How do you measure a marriage? I feel that on the occasion of my twentieth wedding anniversary this week I should take stock of the state of my marriage. Like it or not this anniversary is a big milestone. I have chosen to spend the last two decades married to the same woman. Perhaps it should be an occasion for romance, or for sweaty sex, or reflection. Since at this point we are really just a couple of old, married farts perhaps we should just make it another Hallmark anniversary and otherwise forget it.
While we were married on a Saturday, our anniversary this year falls in the middle of the week. This makes it difficult to celebrate. We may make time for a dinner at a nice restaurant. When we want upscale dining, we usually choose The Hermitage in Clifton, Virginia. We may end up there, or we may defer celebration until early November. On our tenth anniversary, we went to a honeymoon resort in the Poconos. We will do so again, but the timing works out better for us in early November. We are parents now and we have learned to be pragmatic. In early November, our daughter has some days off from school, so she can be shuffled off to a friend’s house for a few days.
No doubt, things have changed for us in twenty years. We are kind of, sort of the same people we were back then. I was skinnier, poorer, and full of hormones. I had done the bachelor thing for a decade and was sick of it. I felt ready to settle down. I cannot speak for my wife but she was definitely skinnier and poorer back then too. I was 28 and she was 25. We had vague plans of perhaps having a child someday, but I could not imagine it happening for a long time.
Back then, my ideas of marriage were a mixture of the well informed and fanciful. I did not expect happily ever after, but I did come into the marriage with the expectation that it would be more happy than not. Otherwise, what was the point of getting married? Unquestionably, there were happy years. Unquestionably, there were miserable years too. Sometimes the misery was self-inflicted. More often, it came from unexpected directions.
In our fourth year of marriage, to our surprise, our daughter was conceived. Parenthood was thrust upon us along with hosts of other issues you expect young couples to deal with. These included buying houses, deaths in the family, psychotic bosses, babies with chronic ear infections, a hysterectomy, a variety of traumatic surgeries, finding our house flooded the day after we closed on it, and both of us going to college at the same time while working fulltime and managing a daughter in elementary school. (I completed my graduate degree in 1999. My wife finished her bachelor’s degree the same year.)
In addition, there were sweet times. For our first year together, we lived a simple life in an apartment in Reston, Virginia. We had many a pleasant evening walk hand in hand around Lake Anne in Reston. We went horseback riding on a ranch in a faux-western town outside of Phoenix. We cackled together watching bad movies on TV. We went whitewater rafting (twice). For me the sweetest parts about my marriage are the more mundane. There is something wonderfully intimate about being in bed with another woman, and snuggling up to her at night. The daily hugs, kisses, caresses and sweaty moments beneath the sheets are all part of the daily dance of intimacy that I have enjoyed during my marriage. For me this is a kind of addiction. I hope that it is a healthy addiction. Because (and I suspect most marriages are like this) there were many days when you felt like you were hit by a brick. You wondered how to keep a marriage going when so many forces are conspiring to bring it down. No matter how crazy or challenging times got, having a few constants like being able to snuggle with my wife made difficult days/weeks/months/years easier to endure.
I am definitely twenty years older. I hope I am a little wiser. Through marriage, I have learned a lot about myself and other people that I doubt I would have experienced in any other way. No question about it: intimate relationships are challenging. Moreover, it is hard to imagine a more intimate relationship than a marriage. For me, marriage has at times been like going through a crazy hall of mirrors. It is thrilling, chilling, fun and exasperating at the same time. The mirrors of course often distort the reality around you.
I have found that, like it or not, a marriage will peel away many masks. You sometimes in retrospect wonder that if you had known certain things about your spouse before marriage whether you would have gotten married in the first place. On the other hand, I was not quite the person I presented myself to be on my wedding day either. Now, if nothing else, I think I really know my wife, and believe that she knows me. If we have black boxes of secret thoughts and desires that we have kept from each other, they are likely just a few.
In addition to being older I am perhaps more sanguine too. Both my wife and I laugh when we hear people calling to protect the “sanctity” of marriage (from gays, naturally). Whoa! If marriages like ours are “sacred”, there is not much sanctity to protect. Here is the reality of marriage to anyone who has been in it for a few years. There is no entity called “the marriage”. There is no “us”. There are no sets of universal truths about marriage. The dynamics of each marriage are unique and cannot be duplicated. There is only you and your spouse, two unique human beings with attributes, issues and foibles who choose to try this squirrelly institution called marriage. Rather than being sacred, marriage can be like a karmic facilitation engine. It seems to force you to address one thorny issue after another. If you do not then you suffer the consequences for not having your real needs for intimacy addressed. Marriage means as much as it means to the people in the marriage and nothing more. You should know as a result of marriage what you want or do not want. However, do not expect that marriage will necessarily turn you into a happier or healthier human being. This is a delusion.
I will agree that marriage can be the incubator for a lot of personal growth. I say, “can be” because that is often not the result. Rather than learning lessons from marriage, many spouses do not learn a thing. Instead, with the wrong dynamics it can act as a means to retard personal growth, or even turn its participants into screaming Alice and Ralph Kramdens. I can certainly understand why many who observe married people would say “this is nuts” and choose to remain single.
After twenty years, I still love my wife and she seems to love me, in spite of the warts that time has revealed. We take some comfort in our warts, and having them known to each other, because we do not reveal them to very many people. Perhaps our love is real because by showing our warts to our intimate we still feel safe and loved.
After twenty years, the romantic flush of the marriage comes out less frequently. Yet for me it is still enormously comforting to have an enduring intimate relationship with someone for this long. Despite the hardship and chaos that life has thrown at us somehow we are still here and we are still married.
Our alarm will rouse us from bed early tomorrow to begin yet another day. One thing is a given: we shall share its joys and travails together.