Note: This post is dedicated to Martin. Happy sixth year anniversary.
Three failed marriages, two miracle children. Did I learn anything? Here’s what I learned about what marriage means to me, making every single mistake in the book and then some.
Marriage, or a committed relationship, is a pledge of personal responsibility. You make a vow to be responsible for yourself and to take the other into account in all situations, not just yourself. It is a contract with terms, written or unwritten. If left unwritten, the terms lurk, morphing into vast misunderstandings. Write down what you expect of each other. Wait–you don’t want there to be any expectations? An expectation of no expectations is itself a kind of expectation and it may work for friends but it’s not appropriate for marriage. Marriage assumes deeper responsibility for each other than friendship.
As I see it, an expectation of no expectations in marriage is actually a form of narcissism; it requires the other to perfectly love you no matter who you are and what you become, no matter what you do or don’t do. While the other is busy doing all of that, what exactly is your job? It’s a great idea to work on having as few expectations of each other as possible, but you each need to know what to fundamentally rely on in the other.
It is so easy for future dreams and plans to form themselves out of magical thinking, fantasy fairy tales of princes and princesses with unicorn-like children in pink and blue pastels. The perfection you see in your partner could be something you want for yourself. If it is, the beloved won’t seem so perfect when you get back to the business of seeing yourself as you really are, a mess of unsatisfied desires. Likewise for imperfections, the things you don’t like in the other. These may be aspects of yourself that you deny. It’s all too convenient to blame the other.
Make a Herculean effort to see your partner realistically, to know them, and to know yourself. Consider getting therapy in advance of marriage to ferret out the truth. Ferreting it out later is a risky business, with potentially destructive consequences for everyone involved. There is such a thing as irreconcilable differences, or simply not being ready for marriage.
Definitely make sure you’re on the same page with respect to money values and managing your finances. This means 100% full disclosure: no hiding debt or secret cash and credit card expenditures. Dream away, but be honest about how you plan to fund all of the various dreams and exactly which of you is responsible for producing such funds and in what proportion.
Marriage is not an escape, a rabbit hole in which to hide, living as a child among stuffed animals with your ungrieved losses, your fear of failure, your addictions, your sense of entitlement. The work of becoming a whole person, your true happy self, does not end at the point of marriage. Your work actually increases, because you continue to work on yourself and also the marriage. But shouldn’t it be easier if the two of you are truly compatible? Nope. There is no such thing as perfect compatibility because you are always creating your compatibility as you evolve into your true selves. The selves you are when you marry may be very different people ten years out. You create compatibility for each other through honest communication, from a place of trust and respect. If you’re involved in the work of marriage, you’ll still know and love that different person in ten years because you’re always getting reacquainted.
Marriage is presence, not direction. Direction is just motion with a goal. You strap the children in their car seats and they finish eating cheerios in plastic sandwich bags on the way to day care and you leave them there and rush to your all-consuming job and ace your performance reviews and build your house and contribute to your 401(k). That is direction. Presence is seeing.
Marriage is generous and generously involved. You create solitude for each other, listen and offer comfort. You make and keep a home, help the kids. Build a secure financial picture. Cook and clean together. Go to Costco, pile up the cart, load the car, unload the car, put everything away. Wash the dishes, the laundry, the toilet. Sweep and weed and prune. Feed the cats. Have friends over. Sit in the back garden and sip wine while the sun sets. Call the children, visit them, have them visit. Create order. Create meaning. By definition, the self needs to show up. Take care of yourself.
Visit Italy and France. Save money and do it again. Walk in the woods. Sit in a café and read. Make love.
Bitch about Brooks and Krugman. Read the news. Stop reading the news.
Listen to each other tune a chord in choir. Host a recital for your favorite mezzo diva. Make breakfast for the choir Easter morning.
Cut fresh roses and dahlias for the table. Watch Foyle’s War. Watch Mad Men.
Would you like me to read aloud to you tonight? Oh good, this New Yorker has a piece by David Sedaris.
I love you.