Four days into 2018 and four years into a whole new life, I bought a wedding dress. I even had a “the one” moment, which I was sure was impossible. See, I wear a lot of dresses—my closet is stuffed and 90 percent of the time you’ll find me in a dress—so I have liked something about almost every dress I’ve tried, and I thought I’d always be overly analytical about wedding dress shopping. Plus, when I did this before, I never felt that sense of certainty. I just picked a dress I loved, with lots of help from outside opinions, and then I bought it.
Yes, you read that right: this is the second wedding dress I’ve bought. As I began this essay, the first dress sat on the other side of my office door in the hallway, boxed up in the twelve-inch cube in which it was sent it back to me by the consignment store that couldn’t sell it.
It’s not that I’ve been married before and am now divorced, but rather that my former engagement was an emotional miscarriage. I live in the murky in-between: neither a pristine new bride nor an experienced do-over.
The Black Mirror
I was engaged five years ago to my first love. I went wedding dress shopping on our seventh anniversary, with my two best friends and a travel mug full of mimosa in tow. It had the makings of a perfect day, but instead it was a black mirror of what it should have been.
My fiancé had gone back to London, where we lived together, leaving me in San Francisco to spend time with my bridesmaids. That was planned. What wasn’t planned was the family implosion that happened a few days before he left, and the resulting indecision he expressed to me—including when he finally called to say hi and, when prompted, “Happy Anniversary,” between dress shops—about our impending marriage. That’s putting it lightly, really, but this far out I don’t really like to go back into the details of that time. Suffice it to say, he slowly destroyed us, and me, and I called off the wedding. Instead of wearing the dress down the aisle that fall, I stuffed it in my parents’ guest room closet in July and tried to forget it existed.
A couple of months after I’d moved back in with my parents, in pieces, my friend Kelsey offered to take the dress and try to sell it for me. Although it had been haunting me from the other side of the wall for weeks, a telltale broken heart, I still sobbed as I handed it into her car. This was really it. The dream, the fantasy, my reality: it was all over.
The Goodbye That Wouldn’t End
But that damned dress just wouldn’t go away. Kelsey tried to sell it online, keeping the post up for a couple months, and then, when she moved cities, another friend offered to store it for me. Meanwhile, in the absence of the monster in the closet, I was learning to breathe without crying, going to therapy once a week and dating far too soon, waking up leaden and going to bed conflicted about having survived another day.
I moved around, from a shared apartment back to my parents’ house, then on to Italy and back to my parents’ house, and then, finally, out for good. The dress stayed put. I moved across the bay, to Oakland, to be closer to a new job and a new partner. A year and a half after the breakup, and almost certainly too soon, I’d met an extraordinary man on whom I felt compelled to take a chance. The following summer we left our jobs, traveled around Europe for two months, then moved in together and began loose plans to leave the Bay Area for greener pastures.
Finally, my friend texted me to ask about the dress; was I ready to donate it (or just generally get it out of her tiny closet—she didn’t say it but I thought it)? I gave it one last go, hauling the dress to a consignment store that had agreed to take it on, despite its age, because the designer was well-regarded. The dress was now three and a half years old, a toddler; I felt about as exhausted as that implies.
As I carried the garment bag down Fourth Street, in Berkeley, I grew self-conscious. It was a beautiful day, and the street was bustling with strolling couples and alfresco diners. I was sure I they were all staring at my bare left ring finger. I’d left the house so confident, so bolstered by my love of getting things done that I’d been able to squash any hint of grief at this final letting-go of my past life, but now all the shame and anxiety came rushing back.
Still, when I got back to the car, empty-handed but for my signed contract, I felt relieved; I was ready to face the emotions the drop-off had brought up, because I was free of this albatross and could pour myself fully into my current relationship.
To New Beginnings… Almost
We got engaged a month later, and I was happier than I’d ever been. Here, at last, was the happy ending I’d had stolen from me years ago. This one, while much less flashy on the surface, was built of sturdier stuff. We moved to Bellingham, Washington, where we hoped I would have an easier time finding work teaching at the college level and he would be able to break into a career working for local government. We found a beautiful little venue within our budget, and we set a date. I picked up work at a bridal boutique and used my discount to buy a beautiful dress, which I knew was the right one because I felt flooded with joy and excitement and could actually imagine myself marrying my fiancé in it.
And then the first dress resurfaced. The Berkeley shop emailed to say they’d had “very little interest” in it. I spun into a panic: Should I pay $25 to have it mailed back to me, on top of the money I’d already spent listing it online and contracting it with the consignment store? At what point was I simply throwing money into a pit in the desperate hope of wringing something back out of this beautiful dress that I never wanted to see again?
Sunk Costs Are Never Sunk
My fiancé calls this the “sunk cost fallacy.” He doesn’t believe in struggling to make something, anything, out of a loss. He’s expressed this many times to me over our years together, most often where my desperate desire to have a friendship with my ex was concerned: I couldn’t have just wasted eight years of my life being close to this person for nothing, could I? My fiancé’s answer was, “Why waste any more years on someone who will never deserve your time?” He believes in burning bridges, especially if those bridges lead to past lands that were never as beautiful or safe as you once thought, and he definitely believes in cutting his losses and moving on.
Unsurprisingly, he was disinterested in my reasons for “thinking about” continuing to try to sell the dress. I asked the shop-owner to mail it to me, to (literally) buy myself more time, and I didn’t speak to my fiancé about it again… until the next day. I twisted myself into knots, justifying and rejustifying my need to “get something back,” even if that something was simply the satisfaction of donating it to somewhere more specific than Goodwill.
And then, finally, in the middle of the night, I realized that it wasn’t about the dress. It never was. It was about me, my intense need to make something of failure, to never “waste” anything: food, money, my time, heartbreak, the love I gave so freely and, in hindsight, blindly. But that’s not how life works. You don’t get back what you’ve given. You get what others are willing to give you, ideally because you’ve earned it. The love and support my fiancé gives me are worth a hundred dresses, decades of love ill spent, and everything else I’ve ever wished to recoup.
Saying No To The Dress
The next morning I texted him while he was at work: “Would you be willing to add a Goodwill drop-off to our errands tomorrow? I think it would be really good for me to have that wedding dress out of our home before we get married.”
He replied immediately: “Uh, hell yes.”
I twisted myself again, one last second-guess for old times’ sake: “So is Goodwill the best place, or should I try for somewhere like Habitat?”
“Good. Will. Put it in a bag with some clothes I have to get rid of and forget about it forever.”
And the next day, I did just that. Well, almost. I’ll never forget about that dress, or (unfortunately) everything it represents. But I’m done sinking more of my current energy into the past in the hope of getting anything back. It’s time to start investing everything I have in the relationships that offer a reciprocal investment in me.