When I was engaged to be married, the only thing I heard more than "Mazal Tov" was the grim warning from older married friends and family that "marriage is not easy." Variations were "Get yourself ready for some hard work!" and even whispers of 'When the going gets tough, you can call me." As annoying and unwelcome this bottom line was at the time, I now realize that these marriage aficionados couldn't help but blurt out, however insensitively, what they wish their own mothers, friends and family would have told them but were too demure to say. These warnings came from people who saw in me the bubbling and naive bride they too once were, and now, having some married years under their belt, it killed them to let a young girl possibly go on thinking that the bliss she currently felt was eternal.
Now, having just passed my four year anniversary, I feel at least a tiny bit entitled to address this issue— via painting a picture of sorts...
SO WHAT EXACTLY HAPPENS?
THE FIRST YEAR: A DRAMATIZATION
[Please read the elated/romantic/connecting times interspersed between the lines!]
If you made it from dating to marriage, that means you've survived engagement, the neither-here-nor-there phase otherwise known simply as...hell.
Engagement means you're not really in the discovery mode—your mind is made up that he or she is the one and you've let down a few of your trying-to-be-impressive facades. In other words, the real you—the you that is sometimes demanding, emotional, and otherwise completely uncharming—has a chance to shine (or cry, or bark, or...you get the idea). You're starting to see a little bit of the faults in this formerly absolutely unbearably perfect person you feel lucky enough to have found. Of course, seeing these faults doesn't make them appear any less physically beautiful, and all the attraction flying around is the adding to the tension. Every bride and groom says increasingly as their wedding day approaches, "I just want to be married already." That fact that all your married friends say that marriage is hard doesn't phase you. Of course, you guys are the only ones in the history of the universe to have such an open, honest, passionate and so totally perfect relationship. Everyone else is missing something. Marriage, for you, is going to be a breeze.
Alas, the beautiful day arrives. You can't wait to see each other. To celebrate with family and friends. You let it all out, dance the night away, and finally go home with your betrothed.
It is that night that the first year begins. For those entering their wedding night as a virgin, and even those not, the Jewish version of the wedding night is not like the movies. Heck, it never is, let's be honest. But especially the first night, the new husband and wife's emotions and expectations are flying high. Thankfully, so too are the hormones. So with a mixture of excitement and awkwardness, they consummate their marriage knowing that this is but one night (however special) of a lifetime of physical passion which they will together improve. But the introduction of a sexual relationship is filled with so many new realizations about themselves, their relationship and their bodies. Not to mention that if the couple is even remotely religious, they are thrust into the world of Jewish Family Purity, which, in all its inherit beauty, can be quite a task. You've just jumped the intimacy in your relationship by about a million bars and you're making calls to a Rabbi and...I'm in love with this person and the Jewish system is brilliant, but this is just weird.
Of course, husband and wife are now living under the same roof, which is no minor adjustment. And despite the utter exhaustion and desire to bask in the warmth of the new status, they have quite a few nights of post-wedding partying to do. Yay! Sheva Brachos! NOT. Gallivanting around in the newness of your marriage is not easy. A lot of interesting things may ensue. Initially, all the chaos is performed by the wife, and witnessed by the husband. There are wardrobe crises and wig breakdowns and lots of emotions flying around – the kind of emotions that were null and void when you were dating. The wife can be like a unpredictable performance act, and the husband is trying to keep afloat, to catch up. He usually fails.
Especially if the couple is blessed with the discovery of a baby on the way, but even if not, the wife is acting irrational, peculiar. She doesn't know why but all the intensity of this relationship and the vulnerability it requires...she's feeling inexplicably needy. The husband isn't saying all the right things like he used to. The wife wonders if he's capable of truly getting her. She tests this by crying. A lot. He can't possibly be attentive enough in the face of her storm. What happened to that chilled-out, "it's all good" gal he dated? The husband, although formerly crowned by his wife as the king of intuition and sensitivity, was unprepared for how "on" he was going to have to be. The marathon of keeping up with his new wife's needs is making him out of breathe. The wife notices this and adds it to her "things to cry about" list, right next to the fact that he falls asleep too quickly, didn't compliment her enough tonight and needs a job (even though she had insisted she can live a poor life, as long as it was with him).
Things feel like they are unraveling now because, alas, the curtains have closed. The courtship show is over. The comfort of commitment and closeness makes them stop pretending they're these amazing, perfect human beings. They slowly forget that they were once inspired to do everything—heck to be anything!—for this person. They love each other, they're excited about life together, but the fireworks of discovery are slowly replaced by this incredible comfort. A good thing, sure. But a challenge. They now have to work overtime just to remember to "perform" their best for their spouse.
It's not a very easy things to hear but its true: It's to the people we love the most that we can often be the ugliest. Just the way it goes. For the first time in life, someone totally gets you and is enamored by you and has agreed to care for you until infinity. So, why not let it all out? All your nasty traits come out to say hello, and stay for a while. In full effect. The husband loves the wife and the wife loves the husband so they want to understand each other deeply. No one can escape the other. So every bad habit, bad mood and bad character is kneaded like dough until it bursts. And when it bursts...oh man! You'll stay up even just to argue whether you're supposed to just sleep on it or take the advice from people to "never go to sleep angry" (worst advice EVER).
Adding to the lack of high-performance character is the fact that life has quickly become obnoxiously practical. I'm talking room-sharing, bill-paying, food-shopping, sock-matching, insurance-applying, home-decorating, appointment-setting, job-finding, simcha-traveling, rabbi-asking (and the list goes on) kind of practical. Especially way into the year, when life has achieved a certain rhythm, connecting with a heightened level of sensitivity is like singing while drowning. You need to find dry land if you want to truly see each other. Because it's not just that you're dealing with things on the ground. It's that you're two separate people—one from venus, the other from mars—that have united in the journey of life. How we even get ourselves into this is almost comical.
And speaking of comedy...where is it? Things have become so serious. Standing at the cusp of the rest of their lives, everything said/bought/chosen is important. Scratch that—epic. So if there is a difference of opinion, something said imperfectly, or even a gesture made half-heartedly, it does not go unnoticed. After all, it's laying the foundation for the rest of your life! How it is now is how it's going to be! Doesn't she get it? How could she possibly think like that? Doesn't he realize? Is he always going to make that kind of impression? Here are two people madly in love, so undeniably reliant on each other until the ripe age of one hundred and twenty: things better start out right. So, basically, it only takes a short time for these two easy-going, awesome people—who only months prior laughed just looking at each other—to become uptight ninety-year-olds who can't easily crack a smile. All in the name of love.
All of these trials and tribulations and revelations about the other's personality and lifestyle and needs will make you feel like this is not the same person you chose to marry. And you know what? It isn't. The comfortable, practical, intense nature of marriage reveals sides in each spouse that could never have surfaced when they were busy falling in love because "We like totally speak the same language." You will love each other forever because of what you found in each other when you dated. But you will both morph enormously, and you must be committed to accepting and working with and loving what you find behind each others veils. The more dating couples truly prepare themselves for this, the more mature of a foundation they will build.
In summation, the first year of marriage is not what you expected. Your spouse is not what you expected. Heck, even the way you're acting is not what you expected. You're only one year in—some people are still calling you The Newlyweds—and already you're craving the warm, spontaneous and unbridled embrace that you felt when you were falling in love with your spouse.
So this is a bit of a picture of what to expect the first year—just a glimmer of what people mean when they say it's so hard. There is so much more to it, and we all have our own stories. The good news is, of course, that the unity and love that comes from rising to the occasion of getting to know the person you didn't intend to marry is a pleasure far greater than even the most perfect courtship. Marriage, however hard, will always trump the lustful stage of dating. Okay what do I know, my own marriage is still young. But however much I have to learn, I know this: the key is being lovingly committed to your spouse....and forgetting all expectations.
(Stay tuned for my next post, "Ten Great Myths About Marriage")