I got left at the altar: turning heartbreak into artwork

December 29 | Guest post by Shelby Swink
All photos by Elizabeth Hoard Photography

When I met my fiancé in the beginning of 2011 we were both athletes at the same university in Tennessee. We started dating soon after that and hit it off very quickly. Our relationship was put to the test in 2012 when he moved back to his hometown in Florida, and I stayed in Tennessee to finish school. After a year of long distance, he surprised me and decided to move to Memphis, my hometown, to be with me. By December 2013 we moved in together and were doing great. So great, that we got engaged in March and started planning our wedding for November.

I poured my heart and soul into the wedding plans to try and make it the best day it could be. It was going to be a celebration of our love and commitment to each other, so I wanted it to be absolutely amazing. A few weeks before the wedding I had everything planned out to a T and was so excited for our big day.

Five days before the wedding the unexpected happened. My fiancé and I sat down and he told me that he was not in love with me, and did not want to marry me, or spend the rest of his life with me.

I was in complete shock and had no idea what to think or do. I was numb. The next couple days were a blur of calling guests, canceling services, and figuring out our living arrangements. Fortunately, my friends and family surrounded me and showed me endless love and support.

As the day that was supposed to be my wedding day approached, none of us knew what to do, think, or feel. I knew that a pity party was the farthest thing from what I wanted or needed. A few people brought up the idea of trashing the dress, and at first it sounded crazy. My mother spent so much money on the dress and alterations, so I was nervous to even think about destroying it, let alone try and pitch the idea to her. But after thinking about it, I knew that doing something to mark the occasion was the perfect thing for me. I was not going to let my ex-fiancé's mistake of letting me go take away my happiness.

Trash The Dress (Elizabeth Hoard Photography)

My bridesmaids and parents supported the idea 100% and even joined me in their own dresses and suit. My friend Carolyn didn't even wait for my photographer Elizabeth to say "go" — she just kind of threw the paint on me.

Trash The Dress (Elizabeth Hoard Photography)

The moment the paint hit my dress… I was free. All the disappointment, all the hurt… I just felt it leave me. I can't even describe how liberating and cathartic the experience was for me. I let go of all the hurt and became myself again.

Trash The Dress (Elizabeth Hoard Photography) (102 of 319)

Trash The Dress (Elizabeth Hoard Photography) (128 of 319)

trash the dresses before and after

Trash The Dress (Elizabeth Hoard Photography)

Trash The Dress (Elizabeth Hoard Photography)

Trash The Dress (Elizabeth Hoard Photography)

Trash The Dress (Elizabeth Hoard Photography)

Trash The Dress (Elizabeth Hoard Photography)

Trash The Dress (Elizabeth Hoard Photography)

Trash The Dress (Elizabeth Hoard Photography)

Trash The Dress (Elizabeth Hoard Photography)

Trash The Dress (Elizabeth Hoard Photography)

Trash The Dress (Elizabeth Hoard Photography)

I am a strong woman who believes that everything happens for a reason. We all face adversity in our lives, but what really defines us is how we decide to overcome that adversity. I decided that I will not let this tragedy and heartbreak consume me, and bring me down in life.

Trash the Dress, Part Two (110 of 124)

Afterwards, my dress was proudly displayed at The Barefoot Bride in Memphis.

Through the beginning of 2015, a portion of each wedding dress purchased while my dress is displayed will go to a Memphis non-profit that helps other women learn how to find their inner strength.

Trash The Dress (Elizabeth Hoard Photography)

Ultimately, I have come out of this experience a stronger and better person, and I am excited for the future knowing that God has a plan for me. Always remember to remain true to yourself and believe in your own strength and you can overcome anything life throws at you.

Trash The Dress (Elizabeth Hoard Photography)

Updated to add

Here's a video, from Shelby's dad!

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  1. This. is. AMAZING! Shelby, you are an inspiration and the pictures are just priceless. You had an awesome un-bridal party and parents, and you can see that in this pictures. Rock on!

    140 agree
  2. I love this!!! I'm divorced and for some reason I was hanging onto my wedding dress. I'm engaged to an amazing man now so there was no reason to keep it around. So this past Halloween my old wedding dress got torn up, black paint and dirt splattered and I wore it as a day of the dead bride! I loved it! The first rip I made gave me so much power over the left over anger I was holding onto. It was a great release! Way to go girl!!!

    53 agree
    • I did the same the first Halloween after separating from my ex. I pinned cobwebs all over it, I mangled it, then I gave the whole thing to a crafty friend to use the fabric and beading to make something for herself. I was so done with it. It was a relief to get rid of it, even though it had been so costly. In the end, it was heavier on me psychologically than any dress had a right to be, and letting go of it was freeing.

      21 agree
  3. I'm not gonna lie, the first few pictures of the paint on your dress made me want to do that to mine FOR the wedding because its pretty, lol. Then again, I've got a weird Halloween wedding… Regardless, go you! You rock that pride. No one can take that from you!

    43 agree
    • Do it . It would be awesome . some brides do a TRASH the dress after the wedding .

      9 agree
  4. Wow. I am floored and inspired by your story. You turned a terrible moment into a beautiful story of strength. The pictures are fabulous and I hope the experience as well as your support system helped you heal. I think it's wonderful that a bridal shop took your dress and are using it as an inspiration to others. Best wishes to you and your future!

    33 agree
  5. This was such an incredible read. Unfortunately, none of my break-ups have been an easy, amiable separation. While I've never been left standing almost at the alter, now that I'm building a relationship that is leading towards engagement, I'm having that feeling in the back of my mind that 'I'm so happy, something bad is going to happen'. My parents are firm believers in willing what you want to happen (and willing the opposite is just as likely to make it so, so don't will the negative, either!). Thank you so much for the reminder that there are healthy ways to deal with this kind of grief and loss and find yourself and make yourself whole again, without that significant other you were expecting to compliment you. This was a beautiful article and I so appreciate you sharing.

    18 agree
  6. Not to take away from the tragedy of being betrayed by someone so deeply, um, you actually look SUPER hot covered in paint. The more paint, the more amazing the photos. The most touching images were the smile and cuddles with your parents. Love love love through and through. Beautiful! Bless you and your awesome friends and family. xxx

    67 agree
  7. Thank you for sharing these images and your story. Such an amazing set of photos that show huge amounts of strength – well done you!

    3 agree
  8. Love this idea! As someone whose been through this, I think you handled it amazingly!
    I was engaged to my ex fiance for over three years when we finally set a date and sent out invitations. The venues were booked, my dress (a gift from my beloved Nana) altered, and the RSVPs and gifts had come flooding in. Five days before the wedding, my fiance texts me and says he's having second thoughts and maybe this isn't a good idea. I called him in a panic and asked what the hell he was talking about. There were many arguments before he finally said that he just wasn't ready to get married. AFTER THREE YEARS OF ENGAGEMENT. But he insisted he still loved me and wanted to get married someday, just not then. So, we cancelled the wedding. Six months later, he tells me he doesn't want to be engaged anymore. It's too much pressure, he says. Can we just date? So, I give him back the ring and say he can give it to me again when he's really ready. (I know, I was an idiot… but I thought I was in love). He said he felt so much better and hugged me and kissed me. I thought we were going to start over. Clean slate and all that good stuff. But then he cheated on me several times and dumped me, literally dropping me off sobbing in my driveway a few days before our 4 year anniversary. Do you know what he did then? Texts me a couple days later to see if I want to go to the movies with him and some friends. I told him I didn't want to speak to him for a long time, and to please respect that. Thankfully he did. I blocked him on social media and found, after no contact with him for a few weeks, that I didn't even miss him a little. The anger issues, the arguments, the cheating… all of it was gone and I felt better than I pretty much ever had. I found a new church (he went to the same one as I did) and made new friends, and found myself happy and content with being single. Then, I met a wonderful man online. We met in person, started dating, and when he asked me to marry him, I had no reservations about saying an ecstatic "YES!" We've been married for three months now, and he is the best thing that ever happened to me. And I doubt I would ever have met him if I hadn't gone through what I did. So, in the end, while being dumped really hurt, it brought me to a place where I was happy with who I was and could make wiser decisions when it came to relationships.
    (PS I ran into my ex after I started dating my husband…. and I had no romantic feelings for him left whatsoever, especially when I found he was tangled in the same bad habits as always. It was just what I needed to start my new life with my husband!)

    47 agree
    • Since you loved Shelby's story, be sure to watch the Slideshow her father made, using the perfect song – the Slideshow also includes video of the actual "trashing" – http://youtu.be/0Sr32hzRd8U

      3 agree
  9. This gave me chills (in a good way!). Thank you so much for sharing this, and I agree, you look fabulous! So much love comes through the photos and bonus points for the donations at the bridal salon. Cheers to you and your beautiful spirit. I wish you nothing but the best

    8 agree
  10. Thank you so much, Shelby. You're amazingly brave. I haven't experienced this type of heartbreak, but reading your story gave me courage to handle my own tragedies.

    6 agree
  11. What a inspiring story. I had my own "left at the altar" moment this past year. After paying for the venue, ordering the invites, and the dress,my fiance called off the wedding. It was heart breaking but it was a learning experience. We are still together but getting married is off the table for the time being. We are becoming stronger as a couple and as individuals. Thank you for sharing.

    3 agree
  12. You go girl! Way to find the joy in a heartbreaking situation! You're a rockstar!

    4 agree
  13. I have mix of emotions I can't really express now, just wanted to tell you that I have partially been there (months, not days), and I respect you, and I somehow love you and what you did. Thank you for sharing.

    6 agree
  14. Oh my gosh! You are an amazing woman. So much strength. Not many people can go through something so awful and turn it into something beautiful. You are awesome. 🙂

    6 agree
  15. good for you for turning such a heartbreaking turn of events into an empowering experience. and can i just say, i love that champagne photo with dad chugging straight from the bottle in the background? you rock.

    5 agree
  16. To be loved, to be loved, WHOOOA! what a feeling, to be loved.

    Too often we assume the only or best love is the intimate kind between lovers. Look what the love of your parents has created!! I know your mom must look at these pictures and her heart and muscles all swell with pride knowing, "I did this…", not alone, not for glory but because she loved her baby girl ohsomuch. To say that you'll be fine is to make the understatement of the year, I can say that now because we're so close, LoL! Thank you for showing us what we can overcome and how good we can look as we do.

    20 agree
  17. Thank you for sharing this. The love your friends and parents have for you shines through in these photos. They are so beautiful. This is inspiring for women going through tough times of all kinds. Finding inner strength is so important.

    5 agree
  18. Beautiful! While the painting ritual is symbolic and the photos are gorgeous, I love how you took it an extra step and used it to benefit charity!

    13 agree
  19. Those photos are AMAZING! Is it weird and creepy that I wanna print out the photo of you and your dad and frame it and hang it on my wall? It's just so gorgeous and full of feelz! I love everything about this post – thank you so much for sharing 🙂

    13 agree
  20. This. Is. Amazing. I can't even begin to describe how much this inspires me. I commend everyone involved and am so glad I found this post today!

    5 agree
  21. Gosh, I can't imagine being in your situation. You dealt with it incredibly well. Well done and good luck for the future!

    2 agree
  22. He who finds a wife finds a good thing….blessed is the man who finds you. You are an amazing woman and yes God has a plan for your life. Consider it a blessing to have gone through the heartache now instead of many years down the road in a loveless marriage. I just hope you post pics of your real wedding for us to congratulate you on!!! Thanks for sharing!!!

    10 agree
  23. ….Can….can I just have a dress that looks like that at my wedding? That is incredibly beautiful in a totally imaginative and empowering sort of way. Also, the way you handled such a shitty thing is amazing and I give you a virtual internet fist-bump.

    12 agree
  24. WOW, this is beautiful. There is so much love and soul in all the pictures, they are like life distilled. Truly this is art.

    4 agree
  25. LOVE all the pictures! I love the one of mom and dad throwing paint on each other!

    But seriously – the one of just you and your dad, forehead to forehead, brought me to tears!!

    14 agree
  26. this is amazing. I had the same thing happen to me two years ago, my wedding dress is still in my closet and I haven't ever known what to do with it. What i did was go to Africa and work in the IDP camps and orphanages, it got me to stop thinking about myself and when I came home it was a long journey and in some ways i'm still recovering. I realized though, that who I am and my value is not defined by his or anyone else's opinion of me. Just because he doesn't see my worth doesn't mean i'm worthless. I now have exciting plans with the wedding dress, thanks for being awesome.

    17 agree
  27. I am a 43 year old widower who recently lost the absolute love of his life to cancer this past June. We were married for twelve years and were lovers, best friends and partners in crime. Having known and lost great love I think gives me some perspective and after reading your story here and knowing what I know about love and what little I know about your situation I have reached the conclusion that you must be an amazing woman and then the person who dumped you was an idiot. Thanks for inspiring someone in a way you might not have expected.

    21 agree
    • Steven, let me just say how sorry I am for your loss. I can't imagine what you're going through. My heart truly breaks for you. I do want to thank you for the comment that you called that person "an idiot." It sounds silly, but coming from a man, it made me feel good. I too, have had some bad and extremely painful experiences with getting dumped and to hear those words from a man, well…it's just nice to hear. This woman is an amazing woman and I see a wonderful future ahead of her, as well as a man who will treat her right and respect and cherish her. Thank you for sharing your story. You too, are an inspiration to us as well.

      3 agree
    • I, on the contrary, find really upsetting (and very much against the code of conduct) that so many people took the opportunity to call Shelby's ex an idiot, someone who doesn't know what he's lost, a selfish guy who didn't know how much she was worth, etc.
      We only know one side of the story and I don't think it's fair to take it as a free pass to judge him. I'm sure he didn't do it all for fun. His pain must be respected, too.
      It's really not necessary to bash him to show support for Shelby. I think it pretty much has the opposite effect.

      19 agree
  28. I have to say my heart breaks and goes out to you. You looked stunning and I mean STUNNING on your trash the dress day and damn, I do believe it looks even better with the paint!
    Keep your head up. Your hand will be held by someone who deserves you someday soon.

    6 agree
  29. I think Your AWESOME!!!! and I agree with so many on here, what a colorful and joyful way to express your freedom of the negativity over a boy who loses out on such a fabulous beautiful love with you , your family and friends and what a great asset to the REAL Man of your dreams to come in the future!!! Kudos honey KUDOS!!!!

    2 agree
  30. What an inspiring response to hurt and heartbreak, and what a lovely ritual to turn the transition to this new stage of your life into a celebration – surrounded and supported by so much love.

    1 agrees
  31. I think it's cool that the bridal shop displayed your dress! Usually those places seem like they want to portray the idea that everything is perfect and that the wedding (and dress) is the most important thing ever and that nothing could go wrong.

    15 agree
  32. I'm recently divorced after nearly 7 years of marriage to a man I loved with all my heart, but whom apparently didn't "really" want to marry me in the first place. I found a perfect way to do something positive with my wedding dress. I'll be donating it to be made into "Angel Gowns" for babies that pass away in the NICU. My little nephew was born at only 25 weeks gestation and almost didn't make it home from the hospital himself. Now he's a strong, healthy one-year-old, but not all families are as blessed as mine. Now I can take a bittersweet memento from my wedding and used it to help ease some family's suffering. Info on Angel Gowns can be found on the NICU Helping Hands website: http://www.nicuhelpinghands.org/lend-a-helping-hand/angel-gowns/

    11 agree
  33. Hi Shelby, I loved your story and photos. The dress ended up being beautiful with all the paint! I wanted to tell you my story and I hope it's inspirational. I got engaged very late in life because I never met the right person and was having too much fun on my own. I was 38 at the time and was supposed to get married in Newport, Rhode Island on September 19. It was all planned and I had a gorgeous dress and it was going to be amazing. The first sign that something was wrong should have been when I fainted completely when I went for my dress fitting, but I ignored that. There were a lot more signs along the way and finally, three months before the wedding we split up. Turned out my fiance was a super fun boyfriend but would have been a terrible husband and life partner – there is a big difference. Two months later, I turned 39. On September 19 I went out with a bunch of my friends and had a great night. That night, believe it or not, I ended up meeting the man who would become my husband. We've been married for six happy years. I had been told I couldn't have a child and, despite this, we were shocked to learn I was pregnant. I gave birth to an incredible daughter who was an absolute miracle. I always hated when my Mom told me these stories so I'm not sure why I'm telling it, but you seem like a wonderful girl inside and out and I have a feeling great things are going to happen to you! Go have fun with your fabulous family and friends – someone better will come along, I promise.

    16 agree
  34. Congratulations on your bravery and enlightenment! I too went through a difficult break-up, but it was AFTER the wedding (I think they call it a divorce : )) and it was all the more painful because he married me and then left me. You are absolutely right that he did you a favor, and you will be stronger, happier, more fulfilled and grateful for what he did. Especially when you find your true soulmate, but mostly when you find your true soul.

    4 agree
  35. All I can say is WOW. You are an amazing woman. Good for you for not letting any man bring you down. I loved the story, and I loved the pictures. Totally his loss in the end. Live free and enjoy life to its fullest.

    Thank you for sharing your story with all of us. Awesome. ~James

  36. Omg in 2008 the exact same thing happened to me! You're such a strong woman. What foolish choice he made is only going to make you stronger and a better person than he ever deserved. Congratulations on your new beginning. You're going to find something you never knew you wanted and more.

  37. Wow. What a strong amazing woman you are! I had typed all of this earlier and my phone had some sort of glitch and it was all deleted. But I am retyping this message because I think it's worth it. I became engaged at age 18 before even graduating high school. I followed my fiance to the college of his choice, abandoning my own dreams and aspirations. When we got to college, he became exceptionally abusive. When he left me for another woman at the end of our freshman year, he made it clear that his ownership of me was not over. The abuse continued in the form of stalking. I endured this abuse and tried to maintain a friendship with him for years. But, through the amazing support of my family and friends I became stronger. I sought counseling and was able to walk away from him for good. I no longer allowed him to claim any part of me. On the day that I simply declared that I was leaving the room until he was gone (we worked from the same office…a job he sought after I had started working there as another way of "keeping tabs" on me), I felt freer than I had in years. I am now happily married to a man that I ended up meeting in college after my engagement had ended. We eloped a few weeks ago, after having dated over 5 years, and we will celebrate with a small ceremony in March. I now work as an advocate for other women who have been abused and I love being able to use what I have learned from my experience to empower other survivors. What you did with your experience makes you an advocate as well, for any woman who needs to be reminded of her personal self worth. Thank you for sharing your experience in such a beautiful way. I wish you all the best. May the universe bless you in all you do.

    4 agree
  38. I was supposed to get married back in August 2008, but my fiance called it off in November 2007. Unlike Shelby, I hadn't already invested lots of money on wedding preparation, but like her, I had invested my heart. So, when the date of the wedding came along, I was still sad. One of my good friends suggested we go on my honeymoon anyway. And so she and I went. We drove up together and stayed in her family's cabin in the U.P. In reality, we didn't go over to Mackinac Island much; we mostly spent the time reading books and sleeping. It has been my favorite honeymoon to date!

    And, I agree, it's a BIG thank you to my ex-fiance. By letting me go, he ultimately gave me life, helped me find my dreams and my calling, and allowed me to meet someone even better who I otherwise never would have met (let alone gotten engaged to and be planning a wedding with).

    4 agree
  39. What a beautiful and amazing thing to do in a painful situation. Inspiring. XOXO

    1 agrees
  40. Utterly gorgeous you are! The photos radiate such passion, joy and femininity… Inspiring to the max and love your parents love for you! The photo of you forehead to forehead with you dad is so heartfelt.

    Words are pretty inadequate but you have inspired so many people by your ability not to turn this into suffering and pain. Go Girl!!

    2 agree
  41. Negatives can bring positives. Always look for the good to come even from the bad. I applaude you mamm. If more people could learn that when you get knocked down,,,,, stand up, dust off and throw it into high gear the world would be a lot better off, I speak from experience. Keep a smile on your face and kick some @spirin. Good luck with your future.

    1 agrees
  42. The story of Shelby Swink is amazing and a true inspiration to all women. Let me tell you, if there was a toad withing a 100 mile radius, I was destined to date him. The men I dated, all said the same thing to me shortly before dumping me. That I was too confrontational. What does that even mean? That means, they preferred their women to be quiet, not think for themselves and to turn a blind eye to whatever scummy thing they wanted to do. Sorry. That wasn't me. Shelby's ex fiance isn't a man. He's a wimp and a sorry excuse for a man. He did the right thing by leaving, because now, she has a wonderful opportunity to find someone who is truly worthy of her. She's beautiful, strong and obviously smart. I have since married and he is my best friend and my everything. See? Things really do work out for the best. I guess you have to date or even be engaged to some real toads before meeting your true Prince! Her Prince is out there and he will treat her like a Queen. You'll see:)

    4 agree
  43. Left at the altar heartbreak? Try losing a son to suicide, trying to save your family work to time loss at work, and having your home burglarized just before the holidays, all in one year. Losing a man? Lost that too, after ten years. You are the lucky one my dear.
    Like · Reply ·

    1 agrees
    • Honey, I am really sorry bad things happened to you. I am so sorry about the loss of your son. However, this isn't about you. This woman's loss & how she coped with it is not about your loss. All loss does not need to be compared to your own to be valid, I think. For instance, if someone came along and suggested you were lucky, they had lost their entire family and were now homeless, it would not take away your pain at the loss of your son. It is unfair to invalidate the pain of another.

      45 agree
    • Carol- I came on here via another link because my daughter will be wed in Nov. and I thought this story was elevating and inspiring. I read through the comments a bit, seeing if there was anything else I might add…nope. All is well in this comment section with the exception of your glaring sadness. I am so sorry. I cannot imagine how you even stand. I don't know what led you here or what led me back, although I couldn't stop thinking about what you said, and how someone else responded without compassion, and this I feel you are deeply owed. God love you…my heart goes out to you, so little I can do here but speak up and again, this evening say good words for you under the sky littered with stars, the brightest ones are our lost children. I was told that and it just may be so…peace to you.

      3 agree
  44. I love this so much. Those shots of you with your uber cool folks and friends are amazing and make me so happy. I love to see such strength in photos- strength of character, strength of friendships, strength of love… you are beautiful. That said, I am also glad that your guy didn't go through with a marriage he didn't feel prepared for- we do get so damn caught up in the 'day'… thinking it is the most important part but really it is just the beginning…. i have been heart broken- but damn if that guy didn't give you a gift to find out just how strong and gorgeous and creative you are. I hope this idea of your wedding photographer is the beginning of a long happy inspiring life…. amazing.

    3 agree
  45. You go girl! Bet he's feelin so stupid right about now. Girl power, Yee Haw!

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