Marriage is spoken about in such hyperbolic terms (OMG IT’S BLISS! JUST KIDDING, SAY GOODBYE TO FUN.) that sometimes it’s hard to suss out where the kernels of truth lie. Take the first year of marriage. I kept hearing it was going to be awful. For me that ended up being true, but for a pretty unorthodox reason. For some of my friends it was bliss. And for Ashley today, it was downright crappy. The point is, our experiences are not universal, no matter what the rom-coms say. And the more we acknowledge that, the more we can move past the hyperbole and instead deal with what’s in front of us: messy, complicated reality.
I think the things we’re ashamed to say are most often the questions we really, really need answers to.
For the longest time after my wedding I was embarrassed every time anyone asked me archly, “So, how’s married life?” What was I supposed to say to that? That it was horrible; that within the first week of our marriage I was half-wondering if it was too late for an annulment; that we had each declared that if we’d known what it would be like, we wouldn’t have married each other because it was so completely different from what we expected?* Clearly not. But that being the case, I didn’t feel comfortable smiling brightly and saying, “It’s great!” either.
To be clear, we love each other. You only have to look at our wedding pictures and see our radiant joy to be sure of that—and I did look, many times, in the first few months.
But after too many months of feeling alone and ashamed, I finally admitted that it was difficult, that we were fighting a third of the time, at least. And the older woman who had asked said, “Only a third of the time? You’re doing well! All marriages are like that at the beginning—it seems to get better about the one-year mark.”
That, I admit, just made me mad. You mean all those married people who had been asking me how it was going already knew the answer and were, deliberately if unthinkingly, putting me in an awkward position? I immediately vowed never to ask anyone, “How’s married life treating you?” again. (I still haven’t settled on a more considerate question. I’d love to hear suggestions.)
Still, none of that changed the fact that people kept asking. Eventually I settled on a standard answer, which was, “Like all marriages, it’s nothing but roses and butterflies,” said in a lightly ironic tone. It worked extremely well. The responses I got seemed much more self-aware, less glib. One woman was honest and cute enough to turn to her husband and say, “Roses and butterflies! We didn’t have any of those, did we?”
The thing that made it so extra painful and so disillusioning was that I honestly wasn’t expecting a fairytale. I knew good marriages aren’t effortless. But I thought I was prepared.
I’m fairly intellectual. I like thinking about cause and effect and how to change the pattern. I learn well by reading. And I was interested enough in relationships to read everything I could find about how to have a good one. Not just silly fashion-mag features but serious how-to manuals: Dr. Laura; the “Can This Marriage Be Saved?” feature in Ladies Home Journal; research articles. I had come away with a pretty strong viewpoint on what the important issues were and how to deal with problems. I’d made sure to discuss it with my fiancé, and he had seemed to agree with it even more strongly than I did. And yet, when we got married…wham.
(Perhaps it would have been different if we had lived together, or even slept together—yes, we were one of those couples—beforehand. But I don’t really have any way of knowing.)
Eighteen months in, it makes absolutely no sense to me why the first year (or in our case, the first sixteen and a half months) is so hard. Okay, so there are things like finances or in-laws or each other’s little annoying habits that will prompt some discussion and maybe even some fights. This makes sense. This is what I expected when my mom warned me, “There’s an adjustment period when you get married.” But in my experience, saying there is an adjustment period when you get married and saying surgery without anesthesia “might hurt a little” are about equal understatements. I’ve said this to a few people, and they all agreed with me so I know I’m not totally crazy.
Nor do I understand how it gets better even though you can’t always see what has changed. But it does get better.
The first six to eight months were pretty uniformly miserable, I won’t lie. By three months I thought we needed marriage counseling, and at six months I insisted. The counseling didn’t seem to make much of a difference. But one day at about the ten-month mark my husband texted me at work, “Do you want to go sailing?” I replied, “When?” and he said, “Now.” It was the middle of a Friday afternoon and we were supposed to go to counseling in less than three hours. But one of his complaints was that we didn’t do enough fun things together. It somehow seemed important to say yes, so I did. We had a great time and never got around to rescheduling our appointment. There was no really logical reason for it, but somehow our problems didn’t seem so desperate anymore.
It wasn’t miserable anymore, but it wasn’t great either. We were still muddling through. There was still one really big unresolved issue—something that made me feel betrayed since we had discussed and agreed on it when we were dating, but my husband hadn’t followed through on his part after the wedding. But I finally decided that he knew what I wanted, and if he wasn’t doing it after all the times I’d asked, asking again wasn’t going to change anything. Not asking didn’t change anything either, but it did save us a few arguments and it felt like a step toward maturity.
And even though things weren’t great, the longer we were married the more I understood why I had felt so strongly that my husband was the man I was “supposed” to marry; why, even though it was so hard, he was better for me than any other man would have been.
A little over a month ago things jumped forward again. We had a couple of difficult conversations that would usually have turned into arguments…and didn’t. I don’t know why or how we were suddenly mature enough to manage that when we couldn’t before. One of the conversations was about our big unresolved issue. While we were having it, I felt the world shift around me, and since then, I’ve seen a big change in my husband’s behavior. I don’t know why or how it suddenly clicked, but I couldn’t be more grateful.
It’s still not a fairytale. Of course it’s not. But it works. It feels like a real marriage. It feels enough. And I know it will keep getting better over time.
*Fortunately for us, we both believe in marriage too strongly to give up that easily.
Editor’s Note: We understand that there are a lot of strong opinions within our community when it comes to discussions of saving sex and cohabitation for marriage. As always, we ask everyone to please respect the author’s choices and frame comments in a way that speaks from your own personal experiences without shaming anyone else for theirs.
Photo by Sarah Welch