all day. I just learned that one of my best friends for 20 years had a 5 minute marriage. It just never came up because it’s never been relevant.
“Why didn’t you tell me before?”
“Because it never came up. I’m not going to introduce myself ‘Hi, I’m LW, I was married for 5 minutes when I was 18.’ ”
“Tell me about it.”
“There’s nothing to tell. Made a mistake marrying too young before we knew ourselves. We weren’t who we wanted to spend the rest of our lives with, so we ended it.”
None of that’s a lie. It’s just a bland version of the story. There’s nothing to tell because there’s nothing you must tell.
Anyone who pushes for more, isn’t your friend. If the time comes when you do share your full story with someone, it will be someone who will understand why you didn’t tell them everything before.
Great scripts. Re the last paragraph about the therapeutic value of sharing your story: the Captain makes it very clear that this should only be considered with due care for the PTSD, and I just wanted to underline this again. In my professional experience, it’s a very fraught and risky thing for people with PTSD and very often inadvisable. There are a couple of reasons I’m bringing this up. There’s a societal expectation of self-disclosure as relationships (of many kinds) deepen and as a result people with PTSD often feel they should or have to tell their story. Also, there’s a societal belief in the healing power of catharsis, as the Captain expresses. This is often true, but very very often not for people with PTSD, and again, they can sometimes feel pressured to tell the story “for their own good”. In a perfect world, anyone who has PTSD would be getting excellent care that would help them navigate these expectations, but there are a lot of people unable to access this kind of care for one reason or another who are struggling with PTSD on their own.
I agree! I usually handle that by “blah blah blah life story…. this part when general-thing happened still makes me cry when I think or talk about it, but after that then this happened… blah blah blah life story…”
It’s wonderful to see information about PTSD hitting the mainstream. I read Dr. Bessel Van der Kolk’s “The Body Keeps the Score…” and now finally I understand why regular talk therapy seemed to make me feel overwhelmed and despairing.
You have to love Reese Witherspoon’s “What Would Dolly Do?” bag: http://www.draperjames.com/dolly-vanderbilt-tote
PS Not recommending anyone buying it – it’s $165! But – as a mantra for life, “What Would Dolly Do?” is not too shabby. 🙂
Cute bag, but I can’t believe it’s $165 for CANVAS! For that price I expect leather.
My issue was the opposite; I had a Terrible Thing (TM) happen to me (my mom died in an accident when I was 9). Is it hard? Yes, in some ways it shaped everything about my life and who I am (not ALL the details, but it’s touched on everything to some degree). It was also coming up on 3 decades ago, and while I still have private moments of missing her horribly, most of the time I’m fine. This is what normal looks like for me. But when it comes up in conversation then people feel so awkward and sad and awful about it that I find myself having to reassure them, and it’s awkward-sauce all around. I’ve experimented with many different things. I think the making it boring is probably the easiest, but my favorite was just throwing it onto a list, a.k.a., “Hey, my name is Jackalope, and I love reading books and hanging out on internet blogs, and my mom died when I was 9, and I also have a couple of critters at my place that I really like, and I think rain is cool.” That way it doesn’t jump out as this Big Awful Thing, and I can change the subject to one of the other things as needed. For me it’s not painful to mention it up front like it sounds like it is for the LW, but maybe something along those lines might help? Say, for example, if you’re starting to feel like you want/need to say something but don’t know how to bring it up, “Man, the relationship in that movie was rough. Reminds me of my ex; still don’t know how we EVER thought getting married would be a good idea. And I love what they did in the movie with the lighting; it really brought out the tones they were looking for. Not so sure about the giraffe, though….” (I may have been guilty of specifically choosing movies for movie night/books for discussion groups that I was familiar with so I could do this very thing.)
My father died at 13 – I get the same “OMG so horrible so sorry!” responses when it comes up in conversation now (at 36) and in the same way I’m just…yes, this was and is huge, but in my average day-to-day I’m over it? So…we don’t have to actually get into a long emotional conversation about it? (I generally try and keep it short with “yeah, it was awful, but hey that’s life” and keep it moving; I will get into it with people I am Very Close To because with them it’s worth it and comfortable to get into all the FeelingsTalk.) I love your movie idea!
My dad died unexpectedly when I was almost 9, so I know what you mean (to an extent) about how it shapes you and yet you end up having to reassure people when it eventually comes up in conversation. I like your approach. I find it’s generally easier to just throw it out there if/when it’s relevant; I often get a brief “say what?” or a “I’m so sorry” but mostly can shrug the reaction off with “it sucked, but I’m okay, I’ve had time to get used to it.” That script might work really well for LW in this case, too.
I think it’s important to remember that with things like this, friends aren’t asking questions just to satisfy some prurient curiosity; most of the time, if they are your friends and have been for awhile, they genuinely want to know 1)if you’re okay and 2)if it is painful and therefore there are topics they should avoid in the future because they don’t want to inadvertently say something upsetting and 3) if they need to apologize for having said something that was painful or upsetting to you, since those getting married probably know they’ve been saying all kinds of stuff about weddings and marriage in general, without thinking about what that might mean to you b/c they didn’t know you’re coming at it from a different place than they are. Telling them you’re okay and not upset will stop most of the questions from being asked.
I think the captain is also right about how the more you talk about it (with people you feel safe talking to about it), the less power it will have over you; it won’t be THIS BIG SECRET, it will just be another fact about you. As long as you’re treating it like A HUGE PAINFUL SECRET FROM MY PAST THAT I NEVER TALK ABOUT, people will see it that way, and be curious. The more nonchalant you can be about it, the less attention it will draw.
I think the ‘why didn’t you tell me’ is often a gut reaction when people think they are a close friend, and they can feel hurt or worried that you don’t actually trust them. They are not necessarily looking for the juicy details, so much as reassurance. Of course when sharing something that personal you don’t need to feel obligated to also reassure that person, but phrases like ‘I prefer not to dwell on it’, ‘it was a hard time I like to keep in the past’, ‘I prefer to focus on the present’, or ‘part of moving forward has meant leaving it behind’ are ways to show its not about them, it’s about what works for you. Most people with good intentions will get the hint, and anyone who doesn’t deserves a ‘its my past, and I get to choose to keep it there. How bout them local sports teams?’
Related. How should one handle the death of a family member at a relatively young age? I have photos on my Facebook of my sibling and I repost stuff sometimes on his birthday or other days. But my coworkers and new friends don’t know. I had an awkward moment the other day when a coworker was talking about how sad parents must be if their kid dies young.
Sibling was born with a congenital defect and we were lucky Sibling lived that long (was in college). So it wasn’t some tragic accident. It was a tough time but a different kind of tough from completely unexpected.
I think it’s pretty much the same. Don’t lie*–no “I’ve never been married” or “I didn’t have any siblings.” Unless it’s unavoidable, don’t actively mislead–“I’m an only child” when people are swapping stories about their childhood interactions with siblings will make people feel lied to. But otherwise, you can share as much or as little as you want. In your example, you had no obligation to confirm that you have experience with that kind of loss or that your parents were indeed sad.
*I’m actually okay with lying if you’re keeping it hidden or it’s just never going to be relevant to the person. If the grocery store clerk asks if you have siblings on National Siblings Day, feel free to offer a straight no or yes, whichever gets you through the transaction.
I actually have several living siblings, so the “how many siblings do you have” question is awkward, too! I’ll usually include just the living ones in that number since the question is in the present tense.
My big thing I want to avoid are the “I’m so sorry” and “that’s terrible” reactions. When you haven’t grown up living with someone with a terminal condition I think it’s very hard to understand. Heck my college counseling center didn’t understand. People who are my age are used to other people’s grandparents dying, MAYBE parents, but not siblings outside of a car crash or suicide or something like that. I’m truly grateful that Sibling lived for that long and it’s not because I’m heartless.
I can totally understand your perspective, but I also get that a lot of people just won’t understand that this wasn’t Life Tragically Cut Short but More Time Than We Dared Hope. I’m guessing most of the fist-shaking at the universe took place long before the death, and that’s just not what people’s expectations are. So I wouldn’t feel a single bit guilty about any answer that avoids that whole conversation until you know what kind of person you’re dealing with–and you can even avoid it if you’re sure that person would be great about the info.
If it comes up later (like someone with a razor-sharp memory recalls you said 2 and not 3 siblings last year, but now you’re talking about how the wings and drumsticks thankfully divided up evenly for the kids), you can say that it didn’t feel like the time to get into it.
Something I’ve discovered as I grow older is that everyone has something strange or painful in their past that they don’t talk about. It’s just part of the human experience. And honestly? I think it’s ok. Not every sad or messed-up story has to be shared with everyone. There are long, uncomfortable and dark conversations that just don’t need to happen with every acquaintance or even friend. No big deal, it’s just not necessary, and in many cases, better not to.
Age 18/19 I was involved in a “relationship” so abusive I left the country in order to get away. Decades later, whenever something about that time or that place comes up in conversation, and I get asked a question I don’t want to answer, I deflect and say something like “that’s a story for another time” or (especially if we are somewhere with alcohol) “I am not drunk enough right now to tell you about it.” In my experience that shuts down the topic without shutting the door in their faces.
It was very interesting to me that, once I knew my friends well enough to let my boundaries down a little, and that didn’t always go well (for one example a crying tantrum in public), everyone couldn’t have been nicer to me, and although it was really embarrassing it was also OK, because they really are my friends. The topic isn’t mentioned, or if it is they are protective of me, and I appreciate that.
If someone really doesn’t get it, but they are a friend even if not very emotionally aware, you losing your cool a little should also be OK. Let any resulting awkwardness be their problem.
If someone is not your friend, better to learn that in regards to something in the past, instead of something in the present. Good luck.
I’m glad that you found good friends to support you that way! I always consider it an honor when friends share a piece of their lives with me, especially if it is a topic that is painful to speak about.
Keeping in mind all the ways to protect yourself I’d like to highlight the end of Captains response as something very important. A lot of my personal growth has come from telling people about the stuff I really didn’t want to talk about, there’s a lot of power over the events to be gained from talking about them freely. First with someone you really trust and gradually with more and more people until you stop worrying about who knows, because as long as you’re hiding stuff that stuff has power over you.
“Yes, I was once married. It didn’t work out. How about you?”
I find that people (mostly) love to talk about themselves, so turning the question on them after a brief vague answer is a good way to deflect attention from a subject that you don’t want to discuss. Nobody needs to know the details if they aren’t a very close friend.
I’d like to gently challenge the LW’s assumption that is is always unacceptable to lie about something like this. I’m of the school of thought that if someone starts asking me questions that aren’t their business, on subjects they aren’t entitled to know about, I feel perfectly fine telling some white lie/lie of omission that protects my privacy.
(After several years in the closet when I was much younger, I developed an obsession with absolute honesty to counterbalance all the lies I’d told to stay closeted, so I do understand the unclean icky feeling that can result from not being wholly truthful. Fortunately, I got over it, and I (and the people around me) are happier now that I’ve developed the ability to keep certain info/thoughts to myself even when pressed.)
Another option if lying still squicks you out too much — when asked why you never mentioned your marriage and divorce before, it’s fine to say: “I don’t feel it’s something I’m always obligated to disclose.” That might help shut the topic down while also hinting at the questioner’s being the one who is making it awkward.
LW, it is your right to discuss (or not) your personal business as you see fit (or don’t). If someone presses you, you can always say, “You’ve asked me [X] times about something from way back in my past that I actually find mostly boring and irrelevant to my current life. Hey, how about we talk about something from YOUR past that you’d rather not discuss for perfectly acceptable personal reasons? I can even ask you [x] times about it after you politely try to change the subject, if you want.”
For people you aren’t quite as close to, I also highly recommend my favorite phrase: “It’s personal.” As an autistic, I’ve discovered that this phrase might as well be a polite “get out of jail free” card for conversations. Anyone who keeps prying after that is being RUDE and breaking social etiquette, so you’re allowed to be more blunt the more they pry, too.
You can also just answer questions with vague noises, like:
“You were married? Why didn’t you tell me?”
Mentally picturing the Tina Belcher Moan here. It’s great.
When people ask me about my late husband and I don’t feel like talking about it, or not with them, I say “It was a long time ago.” Most people, believe it or not, understand that that’s a deflection, and it usually shuts them down. For the ones that don’t, I just repeat “It was a long time ago and I don’t feel like talking about it” until they go away.
My best friend was married for close to 10 years before I met him (he’s in his mid-30s); I didn’t know until about 3 years into our friendship when I was helping him scan some documents and saw it on the form. Since I had seen it by accident, I didn’t say anything for probably 3 more months until it came up naturally. Not a big deal! It was more of a “Huh, I am surprised I didn’t know this.” (I knew about the partner, but not the marriage.) not a “WHY HAVE YOU BEEN DECEEEEEEIVIIIIING MEEEEEE?” thing.
The only time I have been frustrated by not being told about someone else’s marriage was that my mother had a brief, young, shitty marriage that she told us about when I was probably around 13. I’d already heard a few people reference it and had other suspicious things happen that I’d already pieced it together long before this point. I wish she’d just told me about it when I was younger so I didn’t have to spend so long angsting on strangers’ side comments about it and feeling like I couldn’t ask her.
I’m a big fan of “nope” and “yep” when it comes to conversations that I don’t want to have. Also, “It’s not important.” Said dismissively. Used judiciously, those three responses can really shut people down.
“1. It is normal to not tell a minor acquaintance your life story, but it is starting to feel like a purposeful omission to people whom I see often and confide in me. I know I’m not obligated to share it, but occasionally they’ll find out and when they do there’s a bit of “whoa, that was a pretty big thing to leave out.” I stammer and ineffectually mumble some sort of half-apology, but I have no idea how to even start. I don’t feel like I need to apologize, but I always feel like I kind of lied, even though I didn’t.”
There are plenty of close friends of mine who don’t know every romantic partner I’ve had. That’s pretty typical for most people. Why would your friends need to know about this particular ex just because a state issued you a license?
If you don’t want to lie, and don’t want to reveal, you could try “Why do you ask?”
My experience with that response – from both sides! – is that the interlocutor is deflected. Sometimes they even talk about themselves a lot!
Good luck LW
“It’s something I really don’t enjoy talking about, so please stop asking” is what I’d say in this situation if I really liked the person. If not, and I’d prefer they just leave me the hell alone, “it’s none of your business”. (IOW, give them the awkwardness right back.)
I have a somewhat different technique. I employ it when people pry about my disability, but it might work well here too.
Them: [some variant of “so, what condition do you have?”]
Me: “Oh goody, are we swapping medical histories now? OK – you first!”
This usually floors them and they realise they’re being inappropriate. Either they get it straight away and apologise (to which I say “happens all the time. Anyway [subject change]… “) or they try to reply and quickly flounder and tail off – at which point I jump in with a change of topic.
I second everyone’s suggestion – to make the tale boring – and I’d do that first, but for people who poke and say “yeah, but REALLY, what happened?” then it might work to say “you REALLY want us to talk about long-past relationships? *deep sigh and slightly weary expression* OK. You go first.”
I can pretty much guarantee that this tactic won’t end up in you being poked further. And if instead of “ah. Got it, sorry” they actually start telling you their own life story, give it a minute then try “Sorry – fascinating as this is, I need to get another drink / pop to the loo / say hi to Sarah / make a phone call before 5 o’clock / (etc)”
May I make another suggestion? I’ve had a few traumatic things happen in my life. I found writing them down and posting them onto a [private, locked] blog was really helpful. The memories were still there, but now they kinda had a life of their own, a new home. It was as if I was giving my mind permission to stop carrying them, or at least the weight of them, because that was now being done somewhere else. If for any reason you ever want or need to revisit those memories, you know where to find them – but you can now safely carry on without them being such a burden.
This kind of method has got me to the point now where people who ask “Why did you move out of student lodgings?” get “Oh, because a roomie raped me. Anyway…” in a pretty casual manner. It no longer has any hold on me at all. People are a bit surprised by my manner, but because I’m pretty dismissive about the event(s) in question, they are too (and don’t pry any further).
OP, check in with your therapist first of course – but if it might help to set your memories free and reduce their weight, the burden of carrying them – then give it a go when you feel able.
Whatever you do, I wish you well.
I love the Dolly Parton scripts! They’re hilarious, though I know this is a serious situation. I have similar problems in terms of mental health stuff in my past that I don’t immediately want to talk about with everything. I second what the Captain said – LW, you’re not doing anything wrong by telling everyone about this. There’s power in talking honestly about your past, but only with people who feel completely safe with. There’s also power in keeping it private when you want to – it’s completely up to you. Telling the two apart isn’t easy, though. Good luck.
I know it’s been Said before but you as a person are under no obligation to tell your friends(potential friends) you were married. Everyone has something they don’t want to talk about and there is nothing wrong with that. You never lied LW.
Claiming you didn’t eat the jelly beans when you actually did is a lie. The subject never coming up is not a lie. You not bringing it up is also not a lie.
A good script (which you should not need as people should BACK OFF)when they absolutely will not drop it is: “right, I never realised I was obligated to tell you every single thing about me…..that’s cool. so that means you will be comfortable telling me all of your secrets. It’s only fair after all. You start?” Its kind of harsh but it can work with difficult people. As does walking away
I love all the suggestions from the captain and other commenters here. One more you might try, if someone asks why you didn’t mention it sooner, is “It didn’t come up.” Most effective if you can say it in a light-hearted and casual way, but dry or short works too. It conveys that this isn’t a detail you were hiding, it’s just not relevant in your current life or something you wanna dwell on.
“It was a long time ago in a Ford Galaxy far, far away. The relationship lasted from Vegas to Fresno, at which point I sobered up.”
“But why didn’t you bring it up before?”
“Does anyone enjoy talking about their divorce?”
Let awkward hang there, move on, people who respect boundaries should get the hint.
Seriously, my dad was married previously and he practically spits fire when his ex wife is mentioned.
I have a somewhat similar situation. My parents were very abusive. I no longer am in touch with them in order to protect myself. But people want to know- where do your parents live, how often do you visit (and why don’t you visit when I say I don’t), etc, etc. I don’t want to get into it. I try saying that we aren’t close, but that just seems to invite more questions. I don’t want to go over the whole abusive history, I just want noncommittal answers. Any suggestions for good noncommittal answers? And when these answers aren’t good enough, how do I shut it down? I generally say that I am not close with my family, but this just seems to invite questions.
I married very young, while still in college, and my classmates were often stunned to find out I had an actual husband. Still am all these years later but no one is surprised anymore. So the reaction will fade as the hairs grey and the wrinkles arrive. Go with boring and a shrug.
Wow I could have written this exact letter. My particular concern was that I was working hard to make new healthy friendships and I discovered that others who unloaded their personal traumas on me right away tended to be bad with boundaries and way more into taking than giving. Toxic. So I didn’t want to do that myself. But i didn’t know when it became the right time to disclose, or how much. Because the whole story was super dark. I felt like if I never shared it, I would never truly be close with anyone again. This became less true as I healed, and the marriage mattered less in my new life.
It was complicated by the fact that it was a same-sex marriage, and I moved to my new city during a time when this was a very hot political topic, well before the Supreme Court made same-sex marriage a federal thing. A lot of my queer friends talked about the issue all the time, and keeping mum about my struggles to get a legal divorce once I fled to a state that didn’t recognize my marriage, or to get domestic violence support as a lesbian, became a strain on me. I had things to say. But felt bound.
There was no easy solution for me. People are judgy about divorce and VERY judgy about DV. But channeling Dolly Parton is literally never a bad idea.
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