On Marriage

My friend Holly is getting married this summer, and she’s seeking advice. I’ve done my ham-fisted best here, but we both invite you to add as much marriage/long-term relationship advice as you can to the comments section below!

Dear Amy,

I’m getting married. You know this. You’re coming to the wedding.

People seem very concerned about the mechanics of our marriage: Can you even do that in Michigan? Is it legal? Will you get a partner visa for Singapore?

And the mechanics of our wedding: Will you wear a dress or a suit? At which hotels have you reserved blocks of rooms? How many friends can I bring to support me? (- my little brother, who seems to find this gay wedding thing very distressing.)

But, so far, no one’s really talked with us or with me about marriage itself. Over a series of dinner dates at our favorite Indonesian restaurant, we went through the NYTimes questions for people who are getting married (here and here). I started to read a book about marriage until I discovered how religious and gender-normative it was. And sometimes I read the NYTimes stories about the really old couples who’ve made things work for 50+ years. That’s it so far.

I have friends who are married and married parents who are pretty happy together now but didn’t always seem so happy when I was growing up. Emily, my fiancée, has divorced parents and is herself divorced. She’s scared shitless. I’m not, and that worries me somehow, like maybe I’m missing something.

When I was younger, I thought I’d never get married because (putting aside the legal difficulties as well as the bigger political question of whether marriage should even exist and whether opting into a cornerstone institution of heteronormativity and patriarchy is counter to queer ideals) promises are really important to me. I couldn’t conceive of making such a huge promise based on so little experience. I currently swim everyday, but I would never promise to do so for the rest of my life. I’ve been a writer for a decade, but I don’t know that I’d promise to do that for even another decade, let alone a lifetime, and I really like being a writer. But here’s a promise that is bigger than those because it involves another person, and potentially more people down the line. And I’m going to make it, in spite of only limited evidence (2 ½ years as a couple and 13 years as best friends) that I can keep it. And that doesn’t scare me. At least not yet. And other people do it, too, all the time. Are we insane?

Emily and I live together, have moved to a different country together, and have been best friends since we met at 16. The transition from best friends to cohabitating partners was a tough one, and I can’t imagine the transition from partners to spouses could be that much harder, but again, maybe I’m missing something.

Amy, please talk to me about marriage.

Love from Singapore,

Holly

Dear Holly,

I’ve only been married since 2010, so I don’t have a lot of time-tested advice. That said, I have opinions. Which is probably why you asked.

Act One. Other People’s Marriage Advice and My Assessment of It

  1. Never go to bed angry. While I like the idea of this, I just haven’t been able to do it. Sometimes it feels GOOD to go to bed angry. Usually, by the time I wake up, I feel better. I’d say, instead of “never go to bed angry,” “try not to wake up angry.”

  2. My friend’s wife just wrote this piece for Glamour, and I think it’s got some pretty good points, even ones that haven’t been my experience. (Our first year of marriage was remarkably easy, maybe the easiest year of my life. We stopped fighting because there didn’t seem to be any stakes anymore. When you’re NOT married and you fight, there’s always this little voice in your head thinking this might be the end. Once we were married, I felt like, what’s the point in fighting? We can’t break up about it. It wasn’t until we had a baby that I learned how impatient and selfish I am. [To be fair, at this point, we’ve had a baby for MOST of our married life. It’s hard for me to separate my life as a married person from my life as a parent, but I think the distinction is probably important. At any rate, I’ll save my thoughts on that for another entry.])

  3. At a friend’s wedding, I heard someone say, “May today be the day of your marriage you love each other the least.” It struck me at the time as an odd thing to say. Then, on my wedding day, I GOT it. The day you get married, you are surrounded by friends and family and love and you feel so sure of yourself and your decision. It is really a profound feeling. Since then, I always write that phrase in wedding cards (SPOILER ALERT).  That said, I am pretty sure it is ACTUALLY IMPOSSIBLE to make it happen. There have been plenty of days that I’ve loved Jason more than on our wedding day to be sure, but there have been a fair number where I’ve loved him less. At any rate, it’s worth keeping in mind and working toward.

  4. I’ve said this on here before, but my friend Chrissy once said something to the effect of: everyone’s tired, everyone’s busy, so just assume your partner is and assume your partner knows that you are and don’t talk about it. I love that.

Act Two. What I Have Learned as a Married Person, Written in the Second Person to Acclimate You to These Marriage Truths

  1. You will be the only person to throw old food out of the fridge. For the rest of your life. You will also be the only person who really sweeps or mops or cleans things with cleaners. You’ll be the only person who cleans the shower. For the rest of your life.

  2. You will get a LOT more backrubs than you give. Like, A LOT more. So many more it’s not even funny; it’s not even a contest.

  3. At least twice, you will have to pack your spouse’s wound. This means you will have to shove a bunch of gauze into an open wound on your spouse’s butt until it “feels full” (as far as I can tell, the medical term). Every day, you’ll have to pull out the old gauze and put in new while your spouse writhes in pain. As you do it, you will probably think, I didn’t sign up for this. (Guess what. You did.) I recommend having at least two glasses of wine before you do this.

Act Three. Our Advice. (The NYT knows what it’s talking about, to be sure, with that list of questions. Here’s a top-ten Jason and I just put together.)

  1. Always kiss hello and goodbye (or whatever your couple equivalent is). Even if you’re in the midst of a fight, even if it’s in front of your parents.

  2. Eat at least one meal together every day, or as close to that as possible. This is easier than it sounds.

  3. It’s not a contest, but if it makes you a better partner to think of it as one, go for it. (Jason says, for the record, “It’s not a competition, and if you think that, there’s something wrong.” To which I say, I SAID IT’S NOT A CONTEST, and also, if you think there’s something wrong with it, YOU’RE LOSING.)

  4. Try to know yourself and what you want and need as much as possible, and ask for it. Out loud. In words. Help Emily to do the same. (I feel like there should be some flashing lights around this one.)

  5. As with all things, there are highs and lows, ups and downs. Enjoy the highs and ups, get through the lows and downs.

  6. Take vacations together to places where you don’t know or are not visiting other people.

  7. Hang out with each other’s friends and make them your friends.

  8. “Yes and” whenever possible (and it’s always possible). This is especially important in social situations, and this is especially important when it is just the two of you.

  9. Relatedly, don’t step on or contradict a story your partner is telling in a social situation, even if it DID happen differently, even if you’ve heard it a million times.

  10. If you have people you vent to about your marriage (and you should), make sure you also tell those people all the good stuff too.

Epilogue. My assessment of my parents’ marriage is similar to yours. But now I realize that, as a 12-year-old, a) I had a highly idealized and unrealistic view of what a happy couple looked like and b) I was terrified of divorce, and every time my parents fought, a sign in my brain flashed THIS IS THE END over and over.

I don’t know how much the length of time you know someone actually matters. I always thought it did, but the fact is that people change (and don’t change), so you marry one person and then twenty years later, you might be married to someone different, or exactly the same, and you might be different, or exactly the same, and there are a million permutations and I don’t want to say it comes down to luck, because there’s too much work involved to pass it off as such, but, you know, sort of it’s just luck. My parents dated for six months, got married, and 43 years later are still happily together.

People talk about how marriage is hard because it IS. This is something I’ve learned, that when MOST people say something, it’s usually true, despite my initial stubbornness in regards to thinking I can beat the odds. Marriage is hard. It’s also awesome.

Love,

Amy

Dear Amy,

The NYTimes often stalks me and only publishes articles about what I’m thinking or worrying about RIGHT THEN. Recently, it’s been printing a lot of stuff about marriage and I’ve finally mustered up some level of anxiety about my upcoming nuptials.

 Specifically, the NYT printed an article about Northwestern’s “Marriage 101” course. They get them early so they start by teaching them how to be decent people and how to know what they need, which seems like an ambitious and worthwhile endeavor. Then they teach them how to find someone who’s compatible, and implicit in this is that compatible is important, even maybe essential. In fact, one of the required texts is a book on how, no matter how well you communicate and compromise and work on your marriage, if you’re not initially compatible, then you’re basically screwed. I have some doubts about this based on 1) all the arranged marriages that seem to work out (though there’s a selection issue in that those people are probably less likely to divorce anyway), and 2) that people change over time, as you said, so that initial compatibility is somewhat irrelevant given that people aren’t static beings. But still, I get freaked out because I want to believe that anything, including marriage, can be worked on and improved, and that what you start with isn’t some incontrovertible sentence on how you’ll end up.

I should clarify that I don’t actually believe, based on the Northwestern criteria of 1) sexual compatibility, 2) day-to-day compatibility, and 3) big life questions and values (e.g., God, religion, or lack thereof) compatibility, that Emily and I are incompatible, but the fatalistic notion that some people could really, really want to be good together and yet not actually be able to make that happen scares me to a perhaps irrational degree.

And so, more generally, I wonder what you think about that. Excluding the amorphous concepts of fate and destiny and “meant to be,” is it possible that some genuinely loving couples just won’t make it, no matter how hard they try? And, assuming that you didn’t take the Northwestern marriage course at 19, how do you know if you’re one of those couples? Or, if you can’t know, how do you carry on unafraid enough to not sabotage the relationship and tank it out of fear?

Love,

Holly

P.S. One of the vows Emily is making is that she will always clean the hair out of the drain in the shower and the sink. Because hair in the drain grosses me out big time for a reason you don’t want to know. (Have you ever bailed puke out of a clogged, overflowing sink?) So that’s something I’m going to have going for me for sure.

Dear Holly,

I think I have good news for you. Or at least I have an opinion that you’ll like. It is my albeit un-researched opinion that “genuinely loving” couples, especially those willing to try hard, will make it. To back this statement up, I think the fact that I just turned 38, and that I’m sort of a cynic by nature (in other words, a) I am not young and naive and innocent, and b) I have an inherent inability to think anything “will just work out”), gives me, in this case, a fair amount of credibility.

(And as for tanking it out of fear, just DO NOT DO THAT. That is the shit teenagers do — “I’m afraid to love you” — because it sounds good and dramatic and, goddamn it, everyone’s been hurt and being hurt HURTS and is scary. That is not what marriage-bound adults do; marriage-bound adults know, sure, love can be scary, but in tying our lives together, we’re SAYING WE ARE NOT AFRAID.)

When I got married, if you had asked me if we would ever get divorced, I would have told you, “Absolutely not! Nothing would surprise me more!” I’m sure that’s the answer for 90 percent of people who marry. If you were worried about it — or, more to the point, if I had been worried about it — I just wouldn’t have gotten married. By virtue of the fact that I felt I wanted to do it, I felt it would work out. Yes, I am the same cynic I just mentioned. But this is how I felt.

Now that I have been married and had a child, I see how many moving parts there are in a marriage. In a way that you really cannot see ahead of time. There’s the marriage itself, us as a couple, of course; and the kid, of course; and our respective careers; and getting all of this to work together. All of this I was prepared for, more or less. But there’s also how each of these parts change over time, especially when you throw “sense of self” into the mix. I was unprepared for how much getting married and becoming a mom would mess with my sense of self.

And because of this, marriage has already changed me in unanticipated ways. I nag more than I thought I would. I don’t remember seeing myself as “hard,” but I’m hard on Jason, I’m hard on me, I’m hard on Violet. Now that I’m (in no particular order) a “wife” and a “mother” and have a “career,” I don’t really know what else it is that I want, but I DO know that I don’t feel “fulfilled.” (Maybe fulfillment is a myth? Something to ponder another day, I guess.)

So what I’m trying to say is that I think I STARTED OUT a genuinely loving partner, but that has changed over four short years, and THAT is the part that scares me. So, yeah. If you can MAINTAIN being genuinely loving people, kid, you got it made. And if you figure out how to do that, please keep me posted.

Love,

Amy

PS Write your own vows. I know you didn’t ask for wedding advice, but here’s a bit of it anyway. Write your own vows, and make them as specific to the two of you as humanly possible. And have them easily accessible throughout your marriage, not in a “you said you would do this” way, but in a “here are reminders to me and reminders to you of what we promised we would do” way.

Holly Painter is a writer, reader, and wearer of dinosaur t-shirts. She lives with her partner in Singapore. They will be married in June whether Michigan likes it or not.

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6 thoughts on “On Marriage

  1. Brilliant! I laughed, I cried, and cheered. Act II #3. Ours isn’t an open wound. But it’s not much different. And you’re right, I did sign up for that. Thank you both. Wishing Holly and Emily all the best!!

  2. Jon Pershing says:

    This was lovely. Thanks a lot for sharing.

    As far as advice, I think it’s really important to be honest with who you are. I spend a lot of time being a lot of different things to a lot of different people at work and with different groups of friends. If you can somehow not do that with your spouse, I think it helps a lot. Try to strip away all of the armor and jokes that you suit up with in daily life and just be an exposed core of who you are with the person you marry.

    I’ve found it difficult to do at times, but if we are ever fighting and I can get past being mad enough to take an honest look at the situation, it’s usually because I’m putting on some kind of show.

    Have fun!

  3. Am I allowed to comment? Allowed to join in this beautiful conversation among friends who allow themselves to be vulnerable? It feels something like a privilege to enter into this conversation. Ok, here it goes…

    Amy used the number 20 years of marriage and that spoke to me. I was married 20 years and absolutely, people change. Partners change. The “baby” that is the young marriage changes. Keeping with the theme of being vulnerable and candid I offer the following nuggets I’ve learned through marriage therapy, personal therapy, and personal reflection:

    — People don’t change much.
    — The most important thing in my life is my health.
    — There is no singular key to a great marriage. It is part loving yourself, part loving the other, part trying continually to figure out what this word “love” means. Does it mean devotion? Does it mean giving? Does it mean putting the other before self? Does it mean admire or embrace or awe or commitment or steadfastness or partner or tolerance or changing a bandage or going for a long walk that takes 20 years and some pain?
    — Consider these words from a marriage therapist I didn’t especially like: “Do you want to be right or do you want to be in a relationship?”
    — As Amy wrote above, know your needs. Find a way to get your needs met.
    — Respect each other. Your walk with your partner will have more trouble than you imagine but at minimum, respect that the other person is dynamic, whole, and interested in their needs and the needs of the marriage.
    — I remember recognizing that my marriage was in trouble when I asked for something as simple as 1/2 a trip from my spouse (she was going on a solo trip across country and some of her group were only going for 1/2 a week). I used the words, “I have trouble with X, Y, Z on the homefront and I need you to go for half the trip.” Plans did not change and I cleaned up child vomit at home alone. Cleaning up child vomit that covered multiple rooms and a rug is not what hurt — what hurt was expressing needs and feeling that I was not considered. Consider your partner and be considered.
    — Have friends outside the marriage.
    — Grow.
    — Share appreciations. “I appreciate that you…”
    — Use more I-statements than You-statements. The world doesn’t go forward with You-statements. Take as much ownership of your words & beliefs as possible. Instead of saying “Gado gado is the best thing on the menu.” say “I really enjoy the gado gado here.” Instead of saying “I need you to take down that tacky poster” say “I prefer hanging the batik instead of that poster. What do you think?” This might be the most important change I made during the last few years. Feedback from my perspective. This enables a discussion. You-statements close a conversation.
    — Share appreciations. (Notice how I crafted this before and after the feedback bullet!)
    — Finally, don’t rely on axioms. (Ain’t that a contradiction!) Discover what works for you & your partner but learn to be flexible.

    Best to you & Emily. Very happy for you.

    Dave

  4. Meagan says:

    Holly,
    Marriage is the hardest thing I have ever done but also the best thing. Some days it is just super easy and other days, well other days I want to ram his head into a wall really really hard praying I hit the stud. When you fight, and you will, stay in the present. Argue what is the now. As a woman I can tell you that my husband pissed me off on this date at this exact time 10 years ago. I have learned that if I didn’t bring it up 10 years ago, it’s not fair to bring it up today. So disagree in the now about what is bugging you know. Do Not bring up something from weeks, months or years ago. Let it go, if it wasn’t worth an argument then, it is not today. That has been the hardest for me. Not sure what the weather is like in Singapore, in Indiana though winters are cold. We also each have our own blankets. Buy separate blankets or top sheets, it saves trying to tug them away from your partner in the middle of the night. May God bless you and Emily both with a lifetime of happiness and love!

  5. Rebecca W. says:

    Such great advice here from wise and wonderful people. Best wishes and good luck, Holly and Emily!

    For me, the most important and hardest lesson has been to choose not to shut doors when there’s an opportunity to open them. I can be a moody and introspective person, and I don’t always feel like talking about it. Sometimes because I’m embarrassed, or I don’t know what I want to say, or I just don’t have the energy, or I *know* that I’m just being cranky for no good reason.

    So, I’ve been guilty many times over of the classic “What’s wrong?” “Nothing.” exchange. Four and a half years in–and some therapy for personal reasons (wait, are there other kinds of reasons?) later–I can see how crazy and crazy-making this is.

    In trying to dodge this conversation, you’re lying to your partner’s face. You’re telling them you don’t trust them. And you’re telling them not to trust themselves, either: they’re observing something–that you’re upset–and you’re asking them to join in maintaining the fiction that it’s not so. And finally, you leave them hanging on their own, trapped in a house with an unpleasant person, trying to guess at what’s on your mind. Usually they will guess that you’re mad *at them*. Sometimes it will be true, but very often it’s not, and it’s cruel and torturous to leave them hanging.

    Being fair and kind to your spouse doesn’t mean you never have moods, and it doesn’t mean you always have to explain and justify every single thing on your mind. But it does mean granting them the respect and courtesy of acknowledging the truth they see, and responding to their real wish to know you and help you.

    It still shocks me what a difference it makes–for me and for our relationship–every time I choose not to do this:
    “What’s wrong?”
    “Nothing.”

    and instead to do this:
    “What’s wrong?”
    “I don’t really know, nothing specific, but I’m just feeling sort of blue and out of sorts today.”

    Maybe you all already do this, like sane people. But it took me years to get to a place where I could just *say* that and let it be. And bonus, amazingly, the bit of honesty in the latter means the conversation can end there, instead of going 10 rounds of the “nothing” game, until you both actually are really angry with each other.

    (Of course, if you’re actually mad about them at something, you should be upfront about that, too.)

    In short: sitting in comfortable silence together can be a beautiful thing. The fact that I can do this with my spouse is one of the reasons I married him. But when called upon to speak, try never to say nothing.

  6. Fran says:

    I loved reading the great advice here. The thing I’ve learned over the years, and am still learning, is that marriage is a choice. Yes, it’s a decision you make/made, but you have to choose to be in it. And in choosing to be in it, you have to show up. The pressure of the FOREVER (old, decrepit, horrible forever) is terrifying for me and makes me want to bolt for the door. But the truth that I am choosing to be here is a reality that I feel like I can live with. Make it so you want to be there.

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