What had been a private cry became a public cry last week when I wrote Why we need to share what being married really looks like.
Humbled by comments and readers and tweets, I continued the dialogue — both online and off. In the past week, meaningful conversations about marriage have happened in my home, in friends’ homes, over dinner, over the phone, via texting and GChat and on this blog.
So when a friend shared earnest questions in her comment, I was affirmed. I also knew that more needed to be written:
Sarah, I loved this post, but it’s actually instilled more curiosity in me about marriage. What exactly is so hard about marriage? I’ve never understood what people meant when they said that, because I didn’t understand what changed about your relationship from the day before you said “I do” to the day after. I’ve always heard, “Marriage is hard and a lot of work,” but I’ve never heard WHY it’s hard or HOW it’s a lot of work. You know I’m not married or engaged, but I’m in a very serious 4-year-relationship that’s leading in that direction, and any insight I could get now before we reach that life-changing milestone would be much appreciated!
Big questions. Worthy of conversations.
Marriage is like exercising: it is a challenge, no matter who you are. Most people who exercise agree that it’s good for you. Most agree that exercising can be a fun, fantastic experience. But most who exercise have had a bad workout or two. Muscles just aren’t stretched, maybe, or you didn’t get enough sleep the night before. Maybe you’re out of shape, or you’re in remarkable shape but just can’t hit that goal. What makes it challenging is different for everyone.
Believe me when I say it: things are really, really good between me and Mr. S. There are sweet times and fun times and beautiful times. This marriage is a treasure. And we work our butts off to keep it that way.
One unique-to-us reason why marriage was difficult at first was the transition. Lives didn’t just magically fit together like a puzzle piece. We’d lived in different cities for over a year, and different regions for six months. Our lives were separate in all ways but each other. Social circles, schedules and even culture looked different. When we got married, I moved to a new town (where Mr. S. was a grad student) and had to find a new job, hopefully before the next month’s rent was due. I had to make new friends and find my niche in a town much smaller than the last. I regret not handling this transition with more maturity. Rather than seeing it as a beautiful opportunity to launch our lives together, I had a bitter, proud heart towards my husband and my marriage. I won’t make the same mistake again when I face transition.
In that transition, we struggled to find our identity, as individuals and as a couple. Embedding another person’s identity into your own is no easy feat. In a sense, we are each other’s PR agency. What I do and say and how I behave and act reflects directly on Mr. S’s identity, and vice-versa. We continue to struggle, to some extent, as we grow. Yes, I am a wife, and that’s not all of me. We continue to define this identity as it evolves.
And it’s a marriage cliche for a reason — finances. Anyone who knew me in June 2011 is aware of the transition that happened then: we switched from credit card swipers to envelope system users. It stemmed from our need to budget and our need to make financial decisions as a team. With a fund for each expense, we decide together how much money is allotted. Not easy, though, no matter how you break down your budget. Sharing money with someone else involves so much trust. And it’s tough when money is tight and the rent is due, but also when money is abundant and you have to decide, together, how to use it wisely.
For us, family was a significant paradigm shift. We love our parents and siblings dearly, and always will. But now that we are married, we are each others’ immediate family. And that shift influences how decisions are made — everything from holidays to phone calls to gifts to what information we share or keep between us. Our families are different and we’ve had to work hard to overcome cultural obstacles between a small town and a big city. Both have charm and both have obstacles. We work hard to find a healthy balance between clinging and alienating to our families, and it is a fine line to walk.
The expectations Mr. S. and I brought into marriage have certainly made it hard. Our expectations were based on friends (both married and unmarried), families and our upbringing, faith background, schooling, media and so much more. These expectations influenced almost every part of our life together: from what we choose for weeknight dinners to how we exercise to how we spend the little free time we have to what our sex life looks like. And although many of our expectations were realistic, Mr. S. is not perfect and I am not perfect and expectations just were not met. Some expectations cannot be displayed publicly, and some are only shared through trusted confidantes with eyes full of tears. We have much to learn and much work to do to make this marriage work for us.
Principles. Little principles, like what way you put toilet paper on the toilet paper holder (thankfully, Mr. S. and I both prefer the “over” orientation). Big principles, like what God you worship and how you want to raise kiddos (if you want them at all). We agree on the big stuff, and discussed it constantly as we were dating. Admittedly, some couples struggle much more with this than us.
It has been tough for us to be vulnerable with each other, and furthermore, to trust the other person with that. I had this terrible-awful-ill reaction to a medicine on our first Valentine’s Day and was so embarrassingly sick. Vulnerability like a slap in the face, I could not fake my way out of that one. And there’s the emotional vulnerability too — my husband doesn’t believe me when I try to fake my way through difficulties. You really have to share your innermost self, and we’re all broken and ugly-sinful at our core. Not flattering or easy stuff to reveal. My best of my best and my worst of my worst.
Learning good communication continues to be hard. If I do something that’s frustrating, Mr. S. had to learn how to tell me and not keep it tightly inside. Sometimes I’m a major jerk and have no filter and say things I don’t mean, especially to those I love most. I’ve had to humble myself and consider my words and gosh it is hard work.
Responsibility also makes marriage difficult. Mr. S. and I have been together seriously since October 2007, and were engaged for nine months. Before marriage, we regularly considered each other in major decisions. But what shifted in marriage was responsibility to each other for all decisions, both the life-changing and the everyday. It was especially difficult for us to become responsible to each other with our overloaded schedules, putting each other as a priority. At first, Mr. S. struggled with balancing his demanding class and research schedule and I floundered as I plugged him into my professional life. We are learning, and things are better today than they were a few months ago. Yes, it’s easy to sit next to each other and stare at the same TV show or Netflix movie. But we work hard to be responsible for creating meaningful connections.
When you put two imperfect people together, both with their own lives and own stories, it is not easy to blend as one. Marriage is hard, but perhaps more accurately stated, marriage is hard work. It’s the daily work of putting someone else’s needs before your own. It’s the daily work of choosing what’s best for both of you, instead of what’s best for only you. Make no mistake, it’s work that I love because it is for a person I love. It’s work we treasure, work we do gladly. Work we grow from. Work that is incredibly worth it.
Full disclosure: I wrote this post after discussing with Mr. S., and we came to the above conclusions together. Both a husband’s and a wife’s opinion are expressed here and it’s as un-gender-biased as we could keep it.
And wedding photo credit to the lovely and talented Maggie Rife.