OK, so now that I’ve lured you in with a juicy title I have to come clean. I don’t really believe there is one big, secret formula to a long and happy marriage. It’s way too complex for that, and anyone that tells you differently is trying to sell you something. Besides, I’ve only been married for 14 years. While that may seem like a lifetime in today’s society, it’s by no means my definition of a long marriage.
However, I have learned a thing or two in the last 14 years that I wish my younger self knew. And there is this one thing. This one secret that I want so desperately to tell every newly married or engaged couple. To whisper into their ears before they walk down the aisle. The thing that no one told me. The thing I hope I can impart to my children to help avoid years of frustration and turmoil.
It’s this: lower your expectations.
Now, before everyone gets all up in arms and starts commenting on what an awful thing that is to say, please hear me out. I did not grow up with a realistic expectation of what a healthy marriage should look like. On one end of the spectrum I had the Disney happily-ever-after-fairy tale picture. On the other end I saw my parents get divorced, more than once. And this is not to knock my parents. I believe they didn’t grow up with realistic expectations on what a happy marriage looked like, either. In fact, most of us don’t. Even if you are fortunate enough to come from a home where your parents have long, happy marriages, most of the time those parents aren’t really letting their kids see the hard work, disappointments, arguments, compromises, etc. that they are making in order to make the marriage last. Those things happen behind closed doors and we only see the end-result, the public face of marriage.
So when I got engaged at the very young age of 22 I believed I knew the formula to a happy, long-lasting marriage: As long as you had open communication, loved each other, stayed faithful, and never gave-up, you could live a lifetime of happily-ever-after. In essence I was young, naive, and maybe a bit delusional. Because anyone who has been married for more than 10 minutes knows it’s so much more complex than that.
In the early years of my marriage I thought there must be something terribly wrong with our relationship. (This was also about the time I started reading Nicholas Sparks novels, which rank right up there with Disney in terms of perpetuating an unrealistic expectation of a real marriage.) I didn’t understand it. We did all the “right” things. We went to church together, made time as a couple, but still allowed each other to have friends and hobbies outside the marriage. We had dates and hung out with friends and did couple’s devotions. And yet we fought all the time. Our once easy communication seemed to disappear. I felt my husband withdrawing and shutting down and that just made me push harder. I wondered how it was that this man who used to drive 16 hours round-trip just to spend one day with me now couldn’t even wash a sink of dishes to make me happy. And he wondered why I never, ever seemed to be happy-enough.
I believed I knew the formula to a happy, long-lasting marriage…In essence I was young, naive, and maybe a bit delusional.
It seemed like something was fundamentally wrong with us because our marriage didn’t feel like happily-ever-after. We weren’t like Jasmine and Aladdin, or Noah and Allie. Heck, we weren’t even like that happy couple sitting in the pew across from us at church every Sunday.
And why not? Ohhh, that’s right, because those are not real people or real relationships. They came from a book!
Even the couple across the pew was not real, because I only saw what I wanted to see. I had no real insight into what happened behind closed doors. As silly as it sounds to admit out loud, though, that’s where my bar was set. You were either happy or you weren’t. You were the love story or the cautionary tale. There was nothing in the middle. And because I didn’t know any better, I thought this meant we were complete failures at this marriage thing.
Then, about two years into our marriage I got a glimmer of hope. A friend of the family, who for all appearances had a very happy marriage, admitted to me that the first year was the hardest for her and her husband, and they were still figuring things out 8 years later. Oh my gosh, we weren’t the only ones!! What a relief and comfort that was to know! And I began to think, maybe there is a middle ground. Maybe it’s not so black and white.
The truth is your marriage will be tested by the big things. The sickness and health, richer or poorer stuff that make good marriage vows. And with God’s help you can overcome those things and come out the other side stronger and better. We have. But truly the hardest part of marriage is not the big stuff, it’s the every day, little stuff. The days when you’re both tired or not feeling well and no one wants to cook or help the kids with homework. The nights where every sound and smell that comes from your husband makes you want to suffocate him in his sleep (not that I have ever had this thought or anything). The weeks where you don’t have a single conversation about something other than groceries, kids, pets or what’s for dinner. The months without sex (yes I said months; have two kids under 2 and you’ll see). This is the ugly, day-to-day, in the trenches reality about marriage. It’s hard, and it tests you. It pushes your buttons and all boundaries of what you thought was reasonable.
So if your expectation is to find a Hallmark-movie-perfect mate, be in Nicholas-Spark’s-passionate love, and live a Disney-movie-happily-ever-after life then you will be disappointed. You will think you’re doing it wrong. And sadly, you may choose to end the marriage, or else live feeling unsatisfied and resentful.
Truly the hardest part of marriage is not the big stuff, it’s the every day, little stuff.
However, if you change your expectations. If you accept that there will be arguments, bad moods, smelly socks, dirty dishes, sick kids, late hours at the office, weeks (or months) without intimacy, complaints, worries, and piles of laundry. If you can live with changing moods, changing dreams, and changing diapers. If you know that marriage is a packaged deal and this is part of the package, then…
…then you can face these things with a little less fear, less feeling like a failure. You can stop focusing on all the ways marriage is so much harder than you thought it would be and start to focus on the ways it’s so much better than you imagined it could be. Because the other part of that packaged deal is so, so, so much more. It’s shared firsts and life-long memories; it’s laughing at each other’s stupid jokes and crying on each other’s shoulders. It’s growing up and growing old together with the one person who knows you better than anyone else. The person who has smelled your breath first thing in the morning and still chooses to sleep in the same bed as you! It’s so much more happiness than can fit in a 2 hour movie or 500 page novel. It’s just more. It’s real and it’s alive and it’s worth every. hard. day.
But first, I challenge you to lower your expectations. Stop waiting for the fairy-tale or the romance novel, or to be like the couple across the street. And maybe, together, we can create a new standard of what happily-ever-after looks like.