Becoming an Adult Through Divorce

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

So far in our series we’ve heard from readers who felt they reached adulthood through a variety of significant emotional events: abandoned by parents at an early age, getting busted by the cops, barely averting the wrath of a communist regime, losing a comrade in combat, getting properly diagnosed with autism, and coming out of the closet. Our latest reader experienced a far more common event:

I became an adult after my first marriage ended. Up until that point, I was living my life in service to and at the direction of my husband, my father, my mother, and every other figure of authority that moved through my world. When my marriage ended I was faced with the reality that those to whom I had I trusted my life had not actually agreed to accept that responsibility.

It took another year and a half to fully grasp what this meant. January 4, 2010. The day I broke. This is also the day that I found my bootstraps, grew up, and moved into adulthood. Today I have designed a lovely life that looks and feels and sounds and behaves exactly like me.

From a woman in her early 30s:

I was always a tiny adult from a young age—an only child of an only child, with a single mother who herself was the daughter of a single mother. I related better to adults than children and couldn’t wait to grow up. I knew what all the signifiers were, and I was on track to attain them all.

I moved away from home to attend college, graduated college, and moved to the big city to get on with my life. I got a job that turned into a career. I went to graduate school. I bought a little bachelorette pad, got a dog, and my career took off.

I met someone, and married him. We bought a bigger house. But every single day, I woke up feeling like a child in an adult body. “Who let me make million dollar decisions? Who are these fools who pay me to advise them? Don’t they know I still eat potato chip sandwiches and would rather be in sweatpants?” I felt like an imposter despite my credentials and evidence that I was as adult as anyone else.

Then my marriage crumbled under the weight of his addiction and we separated. When I told my friends, I learned that I had been a better imposter than I realized: No one had any idea that my he was an addict, that our marriage was troubled, that I was unhappy. I put so much effort into faking it that there was no energy left to make it.

When the divorce was finalized, I looked at what I had left: friends who supported me no matter what, a career that was taking off despite personal setbacks, the house I kept, my dog, my ever-supportive family. And I realized that I didn’t have the interest or energy or time to fake anything anymore.

I had to be brought to my knees to realize that I could just be me. When I finally stopped building an image of myself for public consumption, I learned authenticity—and with it, true adulthood, inside and out.

This reader seems on the verge of divorce:

I’m an obgyn and I watch women struggle through many life changes. I see my late teen and early 20s patients acting more grown up and thinking they “know it all.”  I see my patients learning to be new moms and wishing they had a guide book, feeling lost.  I see women through divorce and trying to find themselves afterwards. I see them trying to hold onto youth during menopause and after.  I see them embarrassed to be incontinent in their later years or embarrassed they have to use a walker. As a result, I have been reflecting for a while on this very topic of “becoming an adult.”

I am a mom, have three kids in elementary, married (unhappily unfortunately), and I still feel like I’m growing up. My spouse cheated on me—that was a wake up call. I started asking myself “what do YOU want?” and “what makes YOU happy?” I think I had gone through life not questioning many things along the way.

As a 40-year-old woman, I feel like this is the time I’m becoming an adult—it’s now, but it hasn’t completely happened yet. During my marital conflicts I started therapy (I wish I had done this in my 20s). It’s now that I'm learning, really learning, who I am. I don’t know if I will stay married. I don’t know how that will look for my kids or for me down the line. I suspect that if I leave, then I will feel like an adult, because then I did something for ME.

I think the answer to “When do you become an adult?” has to do with when you finally accept yourself. My patients who are trying to stop time through menopause don’t seem like adults even though they are in their mid-40s and mid-50s. My patients who seem secure through any of life struggles—those are the women who seem like adults. They still have a young soul but roll with all the changes, accepting the undesirable changes in their bodies, accepting the lack of sleep with their children, accepting the things they cannot change.