Prologue: Right before I got married, a lot of people started telling me about how difficult marriage would be. So many, so frequently, that I had a panic attack on the floor of my fiance’s kitchen, two weeks before our wedding.
Ah, the carefree days of dating…
What I thought marriage would look like. (Saturn Devours His Children,by Goya)
Part I: People Say Marriage is Difficult
My friend Liz recently got engaged to her main squeeze of five years, Jason. I am beyond happy for them, and ecstatic to be part of their wedding. I’ve been thinking about how I will toast them.
It got me thinking about marriage, about falling in love, and about that panic attack.
People really like to tell you what marriage is like. Rarely do they realize that they are universalizing the most personal, intimate, unique experience of a person’s life. But we humans love nothing more than to make manuals for doing things right, except maybe selling those manuals.
Don’t buy anyone’s manual for marriage. Unless you are their clone and you are married to their spouse. (If that’s the case, then you need more help than a manual can give).
“Marriage” the institution has some set rules, sanctioned by God, etc. No cheating. Love them. Serve them. You only get one spouse at a time, preferably for life.
“Marriage” the experience…that’s different for all of us. Manual-makers really want to codify it. Marriage is magic, or marriage is mundane. Romance is necessary, so work to maintain it. Romance completely insubstantial, so don’t worry if its lacking. Things will be difficult, but that there’s a universal prescription for making them wonderful. For each and every one of you. You can’t all wear the same size pants…but one size fits all when it comes to the complex intertwining of adult human lives, histories, families, jobs, and dreams.
Contrary to the manuals, best I can tell, every marriage is very different. We make the same commitments. We have the same responsibilities…but that’s about the end of the sameness.
Sameness ends here.
People have great advice. Great insight into situations. Heed wisdom, seek counsel, by all means. Be teachable and curious. But if anyone starts telling you how marriage is going to go, and what to do about it, slam the manual shut. They just don’t know. After 50 golden years of their own marriage, they still don’t know yours.
Your marriage is unique, because your life is unique.
The experience of marriage is all about the two people involved and how they relate to one another. It’s a different kind of wonderful for every happy couple (and a different kind of miserable for others). For me, it’s laughing at puns, and dropping off cookies at Lewis’s office. It’s having someone to cry to who thinks that every injury against me is completely unjust (and then helping me see how maybe I’m making things a bigger deal than they really are…). It’s having someone to go home with on the best nights and the worst nights.
This about sums us up.
We also have our own peculiar difficulties. For instance, I am intense, and he is sensitive. He is persnickety, and I too am sensitive. Going to IKEA is a guaranteed standoff in the “basic white pendant lamp” department. We are people, sharing a life. And an interior design scheme.
Life-sharing is difficult when life is difficult. I said once, at the outset of a dating relationship, “I know I want to date this guy. But I don’t know who I want to lose a child with. Who to go with me to put my parents in a nursing home. Who to go bankrupt with.”
Life is 100% full of people, who do people-ish things and make human messes. Life has tragedy and stress. But if I summarized my life for you every day by saying, “Life is difficult,” and never spiced it up by saying “Life is rewarding,” what would you call me? A pessimist, you would call me a pessimist.
Life is way to big to be summed up in one word, and so is life-sharing. In an ordinary (the kind you have to stay in; there are other kinds) marriage you will always have ample choice of adjectives. Don’t be afraid to be thankful.
And that’s the closest thing I can think of to a universal antidote for the difficult parts of marriage: be thankful. I would be more doubtful about it, if the Bible hadn’t said it first.
The turning point in most of Lewis’s and my conflict is when we consider the alternative: What if I didn’t have you? While making the decision about whether or not to spend money on upholstery might be simpler without him/me…who would snuggle with him/me on the reupholstered couch?
Florence will snuggle on the couch…which is why it needs to be reupholstered.
Marriage, the experience, can be the symphonic masterpiece with big bold moments of trust and honesty. Of vulnerability and devastation. But you have to continually maintain that thankfulness that you are on the stage, in the music. Because if you don’t– if you look at the sheet and freak out because you might mess up, or long for that bubbly Top 40 hit–then, yes, you will probably have the kind of marriage that gave me a panic attack.
Dr. Henri Krabandaum, a wise and radical man, once said to me, “I tell every young person, if you love someone so much that you would marry them, your first impulse should be to tell them never to marry you. Because you know the grief you will cause them.”
At four in the morning I storm out of bed, because I’m sleeplessly worried about a client issue, and I snap at Lewis, “Just go back to sleep!” while I slam drawers and doors looking for my bathrobe. On that morning, Dr. K is talking directly to me. I hear his voice booming in my subconscious.
I can be hard to love.
And then, sometime later when I’m feeling ashamed, Lewis tells me, “Life is better now that I have you.” He says “now that I have you” like we met last month, instead of 3 years ago.
So yeah, marriage is hard. The way sports or music performance is hard. But we’re still the rookies who are just so thankful to be on the stage that we wear every drop of sweat like a diamond. And that is what I want to maintain, the thankfulness.