I’ve had this article hanging out in my piles of papers for months now – maybe even longer, according to the date my mom printed it for me: 11/19/2008. It’s a Redbook article that was featured on WebMD: “8 Things No One Tells You About Marriage” by Ylonda Gault Caviness.
My mom printed it for me, I’m sure, to show me that as much as my first marriage didn’t work out (at the time of printing, I’d been divorced for a year), I shouldn’t expect my eventual second one to be all rose gardens and glass slippers, either – and that that’s perfectly okay. For the record, I believe that when my mom sees these marriage tips and thinks of me, it’s her way of letting me know that she’s open to and supportive of the idea that I will one day be married again; her way of letting me know that she does believe in a happily-ever-after for me. And this particular article lets me know that she believed in me even after I’d squandered my first chance, even if she wasn’t able to articulate it out loud at the time.
In her article, Caviness lays out her eight “surprising, enlightening and sometimes hard truths” about the reality of marriage, and then talks about what they mean and what they have meant in her own union. And since I’ve been holding onto this article for two-and-a-half years now, having read it already but not been able to dispose of it, I think it’s about time I looked at my own marriages, past and future, through the lens of her list.
1. You will look at the person lying next to you and wonder, Is this it? Forever?
I have done this, specifically. I did it with my ex, and I occasionally do it with Doug (particularly when the reason I’m awake and he’s not is because he’s snoring loudly and stubbornly, and I can’t roll him onto his side).
The difference between Doug and my ex is that I no longer have a concrete idea of what I would like instead of the person I’m with. When I was with my ex, and I would step back and wonder about what I had so obviously settled for, there were all these examples present on TV and in life, of men that I was more attracted to, men that were more romantic, men that seemed to be better matches for me chemically and sexually. (I’ll get to that last one later.) I held onto and flirted with my exes from before him, because somehow they made me feel like more of a woman than my husband did.
With Doug, even though he isn’t exactly attractive lying on his back with his mouth hanging open and his jersey-knit boxers bunched up around his waist like an ill-fitting loincloth,* it’s not him I concern myself with when I ask, “Is this it?” If I fantasize about how my life could be better, it’s because I am worried about our financial situation, or disappointed by the size and state of our home, because I feel like we deserve better, and maybe we aren’t doing everything in our power to get what we deserve. (Or maybe we are, and life just ain’t fair.) If I see attractive men being romantic on TV, or playfully flirt with someone in real life, they only serve to remind me of how lucky I am, how unrealistic TV is, or how I need to step up my romance-and-flirting game with the amazing man I share a bed with.
2. You’ll work harder than you ever imagined.
This Valentine’s Day, I saw a card in Target that said, “I don’t know why they say relationships take work…” I scoffed, and later told my friends about it, insisting that it was obviously meant for someone in a new relationship.
I did not work at my relationship with my ex-husband. That relationship required no work at all, because I was completely unwilling to put any into it. I rationalized that it had started out “perfectly” (which, if you read this, you’ll see wasn’t even true), and therefore the perfection should continue. So I made my ex do all the work, expecting him to conform to what I wanted, while I stubbornly kept doing the things that drove him crazy – claiming these things were inherent parts of my personality that he should have known about and accepted from the get-go.
Actually, it’s possible that those things were inherent parts of my personality, and that we just weren’t a good match to begin with. Regardless, I was stubborn, and so was he, and I don’t think either of us was very invested in putting in the work to reaching a compromise. So instead we just made a bunch of demands and pissed each other off all the time.
Doug and I, on the other hand, work at our relationship every single day. Because I love him and have an interest in keeping him around, I have learned to use “I” statements about things that upset me, instead of blaming him for my feelings and demanding that he fix himself. For example: after our argument outside of Costco the other week, Doug and I agreed to spend more time together – actually present in a relationship with each other – instead of him having a relationship with his bike and me having a relationship with my blog. So Thursday morning, when we were walking through our neighborhood, and toward the end of the walk, Doug started telling me about his future bike rack options, I wanted to scream. Instead, I said calmly, “I’m feeling like maybe you didn’t hear me when I asked you not to talk about the bike so much.”
I braced myself for another Big Discussion, but instead Doug threw an arm around me and apologized. “I’m sorry, baby,” he said. “I didn’t even realize I’d started talking about it. How did we get on this subject anyway? Let’s talk about something else.”
Granted, he tends to be less abrasive and/or explosive than I am in general, but I was really, really surprised that my being so calm and so genuine netted me exactly the response I was looking for. So it appears that, not only do relationships take really hard work, but the work pays off.
3. You will sometimes go to bed mad (and maybe even wake up madder).
Toward the end of my first marriage, my ex and I would go to bed mad all the time – primarily because arguing in the evening makes me really, really sleepy. Like fighting, for me, uses more mental energy than anything else (maybe not calculus or open-heart surgery, but I’ve also never tried those things). So we’d be mid-screaming-match, and I would just kind of fall asleep. Maybe it’s my body’s way of keeping me from saying something I’d really regret?
These days, I feel fortunate inasmuch as Doug and I have never gone to bed angry. Sad, yes; disappointed, maybe; but not mad. Then again, we don’t fight as much in general as my ex and I did, so I guess the odds are in our favor. Still, should the day come when we’re arguing at midnight, chances are, I will fall asleep in the middle of it. I just don’t subscribe to the theory, “Don’t go to bed angry; stay up and fight all night.”
4. You will go without sex – sometimes for a long time – and that’s okay.
I have gone without sex for a long time. My ex and I chose not to have sex before we were married, so technically, I went without sex[ual intercourse] for almost three years. And, as I unfortunately confirmed on our wedding night, my ex and I were in no way sexually compatible, which is a hard thing to learn when you’re denying yourself sex. So even after we started having sex, we didn’t have much.
The peaks and valleys of activity in my sex life often remind me of that one episode of Grey’s Anatomy, where Izzie is talking about her sex drive as a sleeping beast: when it’s not being fed, it doesn’t know it’s hungry; but once it’s awakened… watch out.
My beast, as it turns out, can be kind of lazy inside the context of a long-term relationship, and I’m still coming to terms with the “and that’s okay” part of this. I don’t always want sex, but I want to want sex. I want the closeness it brings, and the adrenaline and the seratonin. I get frustrated when Doug asks and I don’t want to, but I get equally frustrated when Doug fails to ask at times when I would say yes.
I guess what it comes down to is that, during the first few months of a relationship, we have lots of sex because we’re still learning about the other person’s body and how it may or may not work with our own. Later, as we become more comfortable together, this insatiable need for the physical tapers off, but the sexual education of the relationship doesn’t stop. Instead of learning about each other’s bodies, it becomes about learning to navigate the dance of when and how and how often, learning what sacrifices to make in order to make time for sex at all (because once it’s lost its priority status, it can be hard to squeeze in to a busy lifestyle). It’s about learning to embrace the peaks and forgive ourselves the valleys – a process which, it seems to me at least, will probably continue for the next 50-60 years.
So much the better.
To be continued…
*People have asked me how Doug puts up with me posting all this personal information about him and our relationship all the time. For the record, I have never been concerned about the way anything I’ve said here might affect him, until writing this blunt description. I’m hoping that all the nice things following it will give him the grace to forgive me.