I stood next to the kitchen counter making — I don’t even know what — something for someone else. It was a long day, after a long week, after a long year. We decided to keep things simple by letting the kids start early with dinner and a movie. I bought sparkling apple juice for them because what says We’re Celebrating! more than drinking little bubbles?
He’s holding the bottle and asks, “Where are the glasses for the kids?”
Do you live here?
I know he knows, or at least I think he knows, that I have these cute little cordial glasses we received as a wedding present nearly 20 years ago that I let the kids use when we’re pretending to be fancy. But maybe he doesn't know? I put the knife down, the one I was using to cut the I-don’t-even-remember. He’d asked me at least 50 billion questions about dinner by this point and even though I know he was trying to cater to me, to be helpful, to give me control of this evening (down to which glasses to use for the kids) during days where I had little control of who would sleep when or have a tantrum for how long, it was making me angry.
“What are downstairs? The glasses?”
“Yes. The glasses.” You live here, right?
“I just meant which glasses did you want the kids to use for the juice?”
“The ones downstairs.”
His expression made it clear: he had no clue we have cute little cordial glasses we use a few times a year down in the storage room on the second shelf next to the bowl with the snowman on it.
“You could just tell me,” he said.
“I just did.” Every inch of my skin was kindling and lighter fluid dripped from my lips.
He left the kitchen with the bottle in his hand, and on his way down the stairs he mumbled something under his breath. Except I heard it.
He struck a match.
Everything I’d inadvertently been holding onto, the small things I could have easily let go of, had I not been tired or sad or just feeling drained, engulfed in flames. Blazing, I let out a bonfire of words.
After the kids were in bed, we drank (real) champagne in complete silence and went to bed angry. For the next two days, we said not one more word to each other than was necessary to keep our lives in forward motion.
We drank wine. The guys had beer. We all sat around their brown table in a kitchen bigger than our entire apartment. Their kids were in bed, and Chris and I didn’t have any yet. Our laughter was the soundtrack. The lights were dim and she had candles burning. This is atmosphere for real conversation.
Our friends had just celebrated their 12th wedding anniversary and we’d been married a handful of years. Anyone who’s been married longer than thirty days knows marriage isn’t always bliss, so I wanted the secret. Their secret. How did they keep a healthy/fun/exciting/loving/supportive marriage going?
“What’s your advice?”
Sipping his beer, the husband laughed, “we have no advice.”
“Oh come on!”
“No, really — no advice. Actually, we asked each other what we were most surprised by, after all these years.”
“And ... ?”
“She said she’s surprised how hard it still is.”
Amen, Sister. We raise our glasses “To Marriage” and I make a silent self-righteous vow: we’ll have it figured out by the time we’ve been married that long.
I wouldn’t hesitate to tell you I fall short as a mother. I forget to sign permission slips. I lose my temper. I’ve washed the same load of laundry four times, and I’m pretty sure it’s still sitting in the washer, getting smelly once again while you read this. (And although laundry is not a task inherent to motherhood — be real with me for a sec — I’d have 1/3 the amount of laundry if I wasn’t a mother of four kids.) I yell. I get frustrated. And at certain points, I cry.
To say, in general terms, that marriage is hard — bothers no one. You and I could laugh for days over the fact that our husbands can’t find the book on the corner of the table right there, that they chew too loud, clear their throats too often, and are such babies when they get sick.
But I hesitate to say my marriage is hard. I don’t want to invite the inevitable divining forks to come out, ready to dip and tilt and point. Saying you have a hard marriage begs the curious questions: hard why? Hard how?
I could explain our differences: I am late, and he is on time. He is left-handed, and I am right. I tan. He burns. He is disciplined. I am indulgent. I'm loud. He's quiet. I exaggerate (to make a point), but he lets the facts speak for themselves. I'm emotionally hot. He's emotionally cold. I process life through means outside of my body, while he barely talks and processes the world internally. We share no letters on our Myers Briggs test results.
I could tell you that my mom died when I was falling in love with this young man, and he could tell you about his unexpected brain surgery after we were married. I could explain how we didn’t have a great support system for many years, and he would agree that we’ve felt those effects ever since. I could tell you how our upbringings and life circumstances made a well worn path that led us in the right direction, even though we both know there must be a better way, for this one has too many ruts, and we’ve had too many flat tires.
Those of us with hard marriages hesitate to say anything at all, for fear of being misunderstood.
I’d rather tell you how we always go to sleep with at least some part of our bodies touching, that his dry humor puts me on the floor with laughter, that I often look at him and think what did I do to deserve such a good man? I want to explain when it comes to our faith, money, politics, and sex, our bookmarks are at the same page. I love my husband with my whole heart. I always have.
But the truth, even after all these years, is this: our marriage is still hard.
I share this because when we did get to our 12th anniversary, despite the work we put into it, and our creases and sharp edges hadn’t smoothed out, when our relationship remained peppered with miscommunications (because we literally do not understand things the same way), when we chose refuge in isolation instead of into each other’s arms, or spoke harsh words instead of giving grace during times of chronic tiredness and stress — I didn’t despair.
And I don’t want you to either.
Whether you’ve been married for 12 months or 12 years, and you don’t have it all figured out yet, you’re not alone. Hard does not mean bad. Hard just might be the truth. Many of us are on this challenging, good, and holy road.
My husband and I will celebrate our 19th anniversary this year. Most likely, we’ll order in sushi and drink champagne.
But numbers don’t matter. We all have the same charge: put one foot in front of the other, make the time to really talk, to forgive and ask for forgiveness. Maybe it’s on Valentine's Day. Maybe on your anniversary. Maybe it’ll be some random Saturday night when you find a babysitter or six months from now on a Tuesday after the kids finally start sleeping at the same time. Whenever it is, I hope you can find a moment to use the special glasses, look in each other’s eyes, and toast.
Photo by Emily Gnetz.