When my husband and I got married about ten years ago, our friends officially dubbed it “the summer of weddings.” We had just graduated college, and it seemed like everyone we knew was pairing off and had chosen that particular summer to tie the knot. We attended a wedding one weekend before ours was to take place and then again about two weeks after ours. And we continued attending weddings later that summer and into the next year. When I look back on it now, it was such a sweet time of transition into adulthood and celebrating the start of the rest of our lives.
A few years ago, when the first of those summer-wedded couples announced their divorce, I was shaken.
I think it was a stark reminder that even though we vowed “forever” to each other, we can’t take forever for granted. It’s not just going to happen on its own. It takes a lot of hard work — more work than I ever realized when I originally signed up for this marriage thing. I remember when my husband and I were engaged and going through pre-marital counseling sessions, and everyone and anyone kept warning us about how tough marriage was going to be. I remember rolling my eyes and thinking, “Justin and I don’t need to worry about that. We’re best friends.” I thought that things would somehow just work.
I didn’t take into account how busy our lives would get, taking our focus off of each other. I couldn’t foresee how money problems and unemployment problems would hit us hard and turn us against each other. I didn’t realize that having kids would be like throwing a grenade into an already strained relationship, and the sleepless nights spent awake with a newborn would transform us into the worst versions of ourselves.
The first time we ever had a fight that was so ugly that the word “divorce” crossed my mind was about two months after our first son was born, and we had just signed a contract on our very first home.
We were living in a tiny apartment stacked to the ceiling with cardboard boxes, preparing to make a move across states. My husband had arrived home from work exhausted, but he was in our kitchen trying to scrounge up something for us to eat because it was clear that I was glued to the glider chair, holding the baby, and I wasn’t going to make anything for dinner — again. He made a pointed comment about me needing to make more of an “effort,” and it started a firestorm.
It makes sense, looking back on it now, that we were both feeling a brand new kind of drain on our energy with the new baby and we were overwhelmed by undertaking so many life transitions at once. We felt bitter with each other because we each felt like we were doing more work than the other. We got through that feeling, eventually, once the move was complete and some of those transitional tensions died down. But I never forgot the lesson that I learned from that fight: when it comes to my marriage, I need to make an effort.
I realized that we had, within a relatively short period of time, gone from being intimate best friends to being mere roommates coexisting under one roof. I realized that I used to make a point of running to the door and giving my husband a warm embrace and a kiss when he arrived home from work, and I’d transitioned from that to glaring at him from my glider chair while soothing a cranky baby and passively aggressively announcing that he would need to fend for himself for dinner. Forever isn’t guaranteed, and I knew that if I didn’t start pouring some love back into our relationship and being more intentional about spending quality time with my husband, we could easily become another summer-wedding tragedy.
But how do you bounce back from the brink of divorce?
This is the kind of stuff that no one ever talks about, because it’s deeply personal and it involves pulling all of the skeletons out of the closet. When people talk about marriage, they always put their shiny Instagram filters on and pretend their lives are perfect. Or they make kitschy jokes about honey-do lists gone undone and make their marriage foibles all seem so fun and comical. But I’m searching for something much more real and practical. When you throw words at each other that wound deeply and fester over time, when you scream at each other at the top of your lungs and accuse each other of unfair exaggerations, when you spend days at a time living under the silent treatment on opposite ends of the house (true story), how do you bounce back from that?
I recently found out that my grandparents (who are well past their 50th wedding anniversary) had a falling out early in their marriage and were actually separated for a period of time. My initial reaction was, “Why haven’t they ever talked about this?” I think about all of the times when I’ve consulted with older couples and asked them how they’ve made their marriage work for so many years, and they always give vague or over-simplified answers. “Just do this one thing every morning, and you’ll love each other for the rest of your lives.” It irritates me that they gloss over the hardships that they’ve likely faced and overcome. I realize that reminiscing on the time that they were separated is not exactly an anecdote to share at the 50th anniversary party, but I think it should be. Knowing that my grandparents survived such a significant split during their marriage makes them feel more real to me, more like actual people and less like characters in a black and white photo album. It makes me feel like maybe I’m not as alone in my marriage issues as I feel like I am sometimes. And it gives me hope that my husband and I can also bounce back when we hit those really hard places, and we can make our marriage last forever.