When I married my husband, I was twenty-two years old and I told everyone around me that the wedding day itself did not matter. “It’s being married that’s important,” I would say, airily, with a worldly-wise air that makes me shrink now with amused embarrassment when I recall it. “It’s the commitment that matters to me, not a party.”
I believed what I was saying and I put my money where my mouth was. We had a small winter wedding, with the least expensive white-gold rings from a cheap department store and a dress I made myself from a length of slippery blue sateen that I found in a shop near my office. We had no honeymoon. We took one day off work to unpack our gifts and then our lives went on with only the cheap white-gold rings on our fingers to mark any difference at all.
Within a few months of our wedding our son was born, and it turned out that our baby boy had some unexpected medical problems. We spent a lot of time in hospital with him, watching his tiny eyes flicker behind their closed lids in his metal cot, taking turns holding him on a sweaty brown vinyl mattress, all of us crying.
He rallied. Soon after we brought him home, we stretched our finances to their wafer-thin limit and bought a bigger house, which became an immediate drain physically as well as financially (all that cleaning! all those necessary renovations!). It felt like we were never not working.
We had only just moved into the bigger house when our baby niece became unexpectedly ill. Despite extensive heart surgery, she died without ever waking up again. She was fourteen months old and the loss of her little life tore our family into pieces.
At that point my husband and I had been married for only two years and life suddenly felt overwhelming. It seemed that from the moment we exchanged our vows, our lives had been hurtling downhill through a series of increasingly dangerous and painful obstacles. Neither of us could sleep any more and our work was suffering.
We booked a marriage counsellor because we were too stressed to speak to each other kindly any more. The counselling we asked for on the phone when we made the appointment was really for our grief, but it turned out that we needed help to stay married too.
The therapy helped us through the crisis of that particular low point, and life went on. But not before I realised that despite my lofty assertions on my wedding day, neither of us had any real idea of what a marriage was. Even as I’d said to everyone that marriage itself was what mattered, I’d imagined us having an almost entirely happy, snuggly ride through life together. A soft-focus sequence of box sets and sunsets.
And that is not what a marriage is. Marriages take genuine hard work and sometimes it feels like the work is all there is.
We loved each other a lot. Love was never in doubt. But love is not the only thing that makes a marriage work. And even a working marriage, even a “good” marriage, will not always be a happy one.
“In the throes of romantic love, we often neglect to ponder the meaning of marriage beyond a vague (and mistaken) expectation that it will make us happy.” — Ada Calhoun, Wedding Toasts I’ll Never Give
A marriage will have peaks and troughs, like any long relationship. Like any family relationship. Sometimes the peaks last for glorious years, and you smugly think you’ve cracked the secret to a truly happy marriage. (This happened to us between years 10 and 12 of our marriage; by our fourteenth anniversary, I had panicked about what I felt was a wasted existence and I had begun an extramarital affair). Sometimes the troughs are so low that it feels pointless even to try to remain in the relationship and you idly google “divorce lawyers near me” on your work laptop.
Sometimes I think that if I have to listen even one more time to the way my husband chews his food, I will run screaming from the house and never come back. Other times I turn to him in the dark at night and I’m so flooded with love and gratitude for the fact of him and the fact we found each other at all that I have to wrap all of my limbs around all of his limbs, a sweatily annoying limpet of sudden fierce affection.
Most of the time we tread a mundane path between those two extremes and it is gentle and entirely uninteresting. Just like in life as a whole, the good bits stand out because they form a contrast to the humdrum pace of normality. They are exciting because of the boring bits in between. The love is there, but it’s in the background.
Long marriages often last simply because couples…stay married. That’s all there is to it. There’s no sprinkle of magic in that fact. It sounds banal, but it’s true: each day that both halves of a couple get up and decide, actively or passively, to abide for one more day by the vows that they once made to honour and love and stay at each other’s side is another day married. And it takes a daily-renewed faith in a decision that was made joyously, a lifetime ago when life was easy and love was centre stage.
Of course, some marriages just cannot last. Sometimes there is a betrayal that is too extreme to survive. Sometimes the love disappears completely, rather than simply hiding for a while behind the banal routine of the everyday, and no one should ever stay in a loveless marriage. Sometimes one half of the couple wants out, even when the other doesn’t. And sometimes there is toxicity and abuse from one or both sides that can make a marriage entirely the wrong place to be, for both parties.
But in so many everyday lives, the secret to a long marriage is just to be married for a long time. To recognise the beauty and the frank absurdity of the fact that both of you have embarked on a lifelong journey together. To both adhere to your joint commitment to that voyage, even when the seas are turbulent and lifeboats look tempting. And to remember that almost no marriage will be happy every day, in the same way that no life will go past completely untouched by sorrow or grief.
The secret, then, is that there really is no secret. The old joke about long-married couples — “the first twenty years are the hardest!” — has a definite grain of truth within it.
I’m hoping the next twenty are when we’ll really get into our stride.