“Love is something ideal, marrying is something real, and no one ever confuses the ideal with the real without being punished for it.”
—Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, c. 1823
Today is our tenth wedding anniversary. And we’re in our sixteenth year of love and friendship. In reflecting on this milestone, I’ll start with a moment of misery and move to some lessons learned.
Around two children into my marriage, I called my mom from a Tokyo hotel room, devastated by some marital dispute. I said something like, “I don’t know how long I can do this,” about my relationship. I continued: “Humans live so LONG nowadays!” My mom, who celebrated her 40th anniversary with my dad last year, chuckled and said she totally got it. Her idea is that modern marriage contracts shouldn’t be ’til death do us part. Rather, she wished they were more three or five-year contracts, like my then-employment contract at NPR. In those, you can re-up at the end of the three-year terms, or you can opt not to and both sides walk away without shame. It’s the norm. It’s also a built-in check-in. At renegotiation time, we say, “How are we doing? What could be better? What is the value of this to us?” All USEFUL in a relationship! Instead, in marriage we have a whole “I promise you forever” thing that’s lofty, high pressure and impossible to predict. If you walk away, does the whole relationship have to be considered a failure? It obscures what was likely a solid, satisfying partnership for various periods. Which gets me to my first takeaway…
To me, the day-to-day work is ultimately a better signifier of love than a ceremony. I cannot imagine my life without my husband. I cannot. But the promise you make in front of friends and family on your wedding day is at best a hopeful aspiration, and just one day in an endless run of days in which you choose to be present in the relationship. I have to get up each day and decide whether I still choose this, choose my partner, and so does he. A day can come when he or I decide to NOT choose the other. Ultimately, I’ve learned there was no epic sweep to promising ourselves to one another ten years ago, inside a 16th century room that’s part of an Amsterdam museum. In actuality, our partnership has represented a series of daily recommitments. In that sense, my mom makes so much sense. For a sustaining partnership, we don’t NEED the ceremony of a wedding or a traditional marriage vow at all! Why NOT short-term contracts?
Your partner can enhance you, or he/she can diminish you. Choose well. Matty didn’t think twice about giving up his career for three years to support mine, a choice that women make for men regularly but is less common the other way around. I didn’t expect anything less from him, because our partnership is about sharpening the other from similar positions of power. (He also agreed to take my last name while we were dating, because, even if it’s just symbolic, down with the patriarchy!)
Marriage is a contract individualized to the people in it. Matty has always acknowledged we aren’t each other’s everything. I feel most seen in the understanding that we won’t fulfill one another’s every need, and he has long given me the space for meaningful connections with people who aren’t him. The moral here is what you decide about your relationship is between the two of you. But intimacy requires bringing your full, open hearts in speaking up and designing your marriage to your unique specs.
Forgive. I love this, from Maria Popova’s Brain Pickings:
“In any bond of depth and significance, forgive, forgive, forgive. And then forgive again. The richest relationships are lifeboats, but they are also submarines that descend to the darkest and most disquieting places, to the unfathomed trenches of the soul where our deepest shames and foibles and vulnerabilities live, where we are less than we would like to be. Forgiveness is the alchemy by which the shame transforms into the honor and privilege of being invited into another’s darkness and having them witness your own with the undimmed light of love, of sympathy, of nonjudgmental understanding. Forgiveness is the engine of buoyancy that keeps the submarine rising again and again toward the light, so that it may become a lifeboat once more.”
I’m filled with appreciation and love. Especially because part of this post has been “maybe we’ll be together forever, maybe we won’t,” I want to underline how deeply love and appreciate my husband. If Matty and I don’t stay together “forever,” I will still never transition from my roaring twenties to my semi-responsible thirties with anyone else. I will never lock eyes with another man while pushing out a baby of ours in a delivery room. And there’s something beautiful about the moments unique to life stages, all the ones that forever bond us to each other — a shared history that can be shared with no one else. Our most daring choice to be together happens each day. Who knows about tomorrow.
“To hitch your rickety wagon to the flickering star of another fallible human being—what an insane thing to do. What a burden, and what a gift.”
*Incidentally it is also an excellent Pearl Jam album, though that’s neither here nor there.