Sometimes I forget I used to be married. It’s pretty easy: I live with roommates in Boston, where I lived before I was married, and I’m deep in the romantic dystopia of online dating.
But then I see my name. I’m reminded of the man I share it with, the same man who told me, without warning after 15 months of marriage and four and a half years together, that he wanted a divorce. In just six weeks, I lost so many things that I loved — my apartment, my dog, my life in New York, and my husband.
It was February when I left Brooklyn to return to Boston, and the bitter cold seemed to reflect how I felt — at turns hurt, angry, sad, and numb. Despite the pain, I did all the things you’re supposed to do: therapy, yoga, journaling. I met old friends for drinks and explored my new neighborhood. I cried. I worked on being a whole person, rather than the hollowed-out skin I often felt like. The one thing I didn’t do, however, was change my married name.
Nearly five years earlier, on my 27th birthday, friends gave me a teddy bear in a black cowboy hat bedazzled with the letters “JOTB” in sparkly gold paint. It stands for Jill of the Bear, the nickname they’d coined when they found out my last name, D’Urso, means “of the bear” in Italian.
Truthfully, that nickname was possibly the most connected I ever felt to my last name. Most of the time, I was annoyed by it — the mispronunciations, the misspellings, the name calling, that damned apostrophe. You wouldn’t think that such a tiny punctuation mark could cause so many problems, but it did. Everything from lining up in school to picking up prescriptions at the pharmacy had been an ordeal.
I didn’t feel any familial allegiance to my name, either. My father is an only child, born to second-generation Italian-Americans who didn’t exactly instill a love of the homeland in him. I don’t even know what region of Italy my family is from. Both sides of my family’s heritage (my mother’s side is French-Canadian) have been thoroughly rinsed of cultural significance, run through the wringer of suburbia. We are so apathetic about our ancestry that my parents and my brother have taken to spelling it Durso, without the apostrophe — an orthographic resignation akin to throwing your hands up and saying, “You win.”
My name wasn’t my only awkward attribute growing up. I had frizzy hair unfortunately cut in the “Rachel” style, crooked teeth, and round, bright blue glasses. I didn’t have many friends. I didn’t have a boyfriend until I was 22. Hell, I had barely even kissed a guy until that point.
When my first serious relationship ended when I was 23, I became convinced of my inevitable spinsterhood. This sense of romantic doom was an integral part of my identity, even though I would wish for someone to love me every time I blew out birthday candles or threw a penny in a fountain.
All of that changed the summer of 2009, shortly after my 27th birthday. I was in Sag Harbor, New York, for a friend’s graduation party, sitting in her backyard looking at the stars after everyone else had left or gone to bed. Everyone except for one of my best guy friends.
It was late and there was a chill. I was shivering. He put his arm around me. I let it stay there, then leaned into him. We kept looking at the sky and I told myself he was only putting his arm around me because I was cold and he was my friend.
Though we lived in different cities, we talked for hours on Gchat every day, whiling away our days at low-stakes and low-paying desk jobs. Our conversations had steadily become more serious, more flirtatious, but I couldn’t wrap my head around the notion that someone who knew me so well could actually like me.
“Do you put your arm around all your friends?” I finally asked, emboldened by the many drinks I’d consumed earlier in the evening.
“No,” he said, laughing. “Just you.” He confessed that he had feelings for me, and had for some time.
We started dating a few months later, and everything in my life seemed to fall into place. After a year, we got an apartment together in Brooklyn, a one-bedroom with exposed brick walls and aqua kitchen cabinets. We adopted a pudgy, grumpy 6-year-old dog from a local shelter. I got a job and made friends and marveled at my good fortune.
When we got engaged eight months later, it was easy to decide to take my future husband’s last name, Gallagher. It wasn’t even a discussion. His name was everything my name wasn’t — simple, common, easily alphabetized. Perhaps most important, it belonged to a man I thought the world of. Gallagher was a choice, unlike the name I’d been born with, a name I’d never even liked. For me, taking his name was a celebration.
It’s considered liberated for a woman to keep her name after marriage. I don’t disagree, but I also don’t think that keeping her birth name — typically her father’s, another man’s name — is the only way she can demonstrate her strength and independence. Either way, it’s still mostly women who are forced to make a decision upon marriage, made to believe our feminism and very identities are at stake in the union. Our father’s name, our husband’s name — is there really a difference?
In an age where a person can be defined by their Google search results, it’s easy to understand a woman’s reluctance to change her name. She’s spent years building a career or a portfolio or even just likes making it easier for high school friends to track her down online. As the median age at first marriage gets higher, more women are going this route.
But when I got married, I believed the best was yet to come. I was starting a new job when I returned from our honeymoon and I wasn’t a famous writer (yet). I had no reason to believe that I would ever want to be anyone other than Jill Gallagher.
Getting married changed more than my name — it changed who I was. I went from being Jill D’Urso, unloved and uncertain of herself, to being Jill Gallagher, someone who was undeniably loved. My new name was proof of that love.
Of course, women don’t need proof of a man’s love to be happy, but being married made me happy. We got married on a farm in my home state of Rhode Island, reciting vows we’d written for each other as the sun set over Mt. Hope Bay. He told me I would be safe in his arms forever. I told him he was my “true North”— the compass with which I guided my life. We ate lobster and drank dark 'n’ stormies and danced with the people we loved most in the world.
After that, we settled into a routine — walking our dog, marathoning shows on Netflix, grocery shopping on Sundays. We threw parties and tried new restaurants and took vacations. We talked about leaving New York and what we would name our children someday. For me, our life together seemed like a fairy tale, the kind of story I used to tell myself to help me fall asleep. Who wouldn’t want to share that with the world?
It was a Wednesday morning in December, a little over a year after our wedding, that we sat facing one another on the couch and I listened as he told me, haltingly, that there were things in his past that he was dealing with, and he wasn’t sure he could be a good husband to me anymore.
I took his hand and told him that whatever it was, I would help him, and we would get through it together.
Then, there was silence. The kind of silence that feels like a chasm you could never cross. I’m not sure how long it went on — two minutes, five, ten. All I know is that we would never come back from the way it was before that silence.
“Jill, I haven’t been faithful to you.” His voice was like a croak, unfamiliar and confusing, as though he was speaking another language. “I’m in love with someone else.”
The day dragged into night. We yelled and cried for hours and hours. I felt every cliche: the ground dropping out beneath my feet, my world shattering before my eyes, our life together vanishing in a cloud of smoke. The next morning, he went to work and didn’t come back for several days, and then only to tell me it was over. There was nothing left to save and he couldn’t tell me why. When our life seemed like a dream, I had been living with my eyes closed.
At first, I didn’t change my name because the stress of starting over was too much. I didn’t want my new co-workers to know why I’d relocated to the Boston office. I felt like I was keeping a dark secret, hiding something vital about my past — that I had failed at marriage.
I still had friends in Boston, but my return felt less like a homecoming and more like a defeat. When I got married, I believed it would be forever; in reality, my marriage turned out to be shorter than Britney Spears and Kevin Federline’s.
A couple months after moving, a friend asked, over drinks, when I was going to change my name back. When I told her I wasn’t, she looked concerned. “But won’t it just remind you of him?” she asked. “If it were me, it would feel like a slap in the face every time I heard it.” Another friend texted me to say her husband was shocked that I would “want to share anything with such an asshole.” I wondered if they were right — was I holding on to something I should be moving away from? Did people believe I was keeping his name in some sad hope that he was going to change his mind and come back?
Conventional wisdom states that if a woman changes her name when she gets married, she should change it back if she gets divorced. Like her name was a jacket to slip on and off depending on the weather. What nobody understood is that it wasn’t just his name anymore — it was mine.
It’s been nearly three years since I first took the name, and I’ve learned how to inhabit it, as a wife and as a single woman. What once was proof of my marriage is now a way of acknowledging that, though I no longer have the validation of a husband, I still have value.
Before my husband left me, I used to have nightmares where he would tell me he had never loved me. I’d wake up scared, but there he’d be, in bed next to me. I’d lay my head on his chest and go back to sleep, reassured simply by his presence.
The funny thing about having your worst nightmare come true is that you realize it’s not the end of the world. I was forced to come face-to-face with my fear, get to know it. And in that knowing, the nightmare was less scary. Life itself was less scary.
Over the last year, I’ve adjusted to doing things alone that I used to do as part of a couple. I’ve gone to weddings, traveled to other countries, and taken road trips. Sometimes solitude is painful, but it’s also gratifying to be my own compass. I’ve rediscovered the quiet joy of spending time alone, reading on my porch or taking long walks. I gave a talk at a bookstore, negotiated post-marriage dating, took classes, and got a promotion, all without a ring on my finger. It wasn’t being married that gave me the confidence to forge my new life — it was realizing that I could survive heartbreak and loss and come out stronger.
My husband and I went from talking to one another every day for five years to complete silence. He cut me out of his life with swift, surgical precision. His name is my scar, the mark I wear to remind myself that I’m not erased, that I won’t go back to the frightened girl who believed she would never be loved.
Many divorced women revert to their birth names because they feel it’s symbolic of a clean slate, and that’s wonderful. But I don’t want a blank slate — there’s no changing my past or taking it back. There is only coming to terms with it.
Keeping my married name is just one way of saying, “This happened. I exist. And I’m better because of it.” Maybe I will change it again someday, but for now, Gallagher is my name.
Jill Gallagher is an editor and writer in Boston. She blogs about literary style at "Looks & Books."
Contact Jill Gallagher at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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