Tomorrow is my 18th wedding anniversary. So it seemed an auspicious moment for me to jot down some of my thoughts on marriage and married life in general. Actually this is not the first time I visited this topic. Some of you may recall my suggestion for term limited marriages. To fully put down all my thoughts on marriage would require many entries. Today I give only a glimpse of what I have learned in 18 years.
My wife Terri and I were married in 1985 at the Reston Community Church (now the Unitarian Universalist Church in Reston) by the late Rev. John Wells. 18 years later finds me a member of this church; in 1985 we were just renting a hall and a minister. A UU church seemed a safe place to get married. We felt pressure from both sides of the family to have some sort of religious ceremony, even though I wasn’t religious, and this was the best this militant agnostic could come up with under the circumstances.
Rev. Wells suggested we drink from both a red and a white wine during the ceremony. The white wine was sweet and symbolized the sweetness of the marital commitment. The red wine had a slightly bitter taste and symbolized the bitter aspects that are part of any marriage. Clearly we weren’t too focused on any bitter aspects of our marriage but we understood the point: marriage wasn’t going to always be a bed of roses.
I was 28, which seemed plenty old enough to settle down. I had about ten years on my own and it was enough. Terri and I had lived together for about a year and a half prior to marriage and had known each other over two years before marriage, so I thought I had a pretty good idea what I was getting into.
Our wedding was very unique. Ask anyone who attended; it was one they will never forget. (We still get comments on it, after all these years!) It had the usual disasters (one of Terri’s bridesmaids showed up in an off color dress) and a couple of surprises. Terri’s friend Paul came down from Michigan partly to move out of Michigan and partly to cater our wedding. Paul is a fabulous cook and for the first three months of our marriage he lived with us. Many years later I discovered that Paul, also one of my best men, was gay. The wedding was small with just immediate family, but people don’t remember the wedding. They only remember the reception. One of the things that attracted Terri and I to each other was our love for Grade Z movies. One of the lowest rated Grade Z movies of all time was a flick called “Robot Monster”, which adorned our engagement announcement cards. The surprise was our wedding cake was not a pasty white wedding cake with a bride and groom on it, a notion Terri despised, but a full size carrot cake with cream cheese frosting adorned with a gorilla clutching a groom in its hands. Except for Terri’s Mom (whom I suspect still hasn’t forgiven us) everyone laughed silly and had a great time. (My niece Cheryl actually had to bring in a picture to show and tell when her teacher accused her of making things up!)
So I was more than a little surprised to find out that once we were “legal” (to the great relief of both our mothers, who were more than a little scandalized by our “living in sin” arrangement) that being married actually changed things quite a bit. Right up until we were married I assumed and planned for us having separate accounts. Once I was married I didn’t see the point in it. Either our lives were tied together or they weren’t. So we created joint accounts and have happily pooled our money since that time.
We started our marriage financially challenged. We had one car (mine, a 81 Chevette), an apartment, an inherited cat, two sets of furniture that didn’t match and two jobs that didn’t pay very much. Terri worked as a receptionist; I worked as a production controller for the Defense Mapping Agency. Our combined income didn’t top $30,000 a year.
The road to prosperity was a challenging one. I accepted a demotion to get into a computer programmer slot and learned COBOL. Terri went through lots of jobs before settling down, about the time our daughter Rosie was born, to a secretarial job at USAA. I’m not sure how we did it (an FHA loan helped) but within a year of marriage we had enough money to buy a cheap and very run down townhouse. Fortunately my skills at computer programming were good. Once working for the Air Force I continued to rise steadily and was steadily promoted to what seemed at the time an impossible quest: a GS-13 position. Once in that position we had the money and opportunity to do the unimaginable: buy a single-family house.
I was perhaps a bit move naive than I should have been about marriage. I did not expect it to be a bed of roses for I had seen my parents struggle through their own marriage and had the notion that it was a lot more about work and struggling through things together than it was about romance and frequent sex. Our marriage is probably pretty typical. Let’s just say it’s been frequently challenging, had lovely euphoric moments and more pits of deep despair than I care to remember. I have avoided roller coasters at amusement parks yet the longer I stayed married the more it felt like an endless roller coaster ride. I liked predictability but there is nothing predictable about an institution that tries to keep two people together while life around them is undergoing constant change. Not surprisingly these factors affect the dynamics of the marriage, and consequently there were lots of relationship issues between us that did not appear prior to marriage that had to be haggled and negotiated.
And if this were not enough there were also major financial challenges, like a house that was falling apart, and our daughter arriving somewhat unexpectedly and before we felt we were quite ready. Through it all we wrestled with tough medical issues and a lot of angst. For both of us the angst was centered around wanting more from life, and we found balm in going back to school. Terri completed a B.S. degree at night over six years. I completed a M.S. degree over three years. Our education overlapped for a couple years, and that made life very hectic with a child just starting elementary school. But somehow we got through those days.
We’ve grown and changed as people too. We are not the same people we were when we were married. Our interests have changed quite a bit (I hardly ever watch a bad movie anymore). Sometimes it seems like we were married so long ago that 18 years later I am married to a different woman.
Marriage is thought of by society as a permanent relationship, but it is not. A piece of paper carries some legal weight but little beyond that. A marriage is only real as long as both parties consent to it. If they don’t then the piece of paper may say they are married, but the marriage is over. Consequently to truly be married it is critically important to keep the lines of communications open and to work hard through problems. Marriages that depend on the law to work are built on sand. I know a couple cases of people who are technically married but live apart and haven’t seen their spouses in years. They keep filing “Married, Filing Separate Returns” to the government each year. Perhaps if one dies and the other finds out about it, they can collect some insurance money or government benefits. But this is not a marriage. It’s a legal agreement both parties walked away from.
Another observation is that every marriage is unique because each spouse is unique. There are principles for a successful marriage but no guarantees in this business. Each couple has to work things out for themselves. Whatever agreements they come to about the boundaries of their marriage is fine. Those who want to pledge monogamy: more power to you. Those who want open marriages, I give you A’s for honesty, courage and bravery.
For myself I keep hanging in there. I find a lot to love and admire about my wife, and I also find things that are troubling. Sometimes the troubling things end up pointing back to me and I realize that what troubles me are often inadequacies in myself.
I know I have learned a lot about myself by being married. I have grown in unexpected directions and taken many paths unanticipated. I traded in comfort and security of singleness for the wild jungle that is marriage. I take some comfort in knowing that I have survived 18 years in the jungle. My heart is still racing at times, sometimes in terror, sometimes in overwhelming love and euphoria: this is the yin and yang that is marriage.