5 lessons from 5 years of marriage
November 23, 2016
Our marriage is half a decade old.
Anniversaries were always a weird thing for me even before we wed, but Mom’s death right on the heels of our wedding day has meant the memory of our wedding has been closely associated with grief. I’ve felt some kinda way about our anniversary for years. That loss, though I never held that “happiest day of your life” mantra, has haunted me.
How odd it is to join hands and pledge “for better or for worse” to one another and almost immediately call that pledge to the test by burying a beloved parent. How odd it is, to start your own, new, family, and a blink later, say good-bye, forever, to part of your own, old, family. Indeed, to say farewell to your old family entirely, when the loss of one pivotal person feels like the loss of everything.
We weathered that as we’ve done most everything else. Sometimes well, sometimes badly, sometimes together, sometimes alone.
Each year, as we celebrated our marriage and toasted the strengthening of our relationship, it felt a little like I was also drinking a glass to the still gaping maw in my heart. This year, after so many years of feeling the pain of her loss far more than the joy of our companionship, this was the first year I had a little hint of peace.
Grief doesn’t play nice, or give you a discount on burdens carried because you just buried your grandma, your best friend’s dad, your dear friend’s mom, and your classmate within months of each other. It’s the same crashing denial, guilt, and mourning, over and over.
But it also gives you remarkable opportunity to learn to trust your new partner, your new family, in ways you’d been terrified to try before.
Truth? I never wanted to be married. I never needed a husband to complete me. A career, couple of dogs, warm comforter, I’m fine. But, given an extraordinary person like PiC, I’d have been a fool to refuse because it “wasn’t in the plans”. And I’m proud to say that there is a limit to my foolery. I’m also proud to say that we’ve learned so much about each other and how to make things work well. Imperfect though we are, we’ve figured a lot out.
Relationships are work
Never doubt that relationships and marriage require work to make them work. The work should not feel like a never-ending slog, but it is work, and both parties have to be committed to doing that work together.
The number of people who have told me they thought they had a fairytale relationship is the same as the number of people I know who were divorcing or were staying in an unhappy marriage because at least one of them didn’t expect to have to compromise, actively communicate, or be self sacrificing in some way. That was always the other person’s job, and I suppose magic was going to do the rest?
I’ve never heard a happily married or strongly committed couple pretend that it didn’t take work, compromise or sacrifice to stay that way. If someone says otherwise, do NOT buy that bridge they’re selling.
Mom and Dad never fought in front of us so I didn’t learn from them how to fight civilly. Worse, it was incredibly bizarre to see when they disagreed right out in the open because I had never seen that as a kid. Thankfully, they never pretended that it was all popcorn and roses. Mom also taught me that it’s also not THAT hard. The struggle should have a purpose and a resolution. If you find someone worthy of you, you must approach disagreements with compassion and kindness. Even if you’re angry, you’ll still remember that because you love this person, the goal isn’t to grind them into dust for the win. That’s abusive. No kind of abuse whether it be emotional, mental, verbal or physical, was acceptable, but it was important to differentiate between being mean, snippy, or a plain ole jerk and behavior that rises to the level of abuse.
Patience: learn to have it, learn to use it
These haven’t been the easiest five years, personally or professionally, and as a result we traveled a bumpy road on the way to building patience. Where one or the other might have been snippy over an inconsequential thing going wrong, a misplaced set of keys or forgetting to prepare part of a meal, we’re much better at taking a step back and taking a breather BEFORE letting the snark roll.
It’s one thing to snark your friends mercilessly, without heat. It’s another to snark your spouse over an honest mistake because you’re tired or in a bad mood.
I expect PiC to treat me with respect even when he’s not feeling at his best, as he has the right to expect from me. It doesn’t mean to pretend to make nice all the time, it means that you remember when you feel like crap, you lash out, and then learn not to do that to those closest to you.
Know your fear, learn how to let it go
I’ve always refused to admit weakness. See how I’ve only admitted to chronic illness occasionally on an anonymous blog? Yep, that’s completely indicative of how I’ve dealt with it in offline life. It helped me professionally where fear typically leads to paralysis. It was terrible for our relationship, in the trust department. More specifically, in the Where’s the Trust? department.
My family had, over the years, taught me repeatedly not to trust adults to make good decisions. With PiC, I had to undo all that history and figure out how to trust him.
It starts with understanding that we two are built pretty differently from each other. We respect that isn’t the end of the world, and then find room for compromise.
I’m obsessive about money and sticking to our spending and saving plans. Obviously. PiC is not at all obsessive. But I have accepted his premise that spending is actually good at times, and he’s accepted that I’m going to make That Face when spending happens.
PiC makes some interesting decisions about time management. I’ve learned to nod and say he’s an adult, he can deal with the result. It’s not my job to make him do it my way (even if I’m right) because it’s not me doing the job. He’s learned to live with the consequences of his choices and change if he doesn’t like those consequences.
We don’t just tolerate each other, what a terrible word to use for someone you care about! We accept that we have our differences and work with them instead of insisting that we do everything the same way.
This is the beauty of trusting your partner: their job is not your problem, it’s their job. If you don’t like how it’s done, then debrief for a better next time. Except for PiC in the kitchen, this is why he’s only my sous chef or not allowed in the kitchen at all if I’m Head Chefing. It’s for the greater good.
Communication: it only works if you’re both listening
We have a running joke that we don’t listen to each other. It used to be one-sided. I would repeat information five times, in answer to PiC’s Dory-like questions. It mildly annoyed me but eventually I found myself doing the same. We’ve developed a terrible habit of only half listening, you see. But since being annoyed about it changes nothing, we’ve had to confront that both with humor and the aforementioned patience.
It’s made an enormous difference that we not only talk to each other, we talked to each other about how we talk to each other, and what’s working and what’s not.
Fight with your gloves on
If you must fight, and we all do at some point, do it well. Again, with the respect. Just because you disagree over something to the point of arguing or fighting it out, that doesn’t mean that your basic respect for this person with whom you share your life goes out the window. For me, that means eyerolling is out, and don’t ever use the dismissive “Whatever”. For him, that means hearing him out and not interrupting until he’s finished explaining what’s on his mind.
Here’s to many more…
We don’t have all the answers, but we’ve got enough to keep our marriage running with just a few tweaks now and again, and that makes me feel pretty good about the choices we’ve made. It’s not that we see eye to eye on everything, but that we’re willing to make the effort to understand each other that has made it all work.
Case in point: We didn’t even agree on how to celebrate this anniversary at first. We went around and around trying to find a good compromise, talking over logistics, and what was important to each of us. He wanted to do something more than just dinner together at home. I felt like dinner together at home was perfectly fine, I didn’t want to spend $1000 on a weekend trip.
It could have been several fights. Instead it was several discussions and we eventually landed on a great compromise that felt just right and may become our new way of celebrating. Perfect!