A short dissertation on why I wouldn't call marriage wonderful

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Let me start by saying this whole thought process and ongoing discussion was prompted by meeting someone for the first time and in our time together we were talking about relationships. There was a pause and she said to me, “Caroline you’re married. How wonderful is that?!” I smirked and chuckled a little. “Well, honestly. ‘Wonderful’ isn’t the adjective that I would use to describe marriage.” It was like a record scratch on a crowded dance floor. I had said something unfathomable to this person, perhaps unfathomable and offensive to the whole institution of marriage and people everywhere. Marriage isn’t wonderful?! Umm… No… it’s hard fucking work. Look, if I’m being honest? To me, things that are wonderful include puppies, sunrises, starry nights, beaches, a good thunderstorm, fireworks, fireflies, silk pjs, linen sheets, fresh flowers, a vacation without an agenda, waterfalls, drinks that come in a coconut… I don’t think I need to go on… you get the idea.

Don’t get me wrong. I love my husband beyond a reasonable doubt. Anyone that knows him would understand why. He is awesome. I mean, we definitely go head to head and have had our fair share of having it out. I might even go so far as to say that there were things we might have broken up over if we weren’t married. I’m not going to air any dirty laundry here, but that’s the truth. Marriage isn’t always rainbows and butterflies. We as people have real emotions, real life stresses, real struggles, real tragedies, and real shit that we need to address as individuals and together. I think everyone can agree that life in general isn’t a total cakewalk. Even my trust fund baby friends who never have to work a day in their lives and were born with a silver spoon in their mouths have their own real shit to deal with (and work through). The effort of coming to terms with, accepting, healing, and moving on from trauma, drama, insecurities, or whatever the skeletons in the closet look like is real and hard. So you want to add someone else’s life into your bag of pick ‘n’ mix? Like that is going to make life wonderful? Hmmm. I’m not trying to be a cynical asshole here. I’m just trying to be a realist. I mean, maybe I’m wrong, dear reader. Maybe your life has been perfect and easy and you were born and raised to be a perfectly well adjusted human who has never experienced hurt or sadness or feelings of inadequacy.  But, I’m going to write the rest of this blog post on the assumption that isn’t actually the case.  

I also want to be clear that I am not a qualified advice giving professional. This is not a piece about advice for your marriage or your singleness. Nor is it an argument that one is better or worse than the other. I have no formal education on marriage or counseling or the human experience. I’m not making any broad sweeping statements about life, communication or marriage in general. I am speaking solely from my own experience with my husband, my life, and our relationship. OK?  

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So with that, I guess we would need to start with clarifying the definition of “wonderful”:

adjective

1.

excellent; great; marvelous:

We all had a wonderful weekend.

2.

of a sort that causes or arouses wonder; amazing; astonishing:

The storm was wonderful to behold.

 

In my very personal experience and humble opinion, and maybe I am going out on a limb to say that, to me, marriage doesn’t seem to fall into that category, I mean based on my list from a few paragraphs ago, I would say far from it. Certainly there are parts of marriage that are wonderful or at times there are things that are wonderful to experience with a loved and trusted partner, but as a whole, like 100% of the time? Nah.

I think a lot of people, (you might be tempted to think women, but it’s not exclusively the case as I have learned recently from conversations with a few single men), see marriage as the thing we are supposed to grow up and do. There’s this social pressure that makes us believe that we are sad and lonely and just not good enough on our own. And what’s worse is that there is a timeline for when we are supposed to meet someone, settle down and get happy. And truth be told that timeline expires well before we have actually had the chance to grow up and get to know ourselves. Did you know that studies show people’s self esteem peaks at age 60? So then tell me how that works if wisdom, emotional maturity, and a deep sense of self-love and self-worth takes six decades to develop how we are supposed to step into a life long partnership in our 20s or 30s? Especially if we don’t have a clue as to whom we are?

From my discussions with friends it seems that there is the concept floating around in the universe that finding a partner will somehow make us whole, solve our problems, and create a fountain of never-ending happiness and bliss. However, science is showing otherwise. I think this long held belief (and social pressure) makes a lot of us a little naïve when it comes to what it actually takes to be in a life long partnership with someone. And while I understand it is not my job, role, or responsibility to burst anybody’s bubble about the joys of marriage, I think that we as a collective whole could do a little better (you know, like social responsibility and shit) at demonstrating what it takes to show up 100% for another person 100% of the time.

Why do you think that the divorce rate in this country hovers somewhere around 50%? If I had to guess, I would say that it is because the reality doesn’t meet the expectation. People have baggage (or simply just opinions and ways of doing things) and no one knows how to deal with it (the baggage or the fact that there are multiple ways of doing the things, even the ordinary everyday things). So people jump ship. That is a sad reality. And I think that sharing openly on the subject can help people see that it is just as important to show up for oneself first and foremost, before relying on the need to be in a relationship in order to be content with oneself and in one’s life. I mean, really, if we go through our entire “single” existence believing that life would be better with a partner, we are missing our opportunity to live. And to love ourselves.  I believe that it is possible to change our outlook on what it means to be single versus what it means to be in a partnership and how either affects our ability to be content. And, really, I think we should, because two things then stem from the willingness to have that conversation… a. the realization that you may not need a partner to be happy and b. if you do, then you know the work that it takes to show up for yourself and therefore the work it is going to take to continually show up for someone else. Every damn day.

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So, my very real take on my experience of being in a relationship for 7+ years? The bottom line is that I have to think about someone else: all the time and in a variety of ways — from major life changing decisions like starting a family, to navigating what’s for dinner or whose turn it is to walk the dog. Everything is a conversation. Beyond that, not only do I have to uncover my own triggers, what my buttons are, the stories I created about myself, understand the hurt I carry, and identify my own needs, but I also have to hold space for someone else to do that very same work (assuming they are ready, willing, and able, and as we know, not everyone is). Then there are times where I need to identify the needs of the individual, the needs of the relationship, and the needs of the situation. Often preemptively. There is a constant negotiation between compromise and sacrifice for the sake of the relationship balanced with honoring myself, my boundaries, my needs and maintaining who I am individually as well as the person I am and the role I play in our partnership. Oh marriage la-dee-dah.

What I’ve come to learn is that the minute you stop thinking about or being interested in the other person’s hopes, dreams, desires, interests, needs, wants, loves, hates and hurts, you’re dead in the water. You have to be invested, part of the role (job) of being a partner is to help the other person feel seen, heard, understood, and supported. You have to be willing to pay attention. You have to care. And you have to be able to do it without expectation, without the need for your partner to be doing that same work for you. Because unless you have married someone (or partnered with someone) who is dedicated to doing that (very challenging) work (often with the help of a professional), chances are they are not thinking about you and your needs or how everything that they do can best serve you and your interests all the damn time (this is where showing up for yourself comes into play, even in a relationship). And then, (how is this for shit on toast?!) people change. The person you wake up next to is not necessarily the person who fell asleep beside you. So you are doing all this work to understand this other person and be the best partner you can be for them and suddenly, one day, the meat eating, whiskey drinking, cigarette smoking, high heel wearing woman you fell in love with decides she going to get sober, become a vegetarian, and be bare foot for a living. I mean talk about needing to pivot… We are always changing. (Maybe not so dramatically and maybe not literally over night, but I’m just using myself as an example.) When in a committed partnership you have to be willing to embrace and ride your partner’s changes just as much as you are interested in exploring and embracing your own. And perhaps encourage them to continue their path, even if it feels like they are growing away from you - because that is the unconditional love that you promised to give. (And let’s be real, that’s no walk in the park.)

One of my favorite quotations is from T.S. Eliot’s The Cocktail Party, he writes,

We die to each other daily. What we know of other people is only our memory of the moments during which we knew them. And they have changed since then. To pretend that they and we are the same is a useful and convenient social convention, which must sometimes be broken. We must also remember that at every meeting we are meeting a stranger.

Is it just me, or is it a revolutionary idea that you cannot actually rely on your beliefs about the person you think you know? And might I say beyond social convention… We are programmed to resist change. The idea here is basically that in order to truly know someone you need to be willing to meet them over and over again, as if for the first time day to day, moment to moment. We somehow need to override the ancient limbic mind and our autopilot tendencies in order to show up for our interactions with our partners 100% and keep things moving at a fresh, engaged, and honest clip. But here’s the thing, as creatures of habit we seek comfort and by default change make us uncomfortable.  Although it is true that we have our habits and our stories that make us redundant and predictable, we can (and do) change and over time changes can happen in a variety of ways. When things start to change that is not the time to dig your heels in. That is the time to throw caution to the wind. Jump on the roller coaster and see what happens. It’s a call to action, the time to show up. Relationships take a certain level of spontaneity to keep working. Because a mood shift, a revelation, or a change in your values or priorities can rock your world at any time. Especially if you are attached to your ideas about what you think you know about the person who sleeps next to you. (Or, also, if you are attached to your ideas about yourself or what your relationship is supposed to look like)

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In Eat Pray Love Elizabeth Gilbert writes, “… we always invent the characters of our partners, demanding they be what we need of them, and then feeling devastated when they refuse to perform the role we created in the first place.”

I think we have a tendency to believe that the person we chose as our partner is going to somehow be able to read our minds all the time. There is some bizarre expectation that this person has developed magical powers and will evolve with us and at the same rate. This line of thinking is dangerous for a partnership because that is just not possible. Nor do I believe that we should evolve together and at the same time. (And please don’t read my mind.) We are all on our own path, the trick is staying present with your partner and being curious and interested and willing to learn about him/her and his/her interests over time while also honoring your own interests, which may no longer be the same. It requires a certain degree of openness and a spark of curiosity.

As a yoga teacher I get exposed to a lot of different types of people. People who want to learn. People who want to move and work hard. And people who don’t want to learn. Like, decidedly don’t want to learn. They don’t want to have their way of doing things challenged. They want to do triangle pose their way and don’t want to try it any other way. More often than not I see people who reject the use of props, disregard instructions, and do what they want. And I think to myself: That’s how most people are. Stuck. Stuck in their certainty. Stuck in their comfort zones. Stuck in their way of doing things. There’s no room in their minds, lives or bodies. No room for curiosity. No room for questioning. For not knowing the answer. For having the willingness to explore. Or for doing things differently. And if you aren’t able or willing to apply these concepts on a yoga mat, then how are you showing up to your life/partnership/marriage or even your friendships? 

Dooner and I realized recently that sometimes when we go head to head we are defending ourselves or defending the way we do something as the right way. Or we become defensive because we feel like the other person is telling us what to do and thereby implying that the way we are doing it is wrong or not good enough. And isn’t that how we all feel when our way of doing things is challenged? I often encounter people who act as if there couldn’t possibly be more than one way of doing something (like a certain pose for example), but how refreshing is it to know that there are many ways of doing even the simplest tasks? It became clear to us that the way we had been doing things lately wasn’t working and we looked for another way to approach these types of situations. One of the tools we devised was to commit to asking each other the question “how can I serve you?” Instead of telling the other how we would do it (or flat out telling the other person what to do) it comes from a place of support. You feel stuck? How can I help? It empowers the other to think about his/her needs in any given situation and encourages him/her to ask for help in having those needs met. From there you can offer that person support where they are. (It also removes any guesswork, which can also be hurtful when the other person gets it “wrong”. You know that feeling of “how could you NOT know how to help?!” Which just brings us back to the weird assumption that our partners can read our minds.) 

Even knowing this stuff (which many people don’t) and having the tools for nonviolent communication and compassionate listening it is still hard to put it into practice at the end of the day (like at the literal end of a 14 hour day of 4 classes and a private, clocking in at having walked 9 miles all over the city, plus walked the dog, made dinner, and done the tidying up). There are times I just want to scroll instagram or watch something on Netflix. I spend all day showing up for other people that sometimes at home I want to shut down. And with most of the general population running on too much caffeine and not enough sleep, I can say pretty confidently that Dooner and I aren’t the only ones who want to default to autopilot by the time we plop down on the couch. And hey, you can skate by on that for a while, but the more we check out in general, the more we are checking out of our relationships as well. Given that it might be easier to power off mentally, we come to learn that having a partner is a practice in staying present. And like any practice, staying present takes work. And in order to remain connected, you have to be willing to show up and do that work, regardless of the circumstances... And while I think hard work is admirable, I certainly wouldn’t say it’s wonderful.  

So that’s it. I love my husband. We have had a lot of wonderful experiences together. I am grateful for his willingness to show up for the hard conversations and for his never-ending support. But this marriage game? It ain’t for the faint of heart.

Caroline McConnaughey