Marriage is hard. It is, as the (brilliant) 80’s movie Parenthood demonstrates, like a roller coaster ride. You change over time, as does your spouse, as does every human being. And you’re both faulted. Two faulted, changing people can’t expect a smooth ride, and we shouldn’t want that either. As the grandma says in Parenthood, “Some went on the merry go round. But that just goes around. Nothing. I like the roller coaster. You get more out of it.” I actually hate roller coasters, so maybe I’m not naturally prepped well for the ups and downs of marriage, but I do agree that a merry-go-round would get boring after a while. I might just choose the coaster in the kiddie section.
Marc and I had a rough time in our marriage a few years back. The low point was probably me getting out of the car during a fight, yelling at him to leave me alone. And him actually, physically leaving me alone by driving away. This came after months of frequent arguing, over things we seemingly couldn’t get past, about which we weren’t going to change our opinions. It was a hard, discouraging time. Neither of us could understand how the other was feeling, so we visited a counselor to help us see things differently. To get us outside our own heads, above our own situation and give us the bird’s eye view. Our disagreements, which up close looked huge, seemed small and manageable from far away. Easily fixed with some work and an attitude change.
That’s often the case in marriage. By nature, it is a difficult thing – two people joining their lives, promising to stand by one another through whatever goes down, not having a clue how hard that is to live out. Even when people say being married is hard, you don’t know how hard until you do it. Until your spouse has hit the one nerve that seems connected to all the others and it feels like your life is falling apart. Just as reading the entire collection of parenting books from Amazon can’t prepare you for the reality of a tiny person in your arms. But that’s the part that makes it exciting. The roller coaster instead of the merry-go-round. And that’s what makes it worthwhile.
In his essay On Marriage, Robert Louis Stevenson writes of the difference between hope and faith. Hope is the feeling a young person has before he marries, and faith is the long-married person’s view of marriage and his spouse.
Hope lives on ignorance; open-eyed Faith is built upon the knowledge of our life, of the tyranny of
circumstance and the frailty of human resolution…In the first, he expects an angel for a wife; in the
last, he knows that she is like himself – erring, thoughtless, and untrue; but like himself also, filled
with a struggling radiancy of better things…
I was full of hope when I married, which is inevitable. One would normally think of hope as a good thing, but in this case it’s hope in something, someone, bound to fail. Who won’t measure up to your expectations because he or she can’t. By nature your spouse will let you down, in big or small ways. The experience of living through the disappointment, and getting past it, is what produces the faith to carry on, as long as you see that the same faults are true of you.
This essay sounds like a downer on marriage, as does Louis Stevenson’s for the first couple of pages, but I promise neither is so. In his new (and excellent) book on marriage, Tim Keller references a study in which it was found that “two out of three unhappily married adults who avoided divorce reported being happily married five years later”. You can look up the parameters of the study if you like (http://www.americanvalues.org/html/does_divorce_make_people_happy.html), but I think it makes sense even without any empirical data. Given a little time, you can work through, or as the study points out, outlast, many issues in marriage. Three years after Marc and I had our rough spell, we are more in love than when we got hitched thirteen years ago. It’s odd to think that we ever had such raging fights. We worked hard, changed some of our behaviors, learned to love one another better. And we forgave a lot of crap. That’s the key – not hoping for perfection, but expecting to forgive and be forgiven. A lot. Then you can get on to the business of enjoying each other, too.
Louis Stevenson says it beautifully…
…for the faults of married people continually spur up each of them, hour by hour, to do better
and to meet and love upon a higher ground. And ever, between the failures, there will come
glimpses of kind virtues to encourage and console.
Marital bliss may be possible for a time, but it can’t be expected forever. The good news is it gets better, or it can. I know our roller coaster will dip again, but it’s also bound to go back up. In the meantime I’m enjoying the heights with the man I married.