Note: I recently wrote this for a younger couple I care deeply for.
I thought I’d write out some of my thoughts on marriage. As I stare down 18 years of marriage, I have certainly learned many hard-won lessons. In many ways, I wish I had someone with a lot more experience with marriage and parenthood to tell me what they had learned or discovered. It may have saved me from a whole lot of unnecessary struggle and heartache.
First, I won’t pretend that I know what the fuck I’m doing. I don’t. And all of the “lessons” I’ve learned are ones that I constantly have to re-learn. I might be totally full of shit. Maybe most people have better marriages than I do. At the very least, I wanted to record some of my own thoughts, regardless of their value.
You’re in the hardest part
I wish someone had told me that marriage while raising infants/toddlers was the hardest part of marriage. And I wish someone had told me that it gets better. It really does. Little kids take so much physical and emotional energy; there’s simply not much left to give to our spouse. I think that’s normal and okay, though it doesn’t feel okay in the moment. But I can offer this: It gets easier. Every day is a little easier than the day before. Before you know it –in five or ten years’ time– you’ll have so much more time and energy to contribute to the development of yourself and your marriage. In an ideal world, we wouldn’t have to neglect ourselves or our marriages for the sake of our kids, but I think it’s far more common than you think. If you can make it through the next few years, it gets so much easier. Parenthood and marriage are never easy, and they always take hard work, but it all becomes less overwhelming. You’ll have a little breathing room to care for the neglected parts of your life. In the meantime, soldier on and enjoy every moment of your kids’ first years. It goes by way too fast. Acknowledge that all marriages have really hard seasons. But they’re just seasons that come and go.
Acknowledge that you’re both deeply flawed individuals
This sounds like a simple statement. It’s easy to say, “Fuck yeah, my spouse is deeply flawed! Let me give you the list of his/her personal deficiencies…” It’s a lot harder to look at yourself and acknowledge, on a very deep level, the ways in which you yourself are deeply flawed and constantly fail your spouse. I think it’s helpful to verbalize your flaws to your spouse. Speaking the words gives them more weight. It’s a sign of good faith when you say “I really am a moody/anxious person” or “I’m short-tempered. I’m working on it, even if it doesn’t always seem like it.”
I think the concept of “good faith” is so, so important to a marriage. Even if your spouse is being difficult, if you believe they’re acting in good faith, you at least of a starting point, even if they’re being shitty. Ask yourself, how do you demonstrate that you’re acting in good faith through word and action? Are they the words and actions that your spouse will recognize as a good-faith effort on your part?
When you start from the perspective that you are deeply flawed and have often been a consistently shitty spouse, you start from a place of grace towards the other person. When your spouse is being shitty, break outside of your negative thought cycles and acknowledge that sometimes you are a shitty person as well. And your spouse still chooses to put up with you and extend you grace, even though you’re no picnic to live with.
I think one of the strangely beautiful parts of marriage is the somewhat-cynical acknowledgment that you are both deeply flawed individuals, but that you still choose each other despite those flaws. (We might both be shitty people but at least we’re shitty people together!) For many years I thought that my goal and responsibility was to build a perfect marriage. I had this clear vision of how wonderful our marriage could be! (Of course, in my mind, it conveniently meant there were 27 things my spouse needed to change for that to happen! I was fine, it was her deficiencies that were holding us back. That line of thinking is simply bullshit.)
I think the other critical aspect is to simply accept your spouse, flaws and all. It’s incredibly unlikely that you are going to change them, despite your best efforts or intentions. To this day, there are so many things I wish my spouse would do/be. But that’s a dangerous line of thought, one that leads to a lot of discouragement, discontent, and resentment.
For instance, my spouse is never going to be a particularly reflective individual; she lives in the moment. She’ll never be particularly philosophical or poetic. That’s okay. She has lots and lots of good qualities that I often don’t appreciate simply because they’re not the qualities I want her to have. That’s not fair to her. Despite whatever I perceive as her shortcomings, the fact is that I have committed my life to this deeply flawed person. She has done the same with me. Our marriage took a profound turn for the better when we stopped trying to change one another and simply learned to love and accept each other, flaws and all. She r
Virtuous and destructive relationship spirals
My spouse and I have a very consistent pattern of conflict.
- One of us gets our feelings hurt. Often the other person criticized us, didn’t acknowledge us in the way we wanted, or did something we perceive as inconsiderate or malicious. There other person’s intentions are rarely as malevolent as we think, but one of us is deeply hurt and feels attacked.
- We get defensive. Whether we are the one who originally felt hurt or the one who feels attacked, we immediately put up walls and start justifying our behavior. Any conversations or arguments we have during this stage are usually futile or make things worse. Our hackles are up, we aren’t deeply listening to each other, and we are both lobbing emotional grenades at each other. This is when 20 years of history is brought up, rehashed, or used as evidence for our “clearly-I’m-right-because-look-at-this-evidence” attitude.
- I start to ruminate. I can’t speak for my wife on this one, but I usually spend the next few days in a pretty dark place. My thoughts spiral. (More on spirals later).
Just a couple of weeks ago we got into a pretty good argument. It was about a topic we have had countless arguments about in the past. We have literally made the same points and arguments hundreds of times in hundreds of different ways. The argument seemed pointless to both of us since we’d rehashed it so many times. Additionally, I didn’t feel heard or acknowledged. I felt a deep sense of hopelessness that anything would ever change for the better. Then I started down my long and ever-present list of my spouse’s perceived flaws. Before I knew it, I was saying all sorts of nonsensical stuff to myself: “She’s fundamentally not a good person. I never should have married her. My life would be so much better with someone else. She doesn’t deserve me.” Of course, these thoughts are just a form of self-imprisonment. They’re the nonsensical, emotional reasoning of someone who feels hurt. Each of those statements is objectively false, but I get stuck in them. Constantly. These thoughts make me mentally and physically sick, and that isn’t her fault; it is mine.
Before I go on, I want to talk about spirals. I feel like marriage is constantly in a state of either spiraling downward or spiraling upward. The reason I consider it a spiral is because it’s the same shit over and over again. I bet every married couple can come up with a list of at least a half-dozen issues that come up over and over and over and over again. They’ve been arguing about these same issues for years or decades. It’s frustrating because it feels like nothing ever gets resolved. Nothing ever changes. And if you stay in the downward spiral long enough, you can reach a place of real despair.
On the same token, I think we can spiral upward. All it takes is a kind word or gesture. All of a sudden you feel appreciated or acknowledged again. It feels good, and all of a sudden you have the emotional energy and vulnerability to open up a little bit. You drop the defenses and can offer them some of the same grace and love you just received. This can turn into a virtuous cycle where instead of considering all the ways you’ve been wronged, you start to look for ways to show love, acknowledgment and care for your spouse.
Breaking the downward spiral always takes one person in the relationship to acknowledge what’s happening and break out of the cycle. Often this means swallowing a lot of pride and a lot of ego. Even if you know, in your heart-of-hearts, that you are objectively and categorically correct in the argument, it doesn’t matter. You have to stop the downward spiral.
My wife and I have several ways of making this happen, and it usually takes a few days of hardly speaking to one another to get to this point. Here’s what usually happens with us:
- Someone owns their own shit. Even if I am convinced that my spouse is being the shitty one and should be the one who is apologizing, I take it upon myself to own my own poor behavior without any caveats or conditions. Often it’s as easy as saying “Sorry I’ve kinda been an asshole the last several days.” (Notice I don’t say, “Sorry I’ve been an asshole, but you’ve been one too.” That gets us nowhere.) I also don’t expect an apology in return. If I do, I’ve created a “covert contract”, an unspoken, uncommunicated expectation that if I do or say X, she will do or say Y. Covert contracts are excellent seeds for resentment.
- We communicate non-verbally. We’ve been married long enough that the right kind of hug or the right kind of snuggle demonstrates that we’ve broken out of our spiral. It’s unspoken but profoundly recognized by each of us.
- We offer grace and space. Sometimes it takes me a few days to get my head screwed on straight. I think the same applies to her. Even if one of us is ready to break out of the negative spiral, the other person might not be ready yet. Sometimes we have to give the other person some grace, space, and time to come around. In our most recent argument, my wife clearly demonstrated through words and actions that she was ready to break out of our downward spiral. It took me a few more days to come around. I was still feeling deeply hurt. I appreciate that she gave me a couple of days of being a withdrawn asshole. When I was ready to break down those walls, she was still there willing to work towards a more virtuous cycle.
I can’t overemphasize how hard it is to break out of these negative spirals. It goes against our thoughts and feelings. It requires killing the ego, which is damn near impossible sometimes. And things still feel unresolved. My wife and I still have the same half-dozen issues we had last week, last month, or last year, but we are once again acknowledging and interacting with each other as human beings instead of adversaries. That is a monumental shift.
Don’t trust your own narrative
Often, when my wife and I are in conflict, she’ll spout some narrative about our marriage that seems outlandish and ridiculous. She’ll give this narrative of our relationship (“You’ve always done X, I’ve always felt like Y, you treat me like Z”). What comes out of her mouth seems so ridiculous that I can’t fathom that she’s talking about the same marriage I’m a part of. It’s a crazy fucking narrative.
While it’s so easy to point out the flaws and inconsistencies in her narrative of our marriage, it’s a hell of a lot harder to acknowledge the flaws in my own narrative. After all, they’re MY experiences, MY emotions, MY storyline. No one can argue with that. It’s the objective truth. On my best days, I’m able to examine my own narrative – my own simplified story of our relationship – and see where my own narrative is flawed. It’s profoundly difficult to reject your own “reality,” and to acknowledge that your perceptions, attitudes, and narrative are flawed, incorrect, and almost always created to make me out to be the hero of the story, with my wife playing the part of the villain. I think it takes a lot of humility and the total rejection of ego to let go of these convenient but also mistaken and destructive narratives.
I don’t want to pretend like our marriage is perfect. It’s dysfunctional as hell sometimes. I expect many of our issues will never be resolved. We can both be terrible people and we have managed to accumulate a ton of baggage in 18 years. But we’ve also bound ourselves to another deeply flawed person, agreed to put up with their bullshit, and to love and care for the other person despite their deep and impossibly difficult flaws. There’s a certain beauty in that.
I no longer expect or dream of a perfect marriage. I’m happy with one where we love each other in spite of our many flaws. I acknowledge that our marriage goes through predictable seasons of negative or virtuous cycles. I know there will be many days in the future when I don’t feel like I like my spouse as a person, and I know there will be many days that she will feel the same way about me. But 18 years in, I’ve had this deeply flawed person by my side, even when I haven’t deserved it. And that means something.
You guys are in the hardest stage of parenthood and marriage. It can really suck, but there are brighter days ahead. Own your own shit, extend a lot of grace, break destructive spirals, question your own narrative, and try to enjoy the difficult but deeply fulfilling stage of this journey until you arrive at those better days.