These days, as APW’s Editor-in-Chief, I spend many hours of my week reading essays about relationships. And, if we view marriage as a lifetime long relationship, many of the essays we publish on APW are written from the newer end of the relationship continuum. They’re written from the newly engaged or newly married beginnings, where there is often more joy than sorrow.
This year, David and I will be celebrating ten years together. For the first time, it feels like we’ve been at this awhile. Our relationship isn’t that new anymore, and the beginning feels like… a decade ago. In this decade, the one thing I’ve learned about relationships is that life gets harder. It’s not that loving each other gets harder, or that you stop having sex, or that marriage is a terrible trap, or any of the clichés that we throw around about marriage as a culture. It’s simpler than that. It’s that you slowly find yourself dealing with some combination of raising children, aging, planning for a financial future, parents dying, loved ones dying, paying your mortgage, illness, and occasional layoff. Or as my grandmother would say, life is hard. And in those hard parts, the pressure on your marriage can be immense.
Last week, we talked about writing your vows. Today, we’re talking about what it means to live those vows over a lifetime. What does it mean to turn back to those huge promises you made (in traditional words or personal words) when life gets hard? I polled some of APWs longer partnered staff and contributors about what it means to live their vows every (damn) day. Here are some answers from some of the smartest women I know (anonymous-ish, to protect the innocent… partners). I hope they spark equally smart responses from all of you.
I should note that while lots of us talk about the need for reminders to stick with our relationships when the going gets tough, none of this is meant to be divorce shaming. Sometimes taking care of each other’s well being, and living our vows to the fullest, means knowing when it’s time to let go.
On bad days, I sometimes literally check our Ketubah to remember what I signed on the line for. (I don’t regret saying traditional vows, but I do wish we’d been able to get a custom Ketubah, because “respect and support each other” seems awfully… vague.) Mostly though, living my vows means sticking to it, with faith that the going will get better (even if I don’t know when). Fundamentally, I was raised to believe that my vows meant promising to put each other first, always, and to build a family together. That’s the most important thing to me.
I’m mean and sharp and a little cruel. Sometimes, when the affection isn’t there and I’m not remembering how much I actually care about him, the only thing holding me back from saying really terrible things is remembering that I promised to be with him “till death.” Meaning we’re going to be still together tomorrow, and I need to make sure not to say something that’ll be too big of a mess to clean up.
At one point during pre-marital counseling we relayed an argument back to our priest and then waited expectantly, like she would take in both sides and then hand down an edict about whose family wins holidays for life or whose financial goals matter more. “That’s good,” she said calmly, “because you’ll be having that argument for the next fifty years, so get comfortable with it.” And weirdly, I did feel calmer as soon as she said it—like letting in the awareness that we would not always be sympatico with each other meant we’d be a little more prepared for the hard stuff.
When we started putting together our ceremony, we read about a billion different versions and immediately disregarded the “endure all things” promise. No one deserves to stay in a relationship with someone who is deliberately cruel or deceptive (or some combination thereof: not willing to come forward and tell the truth after the fact, not willing to seek forgiveness once the fight is over). At the same time what I remember during the dark times is that we loved each other enough that we asked everyone dear to us to stand up and watch us agree to better or worse, even in the face of the impossibility of predicting the future.
Practically what this means for us is that we periodically have a state of the relationship (at least once a year, if not more often), where we review our goals for our family, our careers, our finances, and our values. I want to live by the ocean; are we any closer to getting there? Will the need for her to be near a major airport push that out a few more years? Is that fair and worth it? These check-ins help me remember that life is (hopefully) long, that what might feel like a big tension right now will smooth out to a blip as time goes on.
I come from a lot of not healthy relationships, so I got married having zero idea how to conduct myself in marriage. I ended up writing my vows in the middle of a huge fight with my mom, and the core thesis was that your partner is family and even if you break up, family is forever. (Which means they might be out of your life, but they never really disappear.) Since getting married, we’ve had some really shitty stuff to deal with, and it always comes back to, “What have I learned from my parents’ mistakes?” The number one takeaway from that is never saying anything for the purpose of hurting your partner. Yeah, we get angry and we say mean things, but don’t bite just for the sake of injuring the other.
Knowing that we’re in it until one of us dies makes it easier to deal with stuff too, because I basically don’t see things on a short-term timeline anymore. Oh, the next six months are going to suck? Well, better brace myself. It also means that ending things is simply not an option when I’m considering how to deal with our problems. So it’s either A) Learn to live with things or B) Figure out how to fix things. And then accept that fixing things will probably take a long ass time, because fixing things always does.
A little less than a quarter of the nine years we’ve been together has been married time, so in a lot of ways, all that pre-married time shaped our vows heavily. Also, we went through a bunch of hardship and a number of life of changes in our first seven years. Comparatively, the married time has been like a soft introduction into living out our vows on a daily basis, without the burden of grave financial struggle, or multiple family losses.
But the main thing I vowed, the main thing I remember every day, is that my love will not come at a cost. The manipulation of affection is the thing that permanently broke a lot of relationships in my family. So I’m very mindful of not trying to gain the upper hand in a relationship, or feeling like I should be the superior person. We’re a team, and there’s no prize at the end for MVP. It doesn’t mean we don’t fight about chores or money, but when we do, it means we’re fighting towards a solution, not to get a win for our side, or to feel superior, or put the other person down.
What does it mean to you to live your vows? What does that look like when the going gets tough—for poorer, in sickness?