Statistically speaking, marrying young can spell disaster. Not for me.
To celebrate our fifth wedding anniversary last year, my husband and I spent the weekend at a funky motel in the Catskills. We arrived Friday night, poured some wine, put on Bonnie and Clyde, and exchanged gifts. The T-shirt I gave Adam featured a bear fighting a shark; he gave me earrings shaped like shark teeth (we often have similar ideas). Then we noticed there was a fly buzzing around the room, so Adam started chasing it, doing ninja moves in his underwear.
We're 29, and we've been married since 2005, cohabiting since 2000, and together since 1997—which comes to 14 years total, or roughly half of our lives. Within a week of meeting in second-period Spanish class, we had exchanged phone numbers, met each other's parents, had our first date (we watched A Clockwork Orange with the grumpy drummer in Adam's band; it was about as romantic as it sounds), and written several letters containing the song lyrics we felt applied to our burgeoning love. Soon, we were talking about The Future, when we would make art and travel and get married. Meanwhile, we played video games and made out in photo booths and tried to out-belch each other. It was never a question: We knew we were going to be together from then on.
Two years after we met, I received my college acceptance letters. Most came from universities in our native California, but one came from a college in New York. When I'd applied, Adam had said that he wasn't ready to move—he planned to go to college nearby, to stay close to the band and his friends—and that if I went east, I'd have to go alone. I respected his decision, and he respected my decision to apply anyway. When the deadline to either accept or decline admissions offers arrived, I sat on my bed with Adam on my right and my best friend, Erin, on my left. We all cried. Erin was headed to Massachusetts; if I moved to New York we'd be mere hours apart. I checked YES on the New York college's acceptance card—it was a more prestigious school than any of my California options, and my first choice. A few minutes passed. Something felt horribly, epically wrong. I picked up the card, changed my answer, and accepted an offer from a college less than an hour away.
I was a sophomore when Adam and I moved into our tiny first apartment, after which a curious thing happened: We became 20-year-old senior citizens, combining an immature worldview with hobbies that were distinctly—and dorkily—middle-aged. I started reading Saveur, and sewing, and collecting Depression-era glassware. The first time we drank—being upright citizens, we waited until we were 21—we made martinis and were very nearly scared off from booze forever. Other people spent these years doing keg stands and having sex on pool tables; we spent them playing Scrabble and training our cat to answer to her name.
Soon, we got married. I wore a white shantung blouse and skirt, and the groomsmen wore black Converse sneakers. At the afternoon reception, we ate cold cuts and listened to Elliott Smith and The Clash. It was a quintessentially young-people affair—heavier on sentiment than spectacle, and lacking an open bar—and it was one of several such events we attended in those years. The aforementioned grumpy drummer married one of my friends a few months before Adam and I tied the knot; Erin married her boyfriend one year after our wedding. Not one of us was older than 23 when we said our vows. I wasn't so young that I couldn't appreciate the rarity of this. I remember a friend saying at my bridal shower, "This is all so 1950s of you!" She was right, of course. Back then, the first-time bride's median age was about 20; in the decades since, it has inched up to 26.
But by the time I hit my ripe old mid-20s, I was already heading for divorce. I wish I could explain what happened between the day Adam and I said "I do" and the awful night a year later when we separated, but it's gone, lost to history. All I recall is what I kept telling people during that period: The books say the first year of marriage is really hard. By the spring, we were fighting in that sprawling, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf way of two people no longer attempting to spare each other's feelings. One evening I came home from work, joked with him for a while—even when things got really bad, we had moments of lightness—and then said flatly that I wanted to end our marriage.
Katie Arnold-Ratliff is the author of the novel Bright Before Us, and an associate editor at O, the Oprah Magazine.
Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty. Photograph of Katie Arnold Ratliff and her husband courtesy Katie Arnold-Ratliff.