The Real Milestones Of Growing Old Together

The parts of marriage you don't put on Instagram

The early days of romance and marriage are so beautiful, exciting, and shareable. You float from high to high, tumble from event to event. Your cheeks glow and your eyes sparkle as you figure things out together. “Firsts” come hard and fast, and before you know it you have all the things you always wanted in your relationship. And then you are…. married.

Once the glitter in the snow globe of the early days settles, once you tick off all those firsts, you might be wondering… what happens now? How will we grow as a couple? What will likely come up that might be hard? What do we have to look forward to?

I hereby submit some of the real, raw, and ultimately lovely milestones Brian and I have passed through that have ended up being as important for our relationship (if not more) as that day I put on a white dress. In no particular order, here are the marriage milestones absolutely nobody is Instagramming:

Sharing (Vile) Bodily Functions

The time you get explosive diarrhea in the minuscule hotel room you are sharing with the paper-thin bathroom door. There are variations on this theme, of course. Like childbirth. For Brian and me, this milestone was caused by malaria and also included violent vomiting and a crazy high fever. And although we didn’t know it at the time, it was also pretty much our first date, since we were colleagues attending a meeting together. We weren’t even dating yet, and Brian proved himself to be the embodiment of a stand-up guy. There’s something incredibly tender about being out-of-control disgusting and vulnerable, and having someone just… stay. Brian put cool cloths on my head and bravely lit matches in the toxic chamber that was the bathroom, and sat in that uncomfortable chair in the corner so I wouldn’t feel alone as I cried for my mommy at 4:00 a.m. I wouldn’t recommend it for a first date, but I knew from the very start that Brian was someone who could be counted on when life gets (really, really, really) foul. And if there is one thing that life guarantees, it’s the failure of our bodies. So pick your partner well. 

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Discovering Their Secret Super Powers

Brian has a lot of super powers I knew about and fell in love with. He is a great lover and a really good cook. He is a kick-ass manager and an amazing Frisbee thrower. And, to my delight, I have found that every few years, he swoops in and saves the day with a surprise super power that I had no idea he had. For example, a few years ago, when I was in grad school, I was working in bed late at night, struggling with a huge Excel database. I found myself scrolling down columns of hundreds of cells counting things, cell by cell. In the wee hours, I started whimpering, and then sniveling and then full on snorky crying. Brian woke up and said: “What’s going on, Honey?” took my computer, and with a few skillful keystrokes had a table that was masterfully using “COUNTIF” and spitting out just the numbers I needed to run my statistical analyses. He was totally my hero, and just like that, I was crushing all over again.

Getting A Crush On Someone Else

Both Brian and I have found that occasionally we get a little crush on someone outside our marriage. I currently have a tiny one on one of Brian’s former co-workers who is totally adorable, and he not-so-secretly admires one of my best friends from Kenya (who is gorgeous and smart and fab, so fair enough). The first time it happened to me was a milestone because it shook my idea that commitment to each other would be grounded in effortless, 100 percent focused attraction. And the first time I recognized that he had a little crush, and he admitted he did, I had an intense jealousy attack that totally dishonored the trust I have in him and our marriage. We are both outrageous flirts and find a little sexual charge puts a spring in our step, and oddly, seeing each other’s sexuality as separate from ourselves was sort of exciting. So now we tell each other, tease each other a bit, protect our marriage through boundaries around alone time with the crushees, and use it to put a jolt of electricity in our marriage. For us, crushes have become something that we can share and use to serve our connection to each other.

When You Reveal Your Inner Ugliness

Most of the time I think of myself as a kind person—and for the most part I’m a quality version of myself around Brian. He brings out the good stuff. But when I get really backed into a corner and feel as if there is no escape, I am capable of being viciously mean. I can see what a person’s deepest fear is about themselves, and I will bait them into a trap and go for the jugular. It’s not something I like about myself, and thankfully I’ve only gone there a few times in my life—always under extreme duress.

Brian witnessed me go there last summer (I’m withholding the details to protect the innocent). He was shocked and disappointed, and I know he lost respect for me in that moment—even though he came to understand the distress that fueled it. Afterward he told me he felt like he was watching a stranger. But even then, he worked to understand me. Suffice to say that I too have seen parts of Brian that I don’t like, from petty annoyances to bigger things. This is what happens when you are real people living a real life together over decades. These are milestones of reckoning and recommitment.

When The Terms Change

Brian and I have found that sometimes power really shifts in our marriage. These have been hard times when we faced debilitating health issues (both physical and mental) and unemployment. Each of us has found ourselves between jobs over the years, which meant the pressure was on the other to hold up the family foundation. When everything is clicking along and we are both healthy and contributing to our combined life, supporting each other is easy and routine, and we take turns rather equitably. But when one of you is in bed for three months fighting debilitating nerve pain, or depression, or a loss of a job, you have to find a way to love and support each other on different terms. I think these milestones are practice milestones for growing old together.

The Delight Of Surprise Karaoke

Last weekend hell froze over, somewhere in Nebraska pigs flew, and my soft-spoken, a little bit shy, husband sang Karaoke. I would have told you it was impossible. I would have bet large sums of money that he wouldn’t. The far reaches of my imagination could find a scenario where a group was pressured into it and he would stand in the back mouthing the words. But no… There we are at a birthday party and suddenly he’s pulling me up to the stage and saying: “‘Don’t Go Breakin’ My Heart’” I was too stunned to say: “That song is outta my range!” Before I knew it, the song was playing and we were holding mics. We were atrocious. I grabbed his hand in the middle of the song as he belted out his part and snuggled up to him on the chorus. His hands were clammy, his eyes were a little wild, and he held on tight. I’m a total sucker for vulnerable and brave. And I’m thrilled that after all of this time together he can still surprise me. 

What Is Marriage, Really?

What is marriage when we’re past the straight up exciting stuff? It gets deeper in some ways (dealing with death together), and shallower in others (coasting along keeping the household running when you and the kids are all in full tilt). It gets less exciting (than getting engaged and having a wedding) and more exciting (jogging together after surgeries and a year of physical therapy and thinking that you might never again jog at all). It gets harder (sticking together when one of you is depressed for months) and easier (because they already know the ugly, and have already stayed). And while the events that change your relationship might be less picturesque than the early ones, they will also be less cliché, more personal, and completely yours.

It Is Your Root System

The snow globe might sit, still treasured, but forgotten for a while, and then, unexpectedly, something small comes along and shakes it up and it’s glitter and feverish kisses and =COUNTIF. It’s an accumulation of survived particulars, shared inside jokes, and deadly farts under the covers. With these events, day after week after year, your marriage will expand its root system. And, over time, the storms shake you less, and, together, you grow taller and stronger, and then smaller and weaker, and then stronger still through the weaknesses.

It will become the one thing you know to be true, the thing you can always trust. And every day—even the hardest ones—you will love each other the best you can, with all you have to give that day. And it will be enough. It will be everything.

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