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I Burned My Wedding Dress—and Vowed to Never Marry Again

On my 15th wedding anniversary, I burned my wedding dress.

I burned it in a chiminea on my friend Serena’s patio during the summer of 2020. I’d wanted to have a big ceremony with all my friends—one in which we could take turns tossing pieces of the dress into open flames and reciting poetry. A special rite to close out that part of my life.

My own wedding had been a compromise: small, patched together with only $5,000. I’d arranged the flowers myself. The food came at a cut rate from my college’s catering services department, where I’d been working the past two summers. The dress, which had come from a discount website, had a visible flaw on the front. Everything had felt like some rasterized image of perfection: Whatever I’d wanted had been cut down, broken apart, and pixelated until it barely resembled my dreams.

My marriage had also been that way: smaller and more stifling than the dreams. Just like I’d made myself smaller to stuff myself inside that ill-fitting wedding dress, I’d cut off my circulation to build a life with my college boyfriend. I managed the grocery budget, cutting coupons and canning vegetables. I had our two kids and was their full-time caretaker while cobbling together a Rube Goldberg system of babysitters and late nights so I could write.

'This American Ex-Wife: How I Ended My Marriage and Started My Life' by Lyz Lenz

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When things got tense with us—him resenting my growing career, me exhausted from childcare and late nights—I still tried to make it work. I’d signed us up for therapy and even gone along with the therapist’s suggestion of working on a puzzle together as a way to put the pieces of our marriage back together. I objected to the obviousness of the metaphor and suggested a vacation instead. But my then husband pointed out the puzzle cost $19.99, and a vacation would cost far more. So we stuck with the puzzle. Even then, I was trying to make my life and desires fit within someone else’s parameters.

I’d always wanted to be married and live a life where I wrote books and loved a man and had a happy family. I imagined teaching at a university and being one of those writers who wasn’t necessarily popular but whom people liked once they read her.

After I got my first book contract, though, my husband asked me to quit writing because of the toll my ambition was taking on our relationship. Over the years, I compromised so many of my hopes to try to make my ill-fitting life work, but that was the one thing I would not give up: the writing. My ambition, modest as it might have been at the time, saved me.

Eventually, I got tired of my dreams always coming second to someone else’s comfort. It was clear it was never going to be my turn. So in September 2017, after 12 years of marriage, I asked for a divorce. I moved out two months later, taking that flawed wedding dress with me. I had no more dreams for my future: just my writing, my ambition, and the hope that my kids and I would find a way to be happy.

I spent 12 years fighting for an equal partnership, when what I needed was a divorce.

I expected life as a single mother to be hard, although I figured I was used to making my life work without many resources. I had been poor before. But I had never been free.

What I hadn’t expected was that my life as a single mother would be easier than it had been when I was married. With court-mandated 50-50 custody, I had more time to write and more time to work. I started making more money. I was able to do things I’d never been able to do before: a set at open-mic night at a local comedy club; drive to Minneapolis to see my friends. I had less housework, and I didn’t have to worry about having a fight if I made vegetarian food for dinner, or just didn’t cook dinner at all, or if I swore, or if I wanted to stay out late at a book reading (yes, all real fights we had). I had more friends because I could be a better friend. I could host spontaneous dinners or go out to lunch without having to explain to my husband why people were coming over or why I’d spent the money on a midday glass of wine. I got a new job and was able to buy a house.

But as I built a new life, the dress hung there in my closet, a reminder of all my failed dreams. I needed to do something with it; my friend Serena was the one who first suggested burning it. And so we did.

Once again, the ceremony was smaller than I thought. But it was more joyful, and there was wine.

Throughout the pandemic, I’d been working so much at my job at the local newspaper that I’d lost weight from stress and anxiety. This meant I fit into the dress again. Well, mostly. It had been 15 years, and my body had waxed and waned from children. I had to pull my boobs up to fit into the bodice, a reminder that that version of my life hadn’t ever fit me well. I put the dress on as we sat outside, and my friends took turns trying to rip it off me like they were the stepsisters and I was Cinderella. I laughed so hard my sides ached.

I thought about finding someone else. That would be nice. But, I realized now, it wasn’t necessary for a happy life. I had my dreams. I had friends and love and family and a home filled with joy and pets.

I could write whatever stories I wanted without fear or worry that I would have to compromise. And when I cast my intentions with those torn bits of my wedding dress into the fire, I wished not for what would come in the future, but only what was already here.

Lyz Lenz is the author of the book This American Ex-Wife. She lives in Iowa and writes the newsletter Men Yell at Me.

Originally Appeared on Glamour