I don't usually blog about marriage, but since we Americans celebrate Valentine's Day today, my thoughts have drifted from their typical path of all things baby to romantic love...a straying that I grasp is not really all that far from the 'baby' path. We picture romantic love as Cupid, that mischievous cherub who flies bow in hand ready to let fly his arrows of Eros into the hearts of his unsuspecting victims. The lovers court, and in older versions of the tale, betroth, and in due course, find themselves face to face at the altar, pledging vows that are intended to last until one of them lies in a wooden box at that same altar.
This summer, Chris and I will mark our 17th wedding anniversary, God willing. We married young (my sister commented that we looked like we were going to the Prom) and we have grown to middle age together. In those years, we have welcomed six babies into our home, battled pertussis, H1N1, multiple bouts of pneumonia, colic, pre-eclampsia, survived the NICU, lost five babies to miscarriage, moved seven times, paid off all our debts, accumulated more, have lived and still live with toddlers, live with a teen, and had four hundred eighty-nine thousand arguments, give or take...and apologized even more. I am still crazy in love with him, and in his less emotional way, he still loves me too. I hope this resume serves as sufficient life experience to allow you, dear reader, to trust that perhaps I have a little something to say about marriage.
When cupid's arrow first penetrates your heart, you are certain that there was never one so perfect as your beloved. We all know this part. But then, in time, it is as if you get out your own bow, pull the arrow from your heart, and turn it against your beloved as a weapon. Where once you were the greatest paramours that the world had ever known, now you have become intimate enemies, noticing his faults with military precision; her vices with the cold-hearted stare of a general on campaign. You let fly your arrows of accusation, blame, bitter resentment, and disappointment. These misdirected arrows have doubtless killed many a marriage.
I suspect that we were little different from the rest of the getting-married crowd in that we had no idea what we were getting ourselves into. 'Happily ever after' makes for a beautiful and satisfying conclusion to a fairy tale, but real human beings rarely experience endless happiness following their hand-in-hand departure from the shower of rice. I am an idealist and Chris is a realist. No little time--the unrepeatable currency of life--has been spent trying to reconcile my desires for the perfect (food, education for our children, manner of handling our finances, housing, parenting style, etc.) with Chris's comfort with the less-than-ideal but realistic. (No; we really couldn't buy that house that was $75,000 over our price range.)
'Marriage takes work,' they say. But somehow every starry eyed lover imagines that somehow theirs will escape this unromantic party-pooper truism. Until they meet Disillusionment.
Chris and I began teaching classes for married and engaged couples before Chris could shave (well, close anyway). We were so green that every time we got to the Disillusionment part of the teaching notes, I was no little bit baffled. What was this cloudy figure Disillusionment we were supposed to promise that our students would confront?
Disillusionment, I am sad to inform, is your neighbor, my dear friends. He is unnaturally tall and bony, and he always wears black. Unnervingly, he never knocks, but appears when you least expect him, right in the heart of your home. He makes himself comfortable, dirty boots planted firmly on your table, while he unthankingly gobbles up your food. He curses, spits, and asks for more. He smokes vile cheap cigars, which leave their stench about the house for hours after his departure. He uses your toilet--with the door open--never flushes and always leaves the seat up. When you least expect it you will find him in your garden, uprooting your most cherished and pampered plant, and will repeat this vandalism, no matter how many times you replant.
Yet he is, to borrow a phrase, a severe mercy. If you let him do his work--if you both let him--you will find in time that the neighbor whom you once abhorred becomes a blessing in disguise. You find that he has not, in fact, eaten you out of house and home; no, he has simply devoured your selfish need to have everything done your way. The smoke you once hated has actually fumigated your heart of such loathsome pests as pride and unrighteous anger. Your neighbor's graceless habits have helped you develop patience. And his work in the garden, no matter how many times, clears away a noxious weed that stands in the way of you learning to love the very real and very imperfect spouse whom you actually and truly vowed to love till the day one of you died, no matter what.
I get it now. Disillusionment is what happens when the rosy colored glasses are irrevocably smashed. The image of your spouse--the pampered plant sprouted in your head, transplanted in the needy soil of your heart, watered in the intensity of courtship, and fertilized by the heady bliss of your wedding day--is revealed to be nothing but a lovely but terribly false image, whose very existence was always about you and your own selfishness. The 'real' Chris would not require something as quotidian as sleep, but would rise effortlessly and joyfully in the middle of the night to ride off in sub-zero temperatures to purchase craved delicacies for his beloved pregnant wife. He would somehow manage to provide a bounty of financial blessings to effortlessly support an ever-burgeoning family while being home promptly at five every evening to tousle the hair of his first-born son and toss the baby in the air. He would never grow tired, or sick, or angry. He would be ever patient and never notice your impatience. He would happily encourage your habit of working on projects even if you "forgot" to make dinner or change the baby's diaper. He would uncomplainingly lay down whatever he was doing to run out to the store for that little something you forgot. He would forever be taken with your beauty and his passion would be expressed in love songs of praise and painstakingly worded poetry. In other words, he would be all-sufficient provider, humble servant, model husband, perfect father, and ardent lover whenever it suited.
Disillusionment, my friends, is what happens when you realize that he (or she for you guy readers) isn't perfect, and that imperfection is never in the ways you expect, or hope for. He will disappoint you and usually in the very things that matter the most to you (that's why you notice). She will fail you. She will misunderstand. In the very ways you try the hardest to show your caring, she will horribly misinterpret and suspect and assume the worst of you and accuse you of selfishness. He (or she) will fail miserably to see his (or her) worst faults, but will somehow have eagle's eyes for yours. This is why there are vows, friends. Because 'for worse' can be pretty ugly.
Ladies, it is 100% your responsibility to make your marriage work. Gents, it is 100% your responsibility to make your marriage work. Turn the arrow around. STOP noticing all the big and little ways he (or she) fails to be that false image you cultivated in the soil of your own selfish heart, and point the arrow at yourself. How can you be a better spouse today, this moment, with your next word, in your next breath? That is how happily ever after happens, dear friends. It begins when each one stops expecting the other to make it happen, and takes 100% responsibility for making it happen, not someday, but right here, right now. Love isn't pictured as an arrow in your heart for nothing. Real love will hurt you in a good way. It will transform you and perfect you--both of you. And then you really will live 'happily ever after.'
The St. Croix