You said, "Yes!" You bought your dress, chose your venue, mailed your invitations, and engaged in mildly inappropriate (but appropriate, if you know what I mean) bachelorette party behavior. You walked down the aisle, locked eyes with your soulmate, and repeated the words that have been echoed by all of the blissful(ly naive) husband- and wives-to-be that have come before you: ". . . for better or for worse, for richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health, until death do us part." You are married.
Fairy tales will tell you that happily ever after has been achieved and your life is now complete. However, I hate to be the wicked witch, but not all married couples will withstand the tests of their marriages. Fact.
Falling in love is easy. Showing up on your wedding day (unless you are the runaway bride): also not that difficult. Honeymooning and celebrating the milestones that follow are the best! That's what married couples do. What's not easy, what's not fun, is those moments — "for worse," "for poorer," and "in sickness" — that are in between. It's those moments that will differentiate simply "being married" from a true marriage.
I learned this the hard way, luckily with my marriage still intact and, in fact, stronger than ever. So, for all of the newlyweds eager to type in the comments section that I've just robbed you of your marital innocence, you can let out a sigh of relief. Yes, your marriage will face challenges. Hard challenges. Terrible challenges. Challenges you can't even fathom at this state of your "bubble-still-intact" married life. And nor should you. Not only will your optimism serve you as your relationship navigates choppier waters in the future, but your choppy waters will also be your rite of passage into marriage.
For two whole years, my husband and I withstood massive blows to what I had thought to be our very solid foundation, 10 years in the making. Our house of cards came crumbling down with breaches of trust, intimate betrayals, job losses, financial burdens, the growth of our family, and abuse from those we were once closest to. We were left individually and collectively broken. However, not once did we question if our marriage would survive (though at times it seemed unlikely) because we decided that it would. It wasn't easy, but nobody said a marriage is. These are the lessons we've learned along the way.
1. Marriage is a choice.
Marriage will present you with choices. Some will be small, like whose turn it is to take out the trash. And others will be big, like, "If I met you today, would I still say, 'I do'?" When the honeymoon wears off and marriage sets in — better turns to worse, rich turns to poor, and sickness overshadows health — you will either choose your marriage or you won't. If you choose marriage, you choose learning about yourself, your partner, and the relationship that sits beneath the surface of married life, waiting for an opportunity to reveal itself, and cement the intangible and unbreakable bond that you laid on your wedding day.
2. Hard times don't define your marriage. Your response to them does.
Every married couple will experience their unique set of challenges. The challenges are not what determine the fate of your marital status, but how you and your partner choose to respond to them will. Commit to holding yourselves responsible for your actions, take accountability for your wrongdoings, and make amends. Marriage is the sum of your best times and how you respond to the hard times, together — showing up when no one is watching, fighting for it when you're not sure what you're fighting for, and committing to yourselves, each other, and to the relationship, over and over and over and over and over again — in your darkest hours and on your longest nights.
3. Hard times don't last.
Emotions change. Bad luck runs out. Nothing is permanent. This is hard to remember when you feel suffocated by such intense feelings, like despair, rage, and grief, which are unavoidable in a commitment as vulnerable as marriage. In the midst of our marriage crisis, I can recall sitting in my living room for three hours, just staring at the wall, overcome with anxiety, fear, and pain, unaware if these feelings would dissipate and fearing that I would remain in a hopeless abyss forever. I didn't. Though it took years, and a lot of therapy, to cross the threshold from hurt to healed, eventually we made it to the other side, one day at a time.
4. Communication matters.
As our marital woes hit their peak, our heated debates grew hotter and our silence even colder. Though we practiced "I" statements and intimacy-building exercises, nothing helped us more than changing the way we spoke to each other. Affirmations, positive mantras, and expressing appreciation for each other cleared our space of hostility and made room for the best parts of marriage.
5. Your relationship is only as strong as your individual selves.
Once your vows are said and your monogrammed towels are on display, it's easy to forget that your union is made up of two unique individuals. If your marriage were a bridge, you'd each be a pillar of its foundation. To keep the bridge intact — resilient from wind and guarded from choppy waters — you must ensure that your individual pillar is rooted, steady, and strong.
6. No one is perfect.
Throughout the course of your marriage, circumstances will change, and your roles in the relationship will change with them. The once hurt may hurt. The once strong may become weak. And the once mighty may fall. Marriage means allowing room for error, offering grace when necessary, and cultivating an environment for growth. Allow the one who once hurt you try to heal you, the one who weakened you help make you strong again and, when you've fallen, help get you back up. You never know what circumstance will transpire, placing the shoe on the other foot. It's in the grace of your errors that your relationship evolves from being married into a marriage.