(Ya gotta have a song when you’re with somebody.)
I think I finally understand the difference between being in a romantic relationship, and being in a marriage. It took me a while and I had to bomb at marriage once first, but now I get it. It’s easy to say the difference is commitment, but that’s not true, at least not in any society where divorce is a thing (and since for me it’s pretty hard to talk about marriage without talking about divorce, more on that later). The difference lies in what you share with each other. When you’re in a romantic relationship, you agree to share love. When you’re in a marriage, you agree to share life. Love is a component of life; it’s the best component of life, it’s the one that’s most fun. Who wouldn’t want to share that? But life also has a lot of… other stuff in it. When two people get married, they trust that it’s worth it to share the other stuff too. That somehow, through the weird magical alchemical process we call “understanding”, the lightening of their own personal burden will be greater in magnitude than the weight of the other person’s burden that they will take on. Sometimes by full orders of magnitude. It takes a lot of trust, and sometimes that trust is misplaced. When Joel and I chose one year ago to trust each other and our own sense of what we needed from life, we made the right choice.
- Here are three things I have learned in the past year about how to make marriage work:
- Be willing to go to bed angry. This has been a hard lesson for me to learn. In fact there have been times not so long ago in which I have been tempted to forget it. It flies in the face of conventional wisdom and the personal experience I gained through more than a decade of romantic relationships. But it’s true, and it comes down to that fundamental difference between a romantic relationship and a marriage. Anger is an emotion, and so is love. When that’s the primary axis a connection is based on, it makes sense that if that connection is something you want to maintain, you have to tend to problems on that axis right away. If two people are in a romantic relationship and they go to bed angry, that could be an emergency for the relationship. But marriage isn’t operating solely on the love axis. Marriage has other components, other… dimensions, if you will. And sometimes to make a marriage work you have to take a step back and evaluate what’s going on in other parts of the grid. Anger isn’t always conveniently timed. I might get angry with Joel at 9:58 on a night when Joel has to be going to bed at 10:00 to get up on time for work. “Sleep” is part of the “bodily maintenance” part of life’s grid, and “work” is part of the “economic maintenance” part. If I let my desire to manage my emotions take precedent consistently over everything else, the day is going to come when Joel will lose his job because he has overslept and been late for work too many times because he was up at 2 in the morning soothing my anger when he needed to get sleep. And if Joel loses his job, I’m going to end up experiencing a lot more negative emotions than I would have if I’d just managed my anger on my own and let him get his shuteye – especially when you consider the fact that I’m perfectly capable of writing down what made me angry so that it can be revisited in conversation later, like when we see each other after that work shift is complete. So be willing to go to bed angry – be able to prioritize, and re-prioritize, different areas of life’s grid. Emotions don’t always come first in life.
- Play to each other’s strengths. When I want to spend money on something besides groceries or bills, I almost always run it past Joel first. When Joel needed to apply for a waiver regarding past overpayment of Supplemental Security Income, I filled out the form. This sort of thing doesn’t happen because I need Joel’s permission to make purchases, or because Joel’s time is more valuable than mine; it happens because we both know that our budget is tight and Joel is better at keeping budget in mind and not buying on impulse, whereas I have more patience for bureaucracy and a better gift for using the magic words to get past red tape (I worked in state bureaucracy for two years and was raised by lawyers, it comes with the territory). When two people get married, they become team players in the game of life, pitted against the same social forces they have known and hated for decades. The objective is not to get into the hall of fame, although the hall of fame exists, is definitely a thing, and is a possibility down the line. The objective is to win the game. So you put the player who’s good at offense in an offense position, the player who’s good at defense in a defense position, and when you have downtime you strategize for the next round and if there’s enough time and you’re not too exhausted, you train each other to buff your stats and shore up your weaknesses.
- Have the same (or at least similar) value system. Recently I was musing about the fact that Joel and I are such different people and yet we love each other so deeply. I asked Joel what his three most deeply-held values were. “Integrity, devotion, and determination,” he replied. This enchanted me, because I had already decided that mine were integrity, responsibility, and determination – and in my opinion, the difference between devotion and responsibility is chiefly one of motivation. Behaviorally they look pretty much the same, it’s just that devotion is motivated by love whereas responsibility is motivated by Doing What’s Right. And if love is what’s right to do, that means they amount to the same thing. So despite some significant differences in style – how we like to spend our time, what we appreciate aesthetically, who we choose to be friends with – and in life philosophy – Joel is an existentialist, and I’m an atheist whose spirituality is strongly influenced by Buddhism – Joel and I have always been able to respect each other ethically and morally, and that’s the foundation our relationship was built on before we decided to share life.
- Two can play the learning game. This morning as I drove Joel to work, I asked him to tell me three things he learned about marriage in the past year. This is what he had to say:
- “Arguing is a thing.” This was no surprise to me, given that this is my second marriage, but Joel was caught a bit unawares by the degree to which our marriage has involved the explicit negotiation of boundaries, sometimes heatedly. His parents did not argue much in front of him while he was growing up. This might be due to the possibility that they had already been married for several years when Joel was born, so they had already worked through the kinks; or it might be due to the possibility that they never really needed or wanted to do so the way Joel and I do, because they’re different people; or it might be due to the possibility that (like my parents) they opted to do their arguing while Joel was not around, and to instead present a ‘unified front’. Or some combination of more than one of these possibilities. Whatever the reason, Joel is not used to arguing being present in the home the way it’s present in ours. But he’s doing better these days at not withdrawing, at facing the negotiation, than he was doing when we started. And we both have confidence that when the argument is over, we will hold each other and our love will be unchanged.
- “…changing a hawk to a little white dove…” When Joel said this, I knew he was quoting a favorite pop ballad of ours, “The Power of Love” by Huey Lewis & the News. “You didn’t know about that before we got married?” I asked Joel, a smile on my face. His tone was serious when he replied, “It’s one thing to know it, another to experience it.” Sometimes I forget that Joel and I have very different relationship histories. Since our values are so similar and we understand each other so well, the details of our backstories don’t seem to matter as much as they once did, but when Joel said this quote, I remembered the difference in our experience levels. Joel is a late bloomer. Before we met and began dating, he had only had one romantic relationship, and that relationship lacked intimacy in many ways because his ex-girlfriend wanted to keep distance between the two of them. Despite this difference in desire for intimacy, Joel had maintained that relationship for two years. By contrast, I had been in several relationships that had involved a high degree of intimacy, but in all but one case those relationships had lasted for a year or shorter. That one case had been the relationship that ended in divorce, and that had lasted for three years. I guess you could say that when we were first getting to know each other, I was better at getting a ball rolling, but Joel was better at keeping the momentum going. As our marriage matures, I look forward to learning from Joel’s example on how to follow through on our shared value of responsibility/devotion.
- “One relationship can be enough.” In the early stages of our relationship, Joel and I discussed more than once the possibility of having an open relationship. It was something that I had done for awhile in my college years and that Joel had thought would be a good path for him to take. Since I was the one who had reservations about it for both emotional and practical reasons (I have learned the hard way that while love may be infinite, time is not), I wrote up a document that we referred to as “the contract”, which spelled out exactly what security I needed in place to allow Joel the freedom to explore other relationships. But Joel never put that contract to the test. At first, he made the decision to be with me exclusively because he was worried about hurting me (though the lengths I was willing to go to in order to ensure he had a freedom I did not plan to exercise myself impressed him), and now, he has come to the conclusion that he doesn’t need anything more. The last time we talked about it at length, he explained that his conclusion that he needed more than one relationship was probably based on having such little experience with intimacy. Now that he knows from experience what one relationship is capable of providing, he feels sated.
Speaking of contracts. In addition to the sharing of life and playing on the same team, marriage is also a contract. If you prefer terminology that is sacred rather than secular, call it a covenant; I prefer to talk about it as a contract, because as an institution, it has always been a legal one first and a religious one second (we’re talking ancient Egypt here, people). The vows you take on your wedding day are the terms of the contract. When Alan and I got married, we wrote our own vows, we wrote different vows, and we didn’t talk about the vows we were writing before we were saying them at the ceremony. The combination of these three things was a big mistake (not any one of them alone would be sufficient, but all three together… when their powers combine…). Big mistake, a very telling mistake, and I think this mistake sums up neatly why we ended up divorcing. For my vows, I wrote something that was a paragraph long, explaining in detail how I was going to treat Alan. His vows were about two lines worth of improv, more than half of which consisted of him explaining that he was improvising, but the final few words talked about how he would be willing to fall apart to preserve me. I separated from Alan a little more than a year later when he did something that crossed a line in my mind. We tried marital counseling after the separation, and it came out in our counseling session that he had justified doing it by telling himself that I had done something that had crossed a line in his mind.
Who really broke the contract?
Without getting too much into gory details, the problem lay in the fact that what Alan had done violated the terms I had set up in my vows for myself – I would never have done it to him – and what I had done violated the terms he had set up in his vows for himself – he would never have done it to me – but we had never established what we expected from each other. We were on wildly different pages about what was acceptable behavior in a marriage, and both of us assumed that we were on the same page because we hadn’t taken the time to question our own contexts and assumptions about what was normal and OK. We argued… a lot… of course, but our arguments were not like the arguments I have now with Joel, where really all we’re doing is negotiating boundaries. Alan and I were never on the same team. I know why I chose to marry him – I met Alan while I was in the process of healing after being touched by a personal tragedy and I thought of myself as tainted goods, so I assumed I should be grateful that anyone would want to be with me and I took the first thing I was offered. I asked him to marry me after we’d been dating for 4 months and after a year of engagement, I knew the relationship was very flawed, but I didn’t want to back out on my promise – once we became engaged, in my mind we were married already. To this day, I’m not sure why Alan married me. He had been married once before, and I wonder if perhaps he missed the state of being married the same way I did during the years between our divorce and when Joel and I married last September. There is a feeling of confidence that comes with marriage. I’ve described it before as “feeling like, no matter what happens, someone’s got your back.” Theoretically one could get that feeling from one’s parents, but it’s different because (in this culture at least) marriage is a chosen bond. Your parents may have your back only because the cultural imperative to support one’s child is strong (and appears especially strong between Baby Boomers and Generation Y). Your spouse has your back because they think it’s worth protecting.
Joel and I have many private jokes. One of them is that he’s a spider (creepy and misunderstood) and that I’m a bee (way too serious and working all the time). I guess if we ever get around to having a child, that child is going to end up looking something like this:
We still don’t know if that day is ever going to come. We want to be able to economically support our child without turning to TANF, and right now that would not be possible. But if we ever manage to make it happen… look out, world! Ain’t nothin’ our spiderbee can’t do!