If you’re engaged or soon to be married, you’re already deep in the receiving line for a slew of advice about throwing all in, sticking it out, never giving up, etc. Some of this advice will be good and some will be bad; the only thing you can know for sure is that the advice will be wholly indicative of the giver’s experience and not necessarily any indication of your marriage. If any of it proves helpful, you won’t find out till much later. You can’t predict what will stick.
In the meantime, you’re going into marriage with your own pre-set idea, likely drawn from the collective presentation of its benefits and pleasures that comes from movies, novels, television, and the public-facing appearance of married couples in our particular orbit. What we all find out privately day in and day out on our own timeline is often something altogether different than the advertisement—which is why people are always giving you advice.
Generally, one of the only unifying ideas in the anecdotes, confessions and essays about marriage is a somewhat depressing one: this shit is hard. (I’ve written a few of those myself.) It’s a universal truth that leaves room for a non-thrilling mystery—which part, exactly, will be hard for you? What are the limits on your personal ability (or inability) to endure that story when you discover it has become your story, too? Are you going to be good at dealing with all of this? What does being good at it mean?
These questions are unanswerable until you give it a shot, and no piece of advice will solve this for you on the front end. But you can trust that marriage, like life, is, if nothing else, an endurance sport. It’s about the least romantic way you could think of it, and the truest.
Ada Calhoun tells such a story in the latest Modern Love column at the New York Times, where she writes of the wedding toast she’ll never give. What follows is a tale of the kind of utterly mundane tedium and logistical drudgery—loaded with the requisite emotional baggage—that will ring familiar to anyone who has been in a longterm relationship with any conflict whatsoever, which is to say, anyone who has been in a longterm relationship. You know, it’s that thing where the other person inevitably does that thing they do, and you will have that reaction you always have, and here you are, being those people, dealing with your shit again in that same old way.
Her story starts with a husband and son’s missed flight. Calhoun writes:
The original plan had us all traveling to Minneapolis together. I would attend my conference, my musician husband would do a show at this cool club, and our son would get hotel pool time: a triple win.
Then my husband was offered a great gig in New York for the same day we were set to leave, so he called to change his and our son’s tickets. Changing them, he learned, was going to cost more than buying a new pair of one-way tickets out. So he did that instead, planning to use their original return tickets, not realizing that if you don’t use the first leg, they cancel the second. That meant buying new return tickets at a cost somewhere between “Ugh” and “What have you done?”
What a quotidian little shit sandwich of a situation. Of course, you don’t have to be married to understand that this is often what it’s actually like to negotiate the whims, preferences, desires and happiness of two people at once on the daily (much less three or four). It can be exhausting. Many of the commenters on the piece agreed, writing in solidarity—Yes, everyone goes through this drudgery and that is marriage and it’s still great. I did the right thing! I was just sort of hating my spouse for never taking out the trash, but then I read this piece and I’m happy again.
But if you’re not married, you might wonder why everyone treats marriage like some horrible secret they have to tell everybody. Because for a lot of people, it is. At least, the sort who would be compelled to write essays. In this regard, marriage might suffer as badly or worse as parenting in terms of how the presentation stacks up to the reality. Can it be as bad as everyone says? Will it always feel terrible in comparison to the glow with which some people portray it?
…My husband of 11 years and I sit at these weddings listening to our in-thrall friends describe all the ways in which they will excel at being married.
“I will always be your best friend,” they say, reading from wrinkled pieces of paper held in shaking hands. “I will never let you down.”
I clap along with everyone else; I love weddings. Still, there is so much I want to say.
Mainly what she wants to say is how sweet yet naive those sentiments are. You won’t always feel like best friends, she advises. Sometimes you will despise the person next to you. Sometimes you will really really want the whole place to yourself. And that is, ostensibly, even when you’re in one of the good ones. Calhoun cites a religious studies professor who summed up Buddhism as “Life is suffering—and yet.” Such hedging, she writes, is good religion for marriage. It goes the other way, too. You love each other. You make each other laugh. And yet and yet and yet.
I think this must sound incredibly depressing to anyone not married, this idea that you need something like religion to endure a lifetime with someone. Shouldn’t it be better than that? More joy and more fun? This decidedly isn’t parenting, after all—something you know is a lot of grueling work for the benefit of an unknown outcome, when you won’t know for years, decades even, whether you were any good at it.
But then it struck me. Maybe it is just like parenting—only the child you’re raising is yourselves as a couple, with all the growing pains of merging two people who are constantly shifting to remain individuals while also operating as a united front. And with those contortions (which could feel like torture to some, mere pleasurable stretching to others) comes all the same joy and wonder, but also the same thankless work for an outcome you won’t always know except, possibly, in retrospect.
Calhoun writes honestly about vacillating between going or staying throughout her relationship. And she demonstrates by the essay’s end how it can all turn on a dime when things are looking up, and plunge just as easily back into uncertainty when they aren’t. In response to Calhoun’s piece, readers sent in their own stories of marriage. As you might expect, they offer every kind of response to the institution: It’s great; it sucks; it’s great only if you don’t have kids; it’s terrible no matter what. I’ve lived through hell and I’m still here, some say, as if the staying is the only real measure.
But there’s no need to predict any of this at the beginning, mostly because you can’t. I love wedding toasts—I think they should be as entertaining as possible, and ideally a little salty—and I wish we could untether them from the need to predict so strictly. I wish they measured future relationships not in length but usefulness. No one knows what any couple’s going to have to put up with in their haul together. The only constant, ultimately, is that it’s going to be hard.
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Illustration by Jim Cooke.