I always wanted to get married. In fact, I always wanted to be married.
This may be a result of Cinderella and The Little Mermaid; it certainly wasn’t my own parents. My mom and dad loved each other deeply in their way, but fought like cats and dogs — and lived separate emotional lives.
Theirs was a fairly of-the-era union: a solitary workaholic husband, and an energetic perfectionist wife whose constrained aptitude and ambition often manifested in anxiety and criticism. My parents’ marriage looked solid from a distance, but up close it was different.
I had a dream for my own marriage.
I use the word dream specifically; it is, by definition, aspirational. A dream is more than a wish — it’s a version of life without restraints. A dream doesn’t bother with reality.
But a mirage, on the other hand — dream’s sinister cousin — has everything to do with reality.
The definition of mirage is something that appears real or possible but is not in fact so.
A mirage is an unmet expectation, and often a disheartening one. A mirage is asking for a sip of fresh water and getting a mouthful of sand.
My dream for my marriage was a ‘This is Us’ highlight reel of soul gazing and hand-holding and hot sex. It was conscious conversations and constant connection. It was more than intimacy; it was a closeness that never got stale.
It was this dream for my marriage that gave birth to the mirage.
A little history: I got lucky and found a great man early. We were partnered by the time I was 20, dream intact. We were together for over seven years, and happily married by 28. We had two kids by 33: our daughter before we left NYC and our son soon after we headed west to SLC to keep the dream alive.
Our early years together were a pretty postcard. We didn’t ever have a white picket fence, but we do have a solid tawny fence surrounding a large square backyard, big trees, a swing set, and a decent-sized patio. We’re in a lovely neighborhood, on a wide avenue with little traffic. It’s so easy to look the part here. And why not? The dream is what’s expected; the mirage visible only behind closed doors.
And what have we come to know within these walls?
A lot. We’ve learned that pregnancy and postpartum were real; that losing our identities to kids was real. For us, the seven year itch — with all the bickering and exasperation we could muster — got pretty real. Job failures and career pivots have been really real. Managing work and school and sports and camp and childcare schedules is really goddamn real. And raising small humans and somehow remaining intimate, well, that is the realest real of all.
With each shot of REAL, the dream took a hit. And as the dream grew fuzzier, the mirage came into greater focus.
It took a bit longer than expected for me to realize what was happening — that our connection was not what it had been, or what it was supposed to be. After all, with a little frazzled busyness, a robust social life, and a bit of determination, you can ignore trouble for a while. But in those stolen quiet moments, the truth sought me out: Marriage is not designed to save itself, it said.
This was a surprise; it was a shock to me that marriage was so fragile. For the first 30 years of my life, in my youthful naivete, I had treated marriage like a thing. To me, a marriage was something to painstakingly set up and then basically forget about, like a swing set.
Looking back, I was sure that if you chose a good partner and followed the general guidelines for trust, communication, and passion, then Voilà! — you would be awarded a Good Marriage. Perhaps — like so many — I held tight to the literal definition of marriage: the legally or formally recognized union of two people as partners in a personal relationship.
But wait. Seen this way, marriage isn’t a thing at all; it’s just the name we give to the thing. In hindsight, the second definition of marriage feels far more accurate: a combination or mixture of two or more elements.
In our case, I’d add that D and I are divergent elements. Metaphorically and literally, our marriage is a sustained effort to bring two disparate things together.
Sometimes it feels like we’re two same-side magnets forcing ourselves together, neither one willing to flip.
The truth is — and it drives him crazy when I say that — we are very different people. Not exact opposites, but we come at everything from different angles.
I say tomato; he says ketchup. I say ‘How could you say that?’ He says ‘What’d I say?’
He is practical. I am creative. He is always thinking ahead; I am always thinking ‘Where the hell are my keys?’
I say, ‘Tell me you love me.’ He says I just need to trust that he does.
I say, ‘I feel neglected.’
He says, ‘I cleaned out your car.’
Our love languages need a constant interpreter.
During points of contention or detachment, we are equally disappointed in one another and wildly resentful. He sees me as erratic, indulgent, overly emotional; I see him as stoic, judgmental, and dismissive. These labels have truth in them, but holding onto them just drives a wedge further between us.
There are periods when I get so lonely I can hardly speak without crying. He looks at me like I’m crazy, like I’m not who he signed up for.
This is when we retreat to our corners — sometimes for weeks or even seasons; after all, we’ve been together for over 17 years.
More than once he has said, ‘I can’t make you happy. I’m exhausted with trying. Try to find someone else then.’
More than once I have whispered, ‘I can’t live like this, with someone who doesn’t want to grow and evolve — someone who doesn’t want to connect. I can’t and I won’t. F this and F you.’
Yeah; it can get pretty terrible.
Somehow we forge on, giving each other a wide berth. Interaction is curt and transactional. We talk to the kids so we don’t have to talk to one another. We do a lot of sighing.
This is when the mirage fully dissolves, when you wonder how in the hell you got here — so far apart. There’s a disappointment mixed with grief. This was not how it was supposed to be.
When you’re a kid, a girlfriend or boyfriend, and even a newlywed, there’s some part of you that still thinks getting to marriage is the grand achievement. That’s it, we’re married and riding off into the sunset — thank you, Princess Bride, and basically every Disney movie until Brave.
But seasoned monogamists from all walks of life will tell you: the gig isn’t about getting married at all, or even really being married. The gig is about staying married. And staying married is not for the faint of heart.
So how do we stay married?
Why do we do it?
And the big one: Is it worth all the headaches and heartaches — all the work?
We try — that’s how we do it. We try like hell and we screw up and we try again. And then when we think we can’t possibly do it once more, we regroup and get back to the tired business of trying. And about four years ago, when D and I were all tried out, we tried couples therapy. It’s helped some, but it’s — as he says — two steps forward and one step back.
The why will be different for everyone. Maybe it’s because we said we would; maybe it’s because we believe in US; maybe we do it because we have kids, and/or a pet, and a life, and all that paperwork and shared furniture.
I think D and I do it because we’ve come this far; because we can’t really imagine doing it with anyone else; because we have come to know that marriage is a living thing, requiring attention, nurturing, and maintenance. I think we do it because — with help — we’re very slowly getting better at it.
And finally, is it worth it?
Well, there’s no way to do it without blowing it all up. I almost did that once and I’m not going back there. That was in what D and I refer to as our first marriage. We think we’ll probably have at least four together. Just think of who you were 15+ years ago. Sometimes I barely recognize myself, let alone him.
One thing I’ve learned is that our dissatisfaction with someone else is pretty much always about us. Just as kids can, our partners shine a light on the stuff we have to fix. And it’s a whole lot easier to point the finger at someone else than admit our own flaws, not to mention actually take steps to fix them.
But we’ve signed on to take the steps. How we wish there were only 12 steps; there are basically infinity.
With every step I take, mostly on my own, I decide that I’m not going anywhere. I decide to keep trying to be kind, curious, patient. I just decide that it’s worth it, and I carry on, knowing that I’ll have to choose it, and him, over and over again.
And every once in a while, that choice isn’t even a choice. I just know it’s right; that he is right, for me.
Sometimes it’s holding hands over the gear shift on the way to yet another kid’s sporting event. It can be the comfort of a seasoned spoon, a feeling we call ‘lock and load.’ It’s when we meet each other’s eyes across a cocktail party and feel all of the tingles of a 20-year-old undergrad.
There are times that I look at my husband — like this morning when he was sunscreening the children and talking them through the ‘big B / little b’ rules of genetics that resulted in their brown eyes — and I feel a wave of love so strong that I hold my breath and nearly cry on the spot.
In these moments, there is no mirage, just the rise of a familiar certainty from somewhere deep in my gut: This is my family.
D is my family, and our marriage is full of the immense adoration and thwarted expectations that define family. It’s not all rainbows and rosebuds, sure, but it’s hard to imagine that being married to anyone — especially me — would be easy.
There’s no question: getting married is a risk; you bet the house and let the chips fall where they may. The odds are better than poker, but remain about 50/50; there are no guarantees of a winning hand or a big payout.
Being married, and staying married, is a daily leap of faith — some would even say a spiritual practice. It’s about choosing one person and trying like hell to make it work. It’s one of the hardest things we humans do — this marriage trap — but also may be the most worthwhile.
I think it’s worth it for me because I’m in it with eyes wide open, allowing the dream and the mirage to coexist and refusing to give up.
The Us List:
Our Partnership Principles
- Take time to circle the wagons.
- We are on the same team.
- Listening is an act of love.
- Get curious instead of contemptuous.
- Our job is to build each other up.