Fresh on the list of “outdated” traditions we’re ditching in the 2020s is our sacred bonding ritual, marriage. Marriage is now being fundamentally changed by couples shaking up what marriage looks like, opting for a civil union or domestic partnership, choosing to cohabitate earlier, or just living entirely connected lives with children and simply never tying the knot. Another modern innovation in marriage culture appears to be the “starter marriage,” which is a short-lived first marriage that the divorcees view as their way to prepare for their next, hopefully longer-lasting marriage with another spouse. It’s most common among young couples, and typically the two don’t have any children together. This term has been around for a while but appears to be gaining a newer meaning thanks to increasing divorce rates.
Starter marriage culture leads to what I’m not-so-fondly calling “starter husband syndrome,” the idea that your first “marriage-worthy” relationship is much like a starter home, acquired to just make do for a little while and to build equity until you’re ready to trade it in for something newer and better.
We know that divorce rates are rising, a trend that’s worse for younger couples, but are these divorces happening because people weren’t actually ready for marriage, or are we all being groomed by celebrities and the pervasive career-woman mentality to treat marriage like we’d treat a starter home?
Unsurprisingly, Celebs Lead the Charge for Starter Husband Syndrome
Remember when Katy Perry and Russell Brand tied the knot in 2010? Russell Brand is a classic example of Katy Perry’s “starter husband” – the two divorced less than two years after they were wed. According to Brand, he couldn’t mesh well with Perry’s “vain and artificial nature,” a topic that’s usually the butt of his jokes. According to Perry, she wanted to be his equal, but he couldn’t handle it. Whatever the real reason for the split, perhaps they rushed down the aisle and should have gotten to know one another better before saying “I do.”
Have you forgotten that Ryan Reynolds and Scarlett Johansson were married from 2008 to 2011? Shortly after their divorce, Reynolds married Blake Lively, the mother of his three (soon to be four!) children, but Johansson has gone on to tie the knot two more times.
Unsurprisingly, the Karjenners have also done their fair share of promoting carefree attitudes surrounding marriage. Kim Kardashian had two starter husbands – Damon Thomas from 2000-2004 and Kris Humphries from 2011-2013 before her longer marriage to Kanye West, the father of her four children. Khloe Kardashian was with her starter husband Lamar Odom for seven years (which technically disqualifies her if you’re going with the five-year rule) but since divorcing, she has had an on-again-off-again relationship with Tristan Thompson, the father of her two children. Like her big sister Kourtney, Kylie Jenner skipped the trend by not even marrying her baby daddy, Travis Scott, who she split with about a year and a half after daughter Stormi’s birth, and then started dating again around the same time her second baby was conceived.
These are some of the most idolized women on the internet. The lifestyle they promote can become a model for women who follow them, and I suggest that includes their glamorous weddings. Priyanka Chopra’s three-day extravaganza wedding to Nick Jonas is infamously one of the most Googled celebrity weddings.
Paris Hilton beamed on Instagram that her wedding was a fairytale that became reality. Marriage in the celebrity world appears to be beautiful. Could these over-the-top displays of wealth also inspire a woman to marry before she’s ready?
While plenty of Hollywood marriages stand the test of time, the celebrity divorce rate is 67% higher than that of your average couple, so their online displays of picture-perfect weddings and juicy, drama-ridden divorces bear a lot of weight and shouldn’t just be taken lightly. I mean, entire segments of magazines like People, Hello!, USA Today, Entertainment Today, and more are dedicated to tracking celebrity breakups and divorces, which in turn makes splits appear more fashionable.
My Main Gripes with Starter Husband Syndrome
I’m sorry, but if you’re approaching your first marriage as preparation for your following marriages (before you even know that the first one is going to fail), then you’re doing marriage wrong. Starter husband syndrome is sadly a consequence of our society’s growing sentiment that marriage is inconsequential. A sacred union isn’t just a step that you take in life, like leasing a car, which can be undone without lasting ramifications. The bond you form with a man when you start life’s journey with him and the oath you make at the altar just can’t be undone without serious consequences for both. Think about the disrespect served to his and your own heart, mind, body, time, money, and of course, the direction of your life. People shouldn’t be devalued as objects, which is what starter husband syndrome is guilty of.
Also, isn’t starter husband syndrome a pretty defeatist mindset to adopt? If you’re preemptively gloomy and not hopeful about people’s ability (including your own) to make a marriage work, then why bother getting married in the first place? I understand that in certain cases, unexpected riffs arise that cause irreconcilable differences or cause a person to feel unsafe in a marriage, but if you’re simply doubting your ability to follow through on a lifelong oath, then you’ve already subscribed to a negative view of marriage and humanity more widely.
Furthermore, I’d argue that this mindset can lead you to be willing to settle for lower-quality spouses in the first place because you’re keeping divorce on the back burner. Loosely planning on divorce will unquestionably lower your overall marriage experience. A relationship doesn’t maintain itself. Love requires consistent effort from both parties, so if you’re picking a beau who you know you’ll inevitably ditch anyway, then your marriage experience is less than what it could’ve been and you’re only further increasing your chances of that divorce you eventually intend to see come to fruition.
Though many people certainly cohabitate with someone they love, the marriage expectations of 2022 feel more like people are going through the motions of a business transaction. Tell a relative or acquaintance you’re getting married? Oftentimes in response, people will give bravado to the 13 legal benefits of marriage and equate your nuptials to an economic partnership, from tax deductions to social security benefits to IRA benefits, and of course, prenup benefits. While prenups are definitely a “better safe than sorry” measure for some, isn’t it kind of fascinating that signing one is the standard because of how common divorce has become?
Let’s also not forget that starter husband syndrome effectively ignores the purpose of dating. Hey, if you’re struggling to find a good man and hate dating app culture, I get it! The dating landscape is pretty unsavory and has even led some people to seek modern matchmaking tactics instead of downloading your typical dating apps. But I digress. Dating has a purpose that marriage shouldn’t usurp. You date to get to know a man well and intentionally discern if making a lifelong commitment to him is a good idea or not. Fingers crossed that he’ll be approaching it in the same frame of mind. So shouldn’t all of that vetting be done before you say your vows? I wouldn’t expect everyone to know absolutely everything about their spouses prior to walking down the aisle – I certainly didn’t – but you should use the dating stage as a time to see if your values align and if you have a similar vision for the future.
The “Inevitable” Divorce
A side effect of starter husband syndrome is hosting and then boasting about the quintessential divorce party. Drag yourself through a Spencer’s Gifts-style store (if you dare), and you’ll find that alongside raunchy, cheap bachelorette party favors and other questionable goods, you’ll now see themed accessories, ornaments, and knick-knacks for American women to ring in their divorces with their girl squad.
The banners read “Divorced AF” or “Your Vagina Deserved Better.” The shirts vary from “I Got 99 Problems But A Husband Ain’t One” to “I Offered To Key His Car.” Girls gain hundreds of thousands of likes on their TikTok videos showing off their drunken escapades heading downtown wearing “divorced” sashes, harkening back to their drunken bachelorette parties wearing “bride-to-be” sashes.
Burning a wedding dress on TikTok doesn’t come off as looking like you’re a girlboss in control of your emotions. It comes off as vindictive, like you’re desperately trying to prove a point in an aggressive way. If you were hurt by your ex-husband, shouldn’t you find more productive ways to channel your emotions instead of seeking affirmation from the public?
This attitude, though intended to be affirming, is defeatist. Rather than focusing on what these women do like about their spouses, they let themselves grow unhealthily obsessed with what they didn’t like. People say that the grass is always greener on the other side, a principle that is easily applied to marriage. You’ll always find areas of incompatibility with another person, and if you’re looking for perfect compatibility, well, good luck, you can’t exactly marry yourself. If you treat your first husband like a starter husband, I promise you that you’ll find just as many, if not more, areas of incompatibility to disagree on with your new beau.
I’d be remiss not to bring up the fact that women initiate divorce more often than men do, and if they had relied on their husbands, they get hefty sums in alimony through the divorce settlements. Some say that divorce law actually favors women. Though it’s an extreme case, remember how Mackenzie Bezos ended up as the world’s 4th richest woman, accumulating $38.3 billion after her divorce from Amazon founder Jeff Bezos? It’s no wonder why people get disillusioned by marriage since it’s treated like a depreciating asset.
A marriage for the right reasons is true empowerment. You’re walking down the path of life with another person by your side, ready to help you through hardships and comfort you in distress, until death do you part. A "practice" marriage is anything but empowering.
When country star Miranda Lambert divorced fellow singer Blake Shelton (technically a starter marriage since they were only together for four years), she confessed the following: “If I ever were to get married again...I feel like it's not about it being a step in life. It's not about a piece of paper or a diamond. It's the way you feel about somebody and the commitment in your heart.”
Perhaps if more women understood this and treated marriage as the serious step that it is, they could help themselves – not hurt themselves – and divorce rates wouldn’t continue to rise.
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