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.