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There Is No Magic Formula That Guarantees You’ll Stay Together

Because sometimes you just have to go to bed angry

Around the time I got engaged, I read a quote somewhere saying that you should spend as much time preparing for your marriage as you spend preparing for your wedding. This sounded like an excellent sentiment, particularly for someone who had very little money to actually do any wedding planning, but did have a nearby Borders bookstore going out of business. So obviously, I stocked up on every marriage book I could get my hands on.

Like Elizabeth Gilbert in Committed: A Skeptic Makes Peace with Marriage, I found myself fretfully analyzing my “divorce proneness,” considering a variety of (often statistically questionable) factors that may or may not hint at my ability to stay happily married. Nick and I would be bordering on thirty when we got married, which supposedly weighs in favor of marital longevity. But we also lived together for years before we got married, which may not bode well for marital success—but we were both over twenty-five when we moved in together, so maybe we were in the clear. As the child of divorced parents, I knew that I am statistically more likely to end up divorced. But Nick’s parents have been happily married for thirty-five years—so maybe we’d balance each other out? I’d lament to Nick, “I’m the weak link! I am bringing down the whole team!” I’ve always been an overachiever, and it irked me that I was seemingly starting marriage from behind the eight ball. Since I knew that Nick and I would have a lengthy engagement, I figured the solution was simple: we just needed to learn all there was to know about marriage before our wedding, so that we would be completely and totally prepared for any issue that could crop up and could guarantee ourselves decades of wedded bliss. I approached this task like a student would approach a test, reading and researching and taking notes. There may or may not have been a spreadsheet involved.

This would have been a surefire plan, if only marriage was like a final exam that you could ace on your wedding day. And judging from the titles of all the books I was reading, I think it was understandable that I began to think this just might be the case. A recurring theme through all this study was that there is a secret to making marriage work. Marriage Confidential, The Secret Lives of Wives, The Secret Currency of Love… all these titles indicate that there is some clandestine key to a long and happy marriage. It’s an alluring idea, because it suggests that once you’re in on the secret, all your potential marital woes will be resolved.

Unfortunately, these books taught me the exact opposite of what their titles might suggest, and that is this: there is no particular “secret” that works for every marriage. Some couples combine all their finances, while others continue to split bills down to the penny. Some couples never go to bed angry; others swear by it. Some couples are best friends, while others view their relationship as more of a business partnership. Some of these couples are happy, and some are not. Basically, there’s no particular epiphany in any book that will make a couple (any couple) immune from the possibility of divorce.

That didn’t stop me from trying to divorce-proof my marriage before it began, of course. I threw myself wholeheartedly into the task of learning about marriage, devouring everything from The Meaning of Wife to The Gastronomy of Marriage to Marriage and Other Acts of Charity. As premarital prep is obviously not a solo endeavor, Nick and I worked through our church-assigned textbook, For Better and Forever, diligently dissecting our respective backgrounds and how we expected our past experiences to shape our relationship. We even tackled the (self-assigned) 1001 Questions to Ask Before You Get Married, a startlingly comprehensive book combining open-ended discussion points, multiple choice questions, and “what would you do?” scenarios. (And spreadsheets. It’s like this book was made for me!)

It was around question 672 that I began to wonder if we were overdoing it on premarital prep, or at least going about it the wrong way. Certainly, it was helpful to discuss broad topics like the role we felt religion would play in our lives, or whether we wanted to have children someday. But given that we’ve never tried to have a baby, it seemed futile to try to firmly agree on what course of action we’d take if we have trouble conceiving (particularly when such options are neatly presented in multiple-choice format). Filling out a chart of who would handle each household task, right down to “making the bed” and “selecting the movies” seemed similarly useless, as these things vary from week to week, if not from day to day, or moment to moment. And I couldn’t even begin to describe what a typical week in our life might look like on our tenth anniversary—let alone our thirtieth anniversary! There are so many potential situations that are too abstract, or too emotionally-fraught—infidelity, death of a parent, long-term unemployment—that it would be impossible to try to hash out, in advance, precisely how we’d tackle them if they arose. You simply can’t preemptively fight all these fights. Though damn, did we try. It was exhausting working through Nick’s imaginary affair. (You’ll be happy to know we decided to stay together, for the sake of our hypothetical children.)

No, the truth is that months of reading about marriage and how to prepare for it failed to uncover some inherent deficiency that we could easily remedy through study or therapy prior to saying “I do.” There was no magic formula that would guarantee that Nick and I would be able to live up to our vows; there was no specific set of questions to be asked and answered that would ameliorate my supposed statistical shortcomings as a future spouse.

This realization was terrifying and liberating all at once. For someone inclined to tackle every problem with research and a checklist, the thought of not adhering to some blueprint, some “to do” list for guaranteed marital success, is daunting. On the other hand, there’s a certain comfort in knowing we’re not trying to fit into any particular marital mold, that we can screw things up here and there and do things our own way and still come out on the other side happy. That we can sometimes go to bed angry and sometimes stay up fighting all night and still love each other in the morning, either way. (This is particularly good news, because while Nick believes in going to sleep and hashing the issue out in the morning, I am physically incapable of sleeping while angry. I know I’ve only been married two months and shouldn’t be dishing out advice just yet, but I feel uniquely qualified to inform you that if you have to wake up your spouse to continue fighting with them, the odds of resolving the fight that night are exceptionally slim.)

Accepting that, not only did I not have this whole marriage thing figured out just yet, but that I couldn’t figure it out, even if I tried, was an enormous weight off my shoulders. There is no universal secret to mastering marriage. The only way to really learn how to be married is to just be married, one day and week and month and year at a time. And to make mistakes, and keep on trying. After all, we promised ’til death do us part, so we’ve got plenty of time to sort it out.

In the meantime, we’ve decided that our marital health is probably best served by not fighting about which imaginary child we’ll live with when we retire. Not fighting about it yet, at least.

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