The Honeymoon Hasn't Ended
On finding gravity in a good (excellent) marriage
Last year, I read an essay by Tish Harrison Warren who married the wrong person. It was a very heartfelt piece of writing about a marriage of seventeen years between two people who are ill-suited and don’t necessarily like each other very much but they slog it out because they are honoring their commitment to each other. She wrote, “I want to normalize significant periods of confusion, exhaustion, grief and unfulfillment in marriage.” I understand what she’s saying, that marriage is hard, that it isn’t all romance and sunshine, that perhaps marriage is truest when you’re both exhausted and seething with dissatisfaction, but still you don’t break apart.
But I struggle when I read essays like this, and there are so many, about how difficult marriage is, about how true commitment is measured by one’s willingness and capacity to endure suffering by way of incompatibility or growing apart or the small betrayals that can accumulate over the course of a marriage or other long term relationship. I cannot relate to such profound unhappiness in marriage. And I want better for anyone who carries more sadness than joy by staying with the a partner they don’t like and/or love and/or want to be with.
So much cultural lore about marriage suggests that the institution is mostly miserable. There are endless jokes and punchlines and memes all telling us that to be married is to be profoundly unhappy, to be unduly burdened, to be perpetually aggrieved and taken advantage of. Sadly, that is, in fact, the case for some marriages but is it the case for most marriages? I sure hope not.
People talk, openly, about hating their spouses and/or their children. They elaborate, in great detail, as to why and how they developed such acrimony. There is a sense of gleeful martyrdom as people complain about their “ball and chain,” the person keeping them from some better, freer life. And then there is the noxious phrase, “happy wife, happy life,” that men, mostly, use to explain why they cater to their spouses, as if they couldn’t possibly want to make their spouse happy for any reason other than self-interest.
On TikTok, there are all kinds of people who share details of their marriages that other people might take issue with. Most of the details involve weird jealousies, codependencies and dysfunctional attitudes around money. Apparently there are apps you can use to constantly know where your spouse is and how much battery power their phone has—a human LoJack. I can’t imagine having that kind of time or mental energy or fundamental distrust. There are lots of strange practices that treat finances as a cudgel to keep one or both spouses in line according to arbitrary preferences about how money should be handled. It is genuinely alarming to see how many straight people don’t trust their spouses to have friends of the opposite gender. By foregoing such friendships they claim they are protecting the sanctity of their marriage. They are making sure there are no temptations. But if a friendship would tempt you to break your vows, wouldn’t the problem be the marriage, not the friendship?
Marriage is hard, they say. Marriage is hard work. Marriage is a toxic hellscape. Certainly, there is also a lot of lore about marriage as a perfect state of being, a blissful idyll where no one ever bickers or yawns too loudly or leaves socks in the middle of the bedroom floor. I am less troubled by overly optimistic ideas of marriage, mostly because I know how unrealistic they are. The same cannot be said for the darker versions.
My experience of marriage is vastly different from what conventional wisdom tells me it should be. And the disconnect between cultural lore about marriage and my experience of it, often leads me to believe that maybe I’m doing marriage wrong. I don’t find it hard. It requires effort but all good things require effort and I am more than happy to expend that energy. In truth, I am only saying it requires effort because I feel like I should say that. It never feels like a chore or a burden. It feels effortless. And I’m not saying I am in a perfect marriage. I’m just saying that every night, I fall asleep and I am excited for the next day when I get to hang out with my wife again and do activities. (Yes, that was a Stepbrothers reference.)