I've been learning all sorts of things from being married. People always ask me what's the biggest thing I've learn (newlyweds: think of an answer, because you're going to get this question a lot). A lot of my expectations were blown, in a good way. People always said it would be different, and I thought, "Yeah, we prepared for that." But they weren't kidding. Some of it just wasn't fathomable to me. There's something about being that close that constantly for a lifetime that you just don't get. I'm a lot less scared and less cynical of marriage now than I was when I was single.
Before I got married, I wondered if we'd get enough alone time. After marriage, I found we don't need alone time from each other. Maybe cool-down time from an argument. Maybe time to pursue interests that the other doesn't enjoy, so we do it alone. It's good, to an extent, to pursue your own friends and fun. But you don't need alone time to recharge for each other.
The best way I can explain it is with the idea of concentric social circles (like the idea of Google+ Circles). You have the inner circle: that's you. Then the circle of your closest friends and family comes next. Then all your other friends whom you love. Then acquaintances, colleagues, new friends who haven't made their way into more inner circles yet. The concentric social rings of your friends that you can envision around you are arranged in terms of your closeness: how much you trust them, how much you share with them. The inner rings are closer friends.
You'd think a spouse would get their own really close circle, inside the circle of best friends, just outside the circle of self. But your spouse really goes in that innermost circle, the one that previously just had you in it. Now you're in it together. It's not a circle of self: it's a circle of your partnership. You ARE it. This is hard to imagine until you're actually married to someone. "The two become one" is a tough concept. But it's real, and it makes marriage a lot easier than I imagined.
Just as alone time has different meaning, so does hanging out together. I never realized how big a difference it would make to come home to each other rather than go out to each other. We lived in the same apartment complex and it took two hundred feet to reach each other's front door. But every night, we had to separate and go home. Now, wherever we've gone during the day, we come back home to each other. The effect is large.
I get excited to see N just like I always did. We still go out on dates. But at the end of the day, at the end of "hanging out" when it's time for bed, we go there together. None of it is alone any more. I don't leave him; I take him with me. This has a lot to do with that whole he-joins-me-in-my-inner-circle thing. You become partners in everything...in life. We're not two people excited to see each other; we're two people excited to see each other going through life together. We're excited not just about them, but about them in the context of us.
This means we spend our time together differently. We can work alongside each other, whereas that used to distract us. We can quietly pursue our own interests alongside each other. Together-time doesn't have that special glow to it that it does before you're married, when getting to see each other is so magical, something outside the norm of your day. Now, being together has the even more special glow of the mundane: we do life together, not just romance and the occasional errand.
In the beginning, like a lot of couples, we had to keep reminding ourselves to do the romantic stuff and still go on dates. It's so easy to assimilate each other into life after you get married, and forget to keep dating. But it took just a little deliberation on our part in the beginning, and now we do do all the special things: going on dates, seeing a movie together, taking walks, talking over dinner, playing games, watching the stars, setting aside time for deep conversations. All the elements of dating are in marriage: but they are only a tiny part of all that we do within the marriage relationship. Marriage expands the relationship's capacities, contrary to what culture always tells us).
Finally, the aspect of "forever" changes the dynamics of marriage from what dating was. I'm not sure what I expected. I think I probably imagined that the promised permanency would change the way we feel. On the contrary, being married feels very much like anything else. I'm still me. I still think and feel the way I do. But the content of my thoughts and emotions--what I think about, what I emote over, what I do with my day--revolves around different things.
Being married--vowing to stick together forever*--doesn't change how you feel. You still argue. You still think you're right and they're wrong. You still get frustrated at each other's quirks--even more so, since you're not dating and therefore not so benevolent, apologetic, nor forgiving of their little issues. You'll disagree. "Forever" makes you fight more, because you realize you're stuck with the person and you don't like how they're acting right now, and you are NOT going to let them keep doing this for your whole life. "Forever" makes you act for change where you didn't before.
"Forever" also makes you make-up quicker and better. "Forever" makes you realize that it doesn't matter; you're going to fight over lots of things over the next fifty years, and this is one you're willing to lose so that you can focus on winning the big ones. (And learning to lose helps you in turn to win: by realizing you don't have to win in order to be a winner.) "Forever" makes you realize you don't want to risk permanent distrust or long-term hurt over this issue. We're going to be stuck together for a long time, and we need to learn to play nice. "Forever" changes you into a better human being.
So marriage makes us more honest but it also makes us nicer. Marriage is mundane, but more beautiful that way. Marriage means being one, not just being together. Marriage is different than friends, different than fiancés. Some of it I understand, some of it I don't yet. Maybe never will. Marriage is under God's protection, and something happens when you say the vows and jump into bed together. Two people get knit together irrevocably, and you won't lose them without losing a bit of yourself.
I didn't expect the changes, and I probably can't explain them. But were they worth it? Wholeheartedly yes. Marriage is so much better than our pessimistic society taught me it would be. It's not a perfect fairytale, but it's not a perfect failure either. It's a work in progress. It's an adventure. Just like life.
* The forever part is the part I think is most difficult and countercultural. It is (comparatively) easy to date: to love someone, to help them, to stick through stuff together, to listen, to overcome problems. But there's always a breaking point, isn't there? We always have conditions. To take away the conditions and vow forever until we die is something we don't like these days. That's why lots of people don't get married, and even more get divorced. We're afraid we haven't found the perfect person, that things will get so bad it just won't be worth it any more. What we forget is that we are not perfect people, and that we may very well be the one who pushes the other to the breaking point. Our egos will never admit it, of course. But we have to ask: "When I'm the one who's frustrating to no end, putting up walls, and never compromising, are they going to hold on to me, to the relationship?" When push comes to shove, is the only thing you have just each other's word saying you love each other? I would rather have millenia of cultural witness to the vows that we will love each other no matter what. If I'm going to get intimate and open and completely honest in this relationship--which is what's needed for it to last a lifetime (and whose heart doesn't want a life-long partner?)--then you can bet I'm going to dang well make him vow to stick around.