It has been said so often it is now cliché: you have to work on your marriage. I wish I’d known fifteen years ago, when I got married, how false that truism actually is…
Our first honeymoon was a bust.
We arrived at the resort less than twenty-four hours after a minister declared, with a few words, that we now had this thing called a Marriage. A brand new Marriage. It felt perfect. Pristine. Like the first day of a new semester, when the teacher tells you everyone starts with an A+.
If our honeymoon was the first homework assignment, we seemed to flunked it badly.
We were graduate students at the time, so the all-inclusive resort we could afford was broken, crumbling, and unclean. We tried to compensate for its lack of style (and sanitation) by consuming its bottomless food and drink. Most days, I ended up either bloated or comatose. Sometimes both. A hurricane somewhere far away made our skies gray and drizzly.
Sometimes our moods were gray and drizzly, too.
Our brand new Marriage seemed to be falling apart as badly as the resort in which it was being celebrated. So, I did what you’re supposed to do. I started working on our Marriage, toiling to make it perfect again. I would do so for many years. Now though, after fifteen years of marriage—and almost fifteen years as a marital therapist—I realize:
A wedding ceremony doesn’t magically create a Marriage.
It doesn’t bring anything new into existence. When you walk back down that aisle, dodging rice, you may be married, but you don’t have a Marriage—you have only two people with all of their hopes and fears and expectations and desires and needs and wants and assumptions and cluelessness.
At least after the birth of your first child, when they send you out of the hospital, bewildered, you have something to bathe. When you get married, you have nothing to show for it. And you can’t work hard on nothing.
Rather, if you want a Marriage, you have to create something out of nothing.
Fifteen years after our first honeymoon, we took a second one. This time, we had jobs, so we booked a more upscale resort and hoped once again for the perfect honeymoon. It was not meant to be. Instead, we got something even better. Arriving at the resort to discover it was under construction, we got a reminder:
Every Marriage is its own construction project.
Out of nothing, two people build something. Where nothing existed, two people construct a life. In the space between them, two people lay the foundation for an existence. Slowly, over time, the shape of something new emerges.
Of course, like any construction project, the building of a Marriage is full of detours, distractions, and details…
As we walked around our upscale-resort-under-construction, we were forced again and again—by orange cones and orange plastic fencing—to find a different way to get where we were going. Likewise, as you build a Marriage, you won’t always get to go the way you want to go. Sometimes, you have to compromise and take detours to where you both want to be. Of course, along the way, you will discover parts of your selves, your Marriage, and your life that you wouldn’t have come across on the path you planned to take.
Sometimes, even, you will find big deep pools of sacrifice, fidelity, and love.
While we tried to relax poolside, the sounds of hammers and saws were distracting. We had hoped for mindless luxury, but instead, we became mindful of the creation happening all around us. Likewise, most of us enter into Marriage hoping for the mindless luxury of romantic love. This luxury though, like all luxuries, is overrated, transient, and ultimately disappointing. Real life will distract you from it, and this is a good thing. Amidst the hammers and saws of grief and hardship and pain and loss, you will realize better things are being created.
Beautiful things like belonging. A story. A home.
In various places throughout the resort, the big stuff was mostly done and attention had shifted to the smaller details. We watched a man spend hours engaged in his craft—cutting, gluing, and buffing marble tiles onto floors and walls and desks. Likewise, in the building of a Marriage, it is wise to remember that when the big stuff is done, there is no end to the refining of what has been built. A well-timed cup of coffee in the morning. A text message at mid-day. A surprise date.
The devil is in the details, they say. The Marriage is in the details, too.
During our second honeymoon, we felt increasing affection for the construction around us. Where once we saw, with irritation, inconvenience, we began waking up each day with curiosity, wondering what would be built next. So, after fifteen years, here’s my best advice about Marriage:
A Marriage doesn’t exist until you bring it into existence.
So don’t waste your time trying to keep it perfect.
Put your energies toward creating something out of nothing.
Try to be grateful for the detours.
Embrace the distractions.
Pay attention to the details.
And wake up each day wondering what you will build before the sun goes down.
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