Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Mawage Is Hwat Bwings Us Togevah...Fowevah

My parents are going to hit their 25th anniversary this summer. They were preceded to this benchmark by my aunt and uncle a few years ago, who hit 25 the same week of summer that my grandparents hit 50. My parents will hit theirs in August. It's exciting; it's something I get to boast about; and it's a learning experience watching them get through all the crazy times of kid-handling and now the long-awaited (and feared?) empty nest.

Not a lot of people hit 25 years of marriage, we're always reminded; and yet I like being reminded that there is a sizable chunk of people who still do. I'm hoping that the disillusionment of my generation will turn the statistics around. Having born all the pains of being the largest generation growing up in dysfunctional homes and/or with broken families, I think we have learned just how valuable commitment to family is.

But we're still learning how to do it. Anyone who gets married has a lot to learn. But having the legacy of both accumulated wisdom and the simple knowledge that "they did it, so it must be possible," is helpful. Having parents who make marriage a priority is a huge blessing to have grown up with as my reality.

My dad recently posted a link to a delightful letter-to-the-editor on marriage that was published in The Atlantic. It was fun, applicable, and honest. And simple. Complicated as life can be, can you really boil it down to sticking to a few simple convictions? I hope so. Marriage is so different than all the stages of unmarried life that no one can be fully prepared. As the writer of the letter says, change is constant in marriage, so whenever you learn a lesson, there's more to learn.

Our seven months of marriage have taught me a lot already: mostly about what to expect from being married. You'd think I'd have learned what to expect before we got married. To what extent we could educate ourselves, we did. We read many helpful books (a list for the curious is in the footnotes*), talked to our parents, and hung out with mentors who did a lot to help us prepare our expectations and sort out disagreements and differences before they happened.

We learned a lot and decided a lot. Like who is going to vacuum the floors, and how often they're going to do it. Or how each of us expresses hurt, apology, forgiveness, and love. What we need from the other person. We learned some of our weaknesses, such my tendency to not say anything when I'm upset in the hopes that my emotions will just go away. (The only time this works is when my emotions are founded in my own disappointed selfishness that things haven't gone the way I expected.)

But the biggest thing everyone told us is that marriage is just really different from a relationship or from being engaged. There will be a lot of change. And I thought, "okay, lots of change; we prepared for change, so we got this."

It is sooooo different being married. You have to understand that before we got married, my husband and I didn't live together (statistics on that are dicey anyway, so maybe we avoided potholes that way**), but we lived across the parking lot in the same apartment complex. We didn't have sex, but we did everything else in our lives together: getting groceries, making dinner, washing our cars. We saw each other every day. To hear my parents say it, this is a really good way to go; you know that you've seen the day-to-day version of your future spouse, instead of just the so-excited-you're-visiting version, the I-cleaned-everything-specially-for-your-coming version.

We knew each other pretty dang well. We were best friends before we were married, a very good quality for marital happiness: we can work in the same room without talking or endlessly amuse ourselves together with sci-fi and books. And we always have stuff to talk about. We did then, and we do still, although you wouldn't always know it if you saw us at dinner time: sometimes we get in that hunker-down-and-eat mentality.

My point is, we knew each other. We went about our marriage prep the right way. I wasn't trying to hide anything in the closet: we'd laid everything bare, from student loans to emotional burdens we carried from our pasts. We knew each other probably better than anyone else did.

But then we got married and we got to know each other in a whole new way. I'm not just talking about physically, although that's obviously a big adjustment too; I mean the little things that I'd never thought about suddenly jumped out at us. I never realized just how grumpy I can get in the mornings until I was waking up and opening my eyes to someone next to me. I never realized how big a problem I have with other people's frustration and internalizing it to believe it's my fault--an insecurity I've mentioned before and have now come to be dealing with thanks to seeing it pop up in our marriage.

When people ask me what the biggest thing is that I've learned so far, I always tell them what married people told us: it's so much more different than you realize. You're even more real with each other than you were before. You see even worse and even better parts of the other person, things mysterious, things, shyly hidden, things your partner didn't even see in themselves. The marriage promises involve helping your mate shine even more brightly in themselves through encouragement, support, and, the rougher part, sheering off each other's sharp edges.

I tell people that this is what it comes down to: we argue more. It's more important now: that little thing that you did which bugged me, now I suddenly realize I have to live with it for the rest of my life. But we also make up better. We resolve things more fully, more sincerely, than we did before. Because if we don't, we're going to have to live with that unresolved issue for a long, long time.

Marriage has so many benefits. The companionship. Immediate access to comfort when bad things happen. Someone to help you de-stress. Someone to help you see and understand yourself better (even when you don't want to but you should). Someone to be honest with you and help you do the things you're afraid of, like taking on less work. There's even joy in learning how to balance life together and in figuring out the small things like who is going to cook most of the meals during (for us and our Masters-Degree-determined schedule) this upcoming school quarter.

Statistics tell us it's even better than that. Married couples are healthier. We live longer. And half the poignant movies out there have some message about marriage keeping you from being lonely in your old age. It helps us enjoy life because we have someone to laugh with, to point and shout "wow!" with, and to spoil with good things. Marriage, like family, makes us into better people, as we have to live with someone else, please someone else, and compromise. I believe it's indirectly related to those character benefits that married people on average have higher salaries, too.

Married people can weather through difficulties, upheaval, and change much better. For us, looking to the near future and moving who-knows-where my husband gets a job, we're not afraid of moving because we know we're watching each other's backs. We trust each other that no important details will slip by us, that we'll be able to help each other through any difficulties, and that we won't be lonely because we'll each have at least one friend. And all these things in turn strengthen marriage and build stronger ties between us.

When you're dating, you let down your walls and facades and let the other person fully in. It's good to work at this constantly. But at the same time, you won't get all the way there while dating. Not all the walls will come down. You don't fully know each other yet. You can't, not really. There's something in our soul that's so afraid of baring itself that it takes the solemn oath of lifelong permanence to coax it out, with the added help of years and years of experiencing that oath lived out. That's why the vows of marriage are so important. Though you'll experience many of marriage's blessings starting on your wedding day, some of the benefits of marriage only come after years of going through life together and building up greater and greater trust. When you work on those promises--and granted it gets really hard to do at points--marriage only gets better with time.

* We read a number of books, all extremely helpful and highly recommended by both of us:
-Things I Wish I'd Known Before We Got Married by Gary Chapman (the same guy who wrote the awesome Love Language books; this book has helpful advice in every possible area of your marriage)
-The Meaning of Marriage by Tim Keller (a deep-thinking, theological, and very practical Christian author, but even if you're not Christian you should at least read the first chapter; he has very good stats and facts that every person should know)
-For Women Only/For Men Only by Shaunti & Jeff Feldahn (a statistician who based her books off of very illuminating polls and several follow-ups revealing the things we all wish we knew about the other gender; a good accompaniment to Love and Respect by E. Eggerichs)
-Getting Your Sex Life Off to a Great Start by Clifford & Joyce Penner (a married couple who are both certified counselors and give good practical advice for newlyweds and engaged couples; it's a more physical/psychological book, and some people have told me they need something more emotions-addressing) On a related note, there's a guy who has some really good things to say about marital arguing in his youtube video here which I really appreciated.

** Just google "cohabitation and marriage" and you'll get a ream of news articles. I looked up on Google Scholar too, to get a few more academic sources.
More 'mainstream' and accessible sources:
Dr. Phil
Scientific Journals:
Overview of cohabitation and it's similarities/differences with marriage
Findings that cohabitation relationships are not as strong as marital ones
Showing that cohabitation is more transactional than marriage, and economic considerations thereupon
My take on it is that if someone is contemplating cohabitation, I would encourage them not to pursue it. However, for those who have already cohabited, your marriage can still be strong. Studies show that when you work hard and make it to 7 years of marriage, your chances of divorce lower and become equal to that of people who did not cohabitate before marriage.
Another statistic that should encourage ANY person, married or considering marriage is this: around 85% of couples at a given time rate their marriage as being at a "very good" level. That's a lot! Of those who don't, if they stay together for 5 years, their marriage will reach the "very good" level within those 5 years. This means that marital problems don't last forever, and many that seem overwhelming are more short-lived than you think.
It also means that simply putting your foot forward and pushing through can be enough to get you through. If "forever" seems like a long time, try this: as soon as problems set in, tell yourself, "I have to make it at least another 5 years." Five years is a long time. Don't you think you'll do all you can to make it work? If you set yourself to that standard, you'll force yourself to address issues in your life, speak up with your spouse about what's bothering you, be forced to compromise with each other, and find ways to learn how to love each other as the other person needs, including if that learning happens best in a counselor's office. Sometimes you just need to take that extra step, and choosing to commit and work it out, rather than tolerate and "see if it gets better" (like me with my feelings), makes a difference.
I have a lot more to stay, anecdotally and statistically, about how just putting in a little bit of effort can have a big impact on the quality of your marriage, but I'll refrain for now and leave it to wiser people to tell.