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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  • Lauren from NH

    Oh yay! Comments open! This is so me, and a lot of us (I think?) in trying rationally and hopefully enter into marriage with everyone quoting the crappy divorce stats left and right. We don’t want to fail, we don’t want the nay-sayers to be right. In five years we don’t want to reflect and feel that our love we feel so strongly now was false. But people change, life changes and you can’t prepare for all of that. I try to take a step back and just let us be us, be in the moment and not over think our lives and our happiness.

    • vegankitchendiaries

      Can’t say it better than that :)

    • Lawyerette510

      Also, when people quote those stats, I just blame the baby boom generation. I don’t know if it’s true, but I like to think that there are just so many baby boomers and they have had so much time to get married and divorced, that they skew the sample.

      • Violet

        Plus the commonly-heard “almost 50% of marriages end in divorce” is calculated by dividing the number of new marriage licenses in one year out of a sample of 1,000 people, and comparing it to the number of divorce filings in the same year out of a different sample of a different 1000 people. (ref: So the tiny sample size aside, it doesn’t take into account all the people who got married in literally any year earlier and simply stayed married. Put another way, they don’t ask a third set of 1,000 people, “So, who’s still married?”

        • Hayley

          Yes, definitely, the 50% statistic is pretty questionable (that’s probably a post all by itself, actually). But precise stats aside, the whole thing is still overwhelming!

  • Fiona

    Hahahhaha I’m cracking up. This is hilarious. “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.)”
    Nice job, Hayley. In your defense, I bought two books too…

    • Violet

      That quote made me laugh too. But to be fair, every couple at LEAST has an Alien Invasion Plan, right!??? No? Just us?

      • Dacia E.

        We based ours off of the CDC Zombie Apocalypse plan:

        • Hayley

          Gahh I didn’t even THINK of the zombie apocalypse and potential alien invasions. Clearly we have more studying to do :) Glad it’s not just me!

  • Amy March

    I feel like marriage is saying yes, I have faith we can do this, even though we don’t know what this is, so a lot of the prep things rub me the wrong way. I have no idea what we will do if his mother needs to live with us or I get pregnant with quadruplets, but I’m sure we’ll figure it out.

  • vegankitchendiaries

    “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.”

    So true and not said enough. I really, really loved this piece,.

    • Hayley

      Thanks! I guess if the only takeaway from all the reading I did was, “there is no one right way to be married,” it was kind of worth it!

  • Teresa

    I am in a very similar situation…my parents are divorced, my husband’s have been married for 33 years, we were in our late 20’s when we got married, we both have college degrees and I have a masters–lots of statistically good things, but I too felt that my parents’ divorce was putting us at a disadvantage. I read the APW book and made my husband go through every single one of those questions that Meg lists and then some more I found online–and my husband kept saying, “But how will we know if this is really how we’ll react if this ever happens?!” and I kept asking more questions! I read For Better…, I read The Five Love Languages, I read Why Have Kids and every marriage advice article I came across online. Finally, I confessed my feelings to my mom and she just said that my relationship with my (then soon to be) husband was so vastly different from her and my dad in pretty much every way it could be different. There was so much going against there success that we don’t have to deal with (marrying/parently very young/broke, substance abuse, etc). That more than anything eased my fears. Nearly two years into marriage and 9 years into our relationship, I feel like we are doing all we can to be kind to each other and communicate our feelings and that’s the best that we can do I think. I was looking for reassurance in those books and mostly what I learned was how important it was to talk to my husband when something was bothering me (not necessarily just bury myself in a book looking for answers–it’s hard to turn off my librarian instincts!), and no two relationships are the same and there are no guarantees, you just have to keep choosing each other as best you can.

    • Hayley

      “Keep choosing each other as best you can.” Amen to that.

  • KC

    I’m big on “prepare as much as you can, but know that you can’t prepare for everything” – I mean, like having a kid: it’s very, very good to know how to change a diaper and what to do if the kid is choking and to have a pediatrician you can call with “is this normal?” questions and to generally have some of the basic responsibility talked out (“you realize you’re going to have to change some diapers here, right?”). But no book is ever going to cover absolutely everything, and no child is going to fit any particular mold exactly. So when you start going down the increasingly-improbable rabbit trails of worry, you stop. (or even things like party planning; if you start fretting about what to serve in case one of your guests is both gluten-free and peanut-intolerant, and if another is allergic to lemons but can’t have alcohol… when you don’t know of either being the case in any cases… then it’s time to let it go and just pick the stupid menu with the best data you do have)

    Similarly, with marriage, it’s really good to know as many family-of-origin potholes you might hit beforehand; to have some idea of your fighting styles… er…. communication styles… and some techniques to get them to work together better; to know approximately what each of you is most expecting (chore splits, more or less; nights out alone vs. together; financial methods)… but you do run out of “likely” questions at some point, and that’s probably a good point to stop and say “we have figured out the basics as well as we can, now we move forward and we try”.

    So, hooray for preparation – and hooray for stopping. :-)

    • Hayley

      Yes, “increasingly-improbable rabbit trails of worry”! Trust me, I am already restraining myself from starting the “studying for children” thing because I know it is fairly useless, haha.

  • Dacia E.

    Good lord does this resonate (I own…many of those books, and I am physically incapable of letting a fight go overnight). I am OBSESSED with planning everything in my life down to the last detail to prepare for any problems. Ironically, this has actually caused problems between me and my SO on occasion.

    Uncertainty of any kind makes me feel incredibly vulnerable, and I think that’s the basis behind my need to prepare endlessly. I think that’s been my biggest anxiety in all my relationships – that to a large extent, the outcome is dependent on more than one person, and so is out of my control. This is probably something I’ll have to work on for the rest of my life.

    • Hayley

      I hear you. And there are so MANY situations in life where preparation is so, so helpful so I think I am conditioned to think that applies in all situations. It can be tough accepting that it just…doesn’t.

    • Jess

      I am so with you on that on. Uncertainty makes me feel vulnerable is like my motto.

  • grace b

    Thank you for this Hayley! I’ve spent a lot of time discovering and reading a lot of New Age authors in the last year or so. And many, but not all, tend to be middle-aged divorced women. They are constantly re-inforcing the idea (to me) that we MUST lose everything in order to grow as a person. I’ve started weeding those folks out because as you said, you can’t plan for everything, and you can’t just expect the worst! Plan for the best. I had to decide for myself that I could grow as an individual AND be in a long-term committed relationship. Digging deep and connecting with my partner early in life is exactly the right path for me and thank you for reminding me that all of those books can’t compete!

  • Ella

    “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.”

    Omg this is so me. I cannot stop thinking about a fight, and my husband will be totally zonked out. Cue the heavy sighing and hoping he’ll ask “What’s wrong?” so I can dive into “Well, I’m still mad about….” makes for a very mature fight. :P Great piece!

    • Hayley

      HA! And as he falls asleep, I just get angrier. And then the heavy sighs don’t work, so you kind of forcefully roll over and shake the bed a little to try to wake him back up, and THAT doesn’t work, so you kind of steal the covers so he starts to stir, etc. etc… :)

  • Aurora Parlin

    I was sooo Haley (read books! ALL the books! prepare yourself for marriage!) and my fiancee was… not. She was the one who taught me that you have to take it one day at a time. My grandparents didn’t have books like these to go by and both sets were happily married ’till death. There’s really no way you can tell how your marriage will turn out – like she said, you just have to be married and figure it out as you go along.

    • Hayley

      That’s a really good point – marriage how-to books are (I’m assuming?) a fairly recent invention, and everyone has survived up til now :)

  • Allie @ 6000 Miles to Home

    This is absolutely the best. I’m not even engaged yet but have definitely been doing some of that pre-marriage research. It’s interesting stuff! I have Gilbert’s Committed on my shelf right now (how did you like it – was it worth reading??). It feels important to get ahead of some things and have the important conversations, but like you said, there’s a limit. What you answer now might not end up being what you’d answer in 5 or 10 or 40 years – people change, relationships change, and different circumstances will present themselves. Thanks for giving us all a nice dose of reality, plus some fun pre-marriage resources ;).

    • Hayley

      I really liked Committed. Definitely worth a read. Oddly, it used to be called “Committed: A Skeptic Makes Peace with Marriage,” but I’ve noticed more recent versions are titled “Committed: A Love Story.” I’d love to know why the title changed but I haven’t been able to find anything about it!

  • H

    Oh god. I may have done the exact same thing, looking up all the divorce stats and stuff, except I did it just before we got engaged to convince myself that it was a logical thing to do, because I was an overachieving girl who didn’t need a man in her life, except I wanted a particular one, and coming to grips with that was actually quite difficult, and required me to see myself as an adult, which was a whole different set of growing up I had to do. But basically, I realized I couldn’t math myself out of the scary stuff, and then we got engaged and it was (relatively) happily ever after.

  • Bets

    You sound so much like me, and those books sound like they would be right up my alley. I want to look for them anyways, even knowing that you can’t anticipate every eventuality…

  • joanna b.n.

    Ha, yes, this. This was me. This is me. :) Good call.

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