I Was a Trophy Wife
That life looked pretty good until I realized what I was giving up
It was a joke. The kind of joke that’s actually true, but you laugh about it in the hopes of deflecting that truth. A thing you bring up first, before anyone else can. “Haha, she’s my trophy wife! Aren’t we funny!”
I was in my early twenties when we met; he was already over 40, 17 years older than me. And 17 gazillion times wealthier. He had a nice house and a lucrative business partnership and a 401(k) and an Audi. I had student loans and a toaster oven and two cats.
Well, I soon had just one cat. It was decided that I would give away one of mine before we married. He already had two, and four cats would be just too many. One of mine had to go. I got to make a “Sophie’s choice” about it, though. I chose Grub even though I’d raised him from a newborn kitten.
(That wasn’t the first time I yielded, though it was an early one. How clear all these signposts are in the rearview mirror.)
“You’re going to miss your thirties if you marry him,” my therapist warned me. “You’re going to start being his age, hanging out with his friends, living his life.”
I protested. Wasn’t it just as likely that I would bring vibrant, young energy into his life? My creative interests and my hip friends? (Well, semi-hip, I guess. I mean, we were all young; that’s hip by definition, right? Right?)
The fact was, his life looked pretty good to me. My own life was a panicked, disorganized mess when I met him. I was in a miserable relationship, had an abusive job, and was broke and freaked out. I had no idea who I was and what I wanted or what to do about any of that. It’s why I was in therapy in the first place. And then, suddenly, here was this man with his life all figured out. He was smart and attractive and stable—such an adult.
I wanted a grown-up. I wanted to be a grown-up.
So I married him.
I’m not gonna lie: Having money makes so many things easier. If I miss anything from my trophy wife years, it’s that. The first time I walked down a grocery aisle and realized I could just put things in my cart without having to keep a running tally in my head—it was amazing.
I didn’t stop at groceries. I began to haunt malls. I loved how familiar and comfortable they felt, so bright and clean and safe—all the nice stores with all the nice clothes in them, clothes I could take home and wear and feel pretty and rich. I collected far too many pairs of boots. I started getting my hair cut at a fancy salon downtown and then frosted too. I developed a craving for jewelry. Was I filling the vast emptiness inside? No, of course not. I was just indulging in things I’d never been able to have when I was poor and lost.
My life got better in so many ways. I left the horrible, abusive job for a much gentler one. It wasn’t the job I’d really wanted, the one I’d interviewed for and was offered. That one would have had me working long hours and sometimes even weekends; it would have been challenging and paid well. But my husband wanted me around and didn’t want to lose me to work, so my gentle job was also part-time. My salary didn’t matter to us anyway; he still made many times what I did. And I was able to take care of the laundry and the grocery shopping and going to the cleaners and keeping the social calendar and always being home when he got home.
The things he wanted? They all seemed like good ideas. Didn’t they?
It was easy to give in to what my husband wanted. He was kind and reasonable; he told me that his first wife had made so many non-negotiable demands, and then she’d left him anyway. He’d been badly hurt, and he’d grown from it and learned how to assert his needs. Anyway, the things he wanted? They all seemed like good ideas. Didn’t they?
Like travel. My gentle, part-time job was also very flexible, and god, how we traveled. All over the U.S. and abroad as well: Paris (many times), London, Cyprus, Sydney, Geneva—it would take me half a page to list all the places we went. His job sparked a lot of the travel, and then we’d add on a week or two if the place was interesting. “You are, like, so totally loving it,” said the young woman I hired to house-sit for us during these many trips. She wasn’t wrong: I enjoyed it. Who wouldn’t? I met other pampered wives at my husband’s work meetings. We toured Buckingham Palace and met rock stars and dined in world-famous restaurants. We stayed at a resort where the swimming pool came right up to our patio and all the women swam topless. We took helicopters and river barges and safari jeeps to amazing places.
We lived plenty well when we stayed home too. The wine was always first-rate, and we were both accomplished cooks. We dined out a lot, too, in our city’s fine restaurants. All that bounty could make a person fat, so we joined the city’s premier gym and hired personal trainers to help us keep slender for our fancy clothes.
I was good at my gentle part-time job, and though I turned down one offer to move up the ranks, I accepted the next one. My husband was proud of me. The job still wasn’t high-powered or demanding; it was at a university in an interesting academic department. That’s what a trophy wife is, after all: It’s not enough that she be young and attractive; she must also be smart and accomplished.
We were living the dream. Our home was beautiful, our cars were shiny, our cats were fluffy, and our passports were up to date and full of stamps. Friends would open conversations with “So, what’s your next trip?” We were, like, so totally loving it.
And then I approached my thirties. Then I entered my thirties. My new position at work got a little bigger, crept closer to being full-time and had more responsibility. Email became a thing, so I could think about work stuff even when I was at home. I was good at what I did, and I enjoyed it. It made me feel, well, smart and accomplished at something that wasn’t about my husband and our life together. Something that was mine.
Not only that, but I remembered how much I’d always wanted to write. I mean, I hadn’t forgotten that, exactly; there had just not been any time to devote to it, what with all the traveling and the chores and errands and our busy social life and the increasingly full-time work and our cocktails together after work and—oh, yes—the gym and the yoga and the haircuts-and-color appointments and and and…
My husband encouraged me to write. After all, writers are intellectual and successful! What better trophy could there be than a young and lovely wife who managed to pen an elegant bestseller in her spare time?
I began to find my voice. I’m not there yet; I don’t know if I will ever be there.
Now, I’m not saying that my choice to write about witches and magic was what killed our marriage—but it didn’t help. “I thought you were going to write literary books,” he complained mildly. “Isn’t that what you read?” And then, after I’d pressed him to read a draft of my first novel, “I’m sure it’s very good, but it isn’t my thing.”
A gentle rebuke like that would have put me back on my heels in my twenties. That’s about as hard as he had to push to get me to give Grub away, to turn down that first job offer, to pass on the first promotion at the university, and to wear more Brooks Brothers and less Express (not to mention less eccentric vintage).
But then, I found myself pushing back. The witches and warlocks and magic and fairies and darkness wanted to be written about. It was the story I had in me, the thing that felt right.
I was beginning to find my voice. I’m not there yet. I don’t know if I will ever be there. I think it’s a practice—something that, if you work at it, you are forever becoming. I’m growing into myself. My self.
There, in my thirties, began a long, painful process of becoming the sort of person who could even write that last paragraph. It was awkward and unhappy, and I’m not proud of a lot of parts of it. I became super aware that something huge was missing in my life, something that boots and jewelry and travel and gin weren’t beginning to fill. I looked in all the classic wrong places for that something: I had affairs, I doubled down on the acquisitions, I even bought a little red sports car. (I still have it. It’s a great car—but at the time, it only solved my specific transportation-and-parking problem.)
Did I miss my thirties? Was my long-ago therapist right? Well, I did important work then (if ungracefully), and I learned a lot, and I even had fun amid all the chaos and uncertainty and distress. Does anyone do their thirties right? What’s that supposed to look like, anyway?
I just knew that I wasn’t happy. I didn’t have any friends that weren’t his friends—and often they were even older than he was. We didn’t travel to any places that I had dreamed of going. I didn’t wear any clothes that he didn’t like. If I wanted to see a movie or go to a reading he wasn’t interested in, it was basically not worth all the soothing and apologizing I’d have to do afterward (whether he ended up accompanying me or not). My job was engaging me intellectually and demanding more and more of my time while my husband felt neglected and resentful. He was nearing retirement, looking forward to a life of leisure and even more travel. I was trying to grow up. Trying to be the adult I had never managed to become.
After slowly undermining my marriage for years, I blew it up spectacularly not long after I turned 40. There would be no going back. I didn’t do this consciously, but somehow, I must have known that I was never going to be who I wanted to be—who I could be—if I stayed. I had to jump off the cliff, into the fire, over the edge.
It was scary. Terrifying. Because I’d done it behind my own back, I was completely unprepared. I didn’t have a plan, a place to go, any savings or separate assets or anything. I just went.
I didn’t just leave my husband either. I left my job, with its retirement plan and excellent health benefits. I left the entire state, where I was born and where all my family were.
I started over.
I’m good now, so good. There was, of course, a divorce settlement, so I didn’t have to go back to baking water-and-Bisquick paste in my toaster oven to make it to the next payday.
I built a new life in that new state. I made new friends, and I later even broke up with a few of them when I realized the friendships weren’t healthy for me. I began gardening and remembered how much I loved thrift store clothes. I took myself out to concerts and movies and talks that sounded interesting. I tried different relationship styles. I found a different kind of job altogether: I’m now a freelance editor and proofreader. I write and publish books about witches and magic, and I actually get paid for all those things.
I married a man who is my partner and not my boss. In fact, since we’re both freelancers, I am, more often than not, our major breadwinner. This feels better than I can possibly explain, even in this era of uncertainty.
I’m my own trophy now.