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The Starter Husband

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"Simply put, my 20s were freaking me out," says 29-year-old Elisa Albert, a wavy-haired brunette and adjunct assistant professor of creative writing at Columbia University. "I felt unqualified to be barreling into adulthood alone — I felt at loose ends in regards to my career, my ability to support myself, even my postcollege social identity. I was lonely and scared. At the same time, I'm watching Sex and the City and going, 'Okay, so should I spend the next 20 years getting my heart broken and pretending that it's all in good fun? Or should I marry this dude I'm dating, have a gorgeous party, and make my parents really, really happy?"

She chose wrong.

It all started over a steaming cup of coffee in a New York City diner. Elisa's mother suggested she give a family friend a call in the wake of his sibling's death. (Elisa's own brother had died a few years back.) "We talked about our brothers, which was intense, and then somehow we went from there to falling in love and having this 100-mile-an-hour courtship," Elisa says. "We were talking about naming our unborn children after our dead brothers. It was totally crazy."

From an outsider's perspective, you could see trouble ahead: They crashed between breakup and make up like a game of pinball. But during one warm-and-fuzzy reconciliation, they decided to get hitched. Suddenly, the relationship snowballed into something bigger: getting married.

"I totally bought into the wedding-industry machine," admits Elisa, who spent more time obsessively planning every detail of her nuptials for 300 at a Malibu estate than she did working on her master's thesis. From the five-star vegan menu to the Japanese lanterns to the playlist, Elisa's focus was all wedding, no marriage. "I had a totally misguided notion of what a wedding was about," she says. "You work toward this giant event, have an enormous party, then an hour after you get married, reality sets in. I was like, Oh, shit — that didn't really solve anything." You can almost forgive a girl for focusing on the party and forgetting about the hangover. After all, it seems that we don't have a clue what the heck marriage is anymore. Like a fat promotion to the corner office, we aspire to it — the sparkler on my finger means I'm a success, receiving the final rose means I win — but what is the prize again? For that cluelessness, apparently, we can thank our single moms and alimony dads. "We are the children of parents who divorced in the '70s and '80s," says Paul. "Divorce is out there as a familiar possibility."

My own parents' bitter divorce — many, many years in the making — played out right around the time of my engagement. I knew all too well what the seamy underbelly of marriage looked like, and it had made me incredibly cautious about commitment — it took me seven years of dating my husband before I could consider the concept of "forever."

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