Walking down the aisle in a lavish ceremony, with a gorgeous dress and the man of her dreams, Natasha Nelson never imagined that six weeks after her May wedding she’d be filing for divorce.
The 35-year-old public relations executive says she found out her new husband had been carrying on a relationship with his ex-girlfriend — all throughout their 10-month courtship, engagement and even after the wedding.
And as if dealing with the betrayal wasn’t painful enough, Nelson had to explain to relatives and friends — who had traveled to the wedding from all over the U.S. and Europe and showered her with expensive gifts — why the union ended so quickly.
“It was really embarrassing,” said the San Diego, Calif. resident. “It took me a long time to get over the fear of judgment.”
Honesty is the best policy
With the end of Kim Kardashian’s 72-day stint as a married woman has come a wave of fury about short marriages and lack of respect for the institution. While the public questions the legitimacy of Kardashian’s relationship with Kris Humphries to begin with, the fact remains that ordinary women find themselves in similar positions every day: wanting to divorce shortly after the nuptials for a variety of reasons.
While their situations are unique, a few common dilemmas face most of them — deciding how to break the news, what to do with the gifts and ring, and how to ask for support from friends.
When it comes to sharing the bad news, unlike Kim Kardashian, most women don’t have publicists to do the job. “Honesty is the best policy, and you look much better if you just admit that a mistake was made,” advises relationship expert Gilda Carle.
It took Nelson four weeks to decide how and what she’d say.
“Being in PR, I was thinking of ways I could spin the story so that I didn’t look like the fool he made me,” she said. “I finally got the guts to be forthright and send a tasteful email message to my guests, saying that I was sorry to disappoint them with the unfortunate news.”
Nelson even offered to return whatever unused gifts she could and money she’d received — but all of her guests told her to keep them.
More about relationships
And that gesture, says etiquette expert Harriette Cole, goes a long way. “The old-school rule is to offer to give back the gifts if the marriage ends within a couple of months, she said. “If you can’t give it back or don’t have it to give back, then the honorable thing to do is to send a card or letter to guests, expressing your deep regret and asking for their love and support.” For her part, Kardashian announced that she will be donating to charity the gifts from her $172,000 registry.
Who gets the ring?
After dealing with guests comes the issue of what to do with the ring. Traditional protocol, Cole says, is to return the ring if the union has lasted less than a year, particularly if it is the groom’s family heirloom. The rules relax if infidelity is involved, as in Nelson’s case. “Keeping the ring is not the best thing to do, but it’s understandable if vows were broken.”
While etiquette rules and California law side with Nelson keeping the ring, she decided to give it back. “I didn’t want it as a reminder,” she said. “It was a symbol of a commitment that wasn’t kept.”
Kathy Thomson, a 53-year-old retiree in Florida, says that similar to Kardashian, she got caught up in the idea of a fairytale wedding when she got married in 1977. When she confided doubts to her family, they were brushed off as pre-wedding jitters. But four months later, the realities of marriage were more than she bargained for and she chose to end her marriage, despite the social pressure to stay with her husband.
Thomson decided to keep her ring. “My ex wanted the ring back, but legally, it was mine,” she said. “At the time, my parents paid for the whole wedding, so I kept it.”
Thomson, who was 20 years old when she wed and divorced, had it reset and used it as her engagement ring for her second marriage — which has thus far lasted 31 years.
Don’t say ‘I told you so’
So if you are a friend or family member of someone who has a short-lived marriage, how should you react? The best thing to do is to let the party involved know that you are there for her, experts say.
“The best thing you can do is listen,” said Carle. “The typical response is saying, ‘You should do this or that,’ and that’s the last thing anyone wants to hear. All you have to say is, ‘Look, I’m here for you if you want to talk,’ then drop the subject. You have no idea how powerful and appreciated that will be.”
For Nelson, the response from friends and family was overwhelming as she received calls from them telling her exactly that.
“At the time, I really wanted my closest friends to tell me he was a jerk and bash him,” she said. “But now I’m so thankful they didn’t do that — they just listened and let me cry. I got such reassurance that they were there for me no matter what.”
Under no circumstances should you pull out the “I told you so” card — even if, like Kardashian’s sisters, you had doubts about your friend’s marriage from the get-go.
“You really have to decide whether you want to support your friendship or sap your friendship,” said Carle. “If you start reminding your girlfriend how brilliant you are and how stupid she is, that’s sapping the relationship.”
Nelson says that the experience of a failed marriage has been so traumatic for her that she will avoid having a big wedding in the future. But for her, the silver lining of the experience has been discovering the rock-solid nature of her friendships.
“They rallied around me so greatly that it really gave me the strength to come out and tell the story of how horrible it all was,” she said. “That’s been a huge part in helping me move on with my life.”
© 2012 MSNBC Interactive. Reprints