14 years ago right now I was applying 52 coats of mascara, willing my lashes to grow for this one day. I slid on my $100 dress and my $15 shoes, placed the veil my family friend had made on my head and promised to love Zachary until death parted us.
This morning Hagrid scratched at our bed letting me know he needed to be let out and I closed my eyes, kind of hoping if I willed it to happen Zach would get up and take the dogs out so I could get a few more minutes of sleep. It’s 11:30am and I still haven’t put on a single coat of mascara, let alone a bra. Zach and I gave each other a quick kiss before he took three of our sons to the barber while I stayed back with the other two kids to get some work done.
I remember the promises we made to each other 14 years ago. To love one another in sickness and in health, for richer or poorer, etc. Zach wanted to write our own vows at the time but, even at 20, I knew myself well enough to know I would be ugly crying the entire time so it would be a pointless venture anyway.
But after 14 years if I had to write the vows now they would look something like this:
Zach I promise to love and support you. Sometimes that love will look like waking up early to start the coffee when you have an early meeting and sometimes that love will look like going for a long drive for no particular reason so that I don’t bite your head off and say things out of anger that I only partially mean. Sometimes that support will look like helping you with your resume and cover letter and sometimes that support will look like telling you that even though you think you want to quit your job and just surf every day you might actually want to try surfing before you make that kind of commitment.
Zach of course I promise to stay with you in sickness and in health-those I can do with relative ease. But I promise that when you’re being a total dick I won’t take it personally. Because life is hard and we often take it out on the people we love the most. I vow to always stand up for myself but rather than harden my heart and mind when you’re functioning at your worst, I’ll soften myself to become an easier place to land for you. It won’t be easy and I’ll be pretty terrible at this for about the first 8 years but I’ll try to rally around year 10.
I love the way you write and leave me little love notes all of the time to remind me you’re thinking of me. I promise that even as the notes become infrequent due to kids, jobs and life I will continue to cherish each one. And though your handwriting is barely perceptible now and, I imagine, will only get worse-I will continue to get misty eyed as I decipher your loops and squiggles and imagine you through the years huddled over the piece of paper, an image of your wife hovering above the page.
I love the way you flutter your eyelashes to get what you want and the way you let me eat first no matter how long it’s been since you last ate. In 14 years when the things I love about you go from being rather superficial to rather mundane, I promise to be equally charmed by you. Though there’s no way for me to know right now what it will be like watching you wrestle with your sons and go on a paddle board trip with your daughter just to get an hour of quality conversation with her-I can see how you hold in your head and heart the ability to do all of this so well. And though I don’t know what it will be like to be an auntie or see you as an uncle, I know how much you love your siblings and how much you’ve grown to love mine so I can almost picture you balancing their little butts on your extended hand or stealing them away as they cry to work your insane magic and return with them sleeping peacefully. I promise to always stand in awe of your ability to love and delight in the children around you. Because kids are no fools-they can sense good from bad and so even when I’m incredibly frustrated with you I’ll remember your ease at being adored by those little ones and know that you are relentlessly good.
I love that even when we fight we do it with respect and care and that you make me stay engaged the whole time. I know that in 14 years I’ll look back at the tiffs we call fights right now and recognize them for their adorableness but I’ll continue to be thankful that they are handled with respect and care when they are no longer adorable. I know right now that I know so little about the stresses that babies, jobs, adoptions and moves can have on a marriage but even in our short time together I know that we both know how to work incredibly hard so I believe we will get through it. Not around it but through it. And I promise that no matter how much time passes I will continue to work the hardest I’ve ever worked on staying with you.
I don’t know what I don’t know. That will be as true on our 14th anniversary as it will on our 60th. But I know that each year will have what these last months with you have had-incredible highs, devastating lows and all the various in betweens. I promise that I will hang on for the lows and ride the swell of the highs and that I will reach out for your hand to walk through the middle stuff. I vow to lay down all of my armor whenever I come to you with any issue. I promise that I will never come to a fight with you armed with anything more than raw emotion and the desperation at making our love truer and bigger. And I promise that if I come armed with swear words or unchecked anger that I’ll be willing to apologize and understand it doesn’t make me weak but human.
I vow to love you. Not in the way I do now that doesn’t know just how badly your feet smell or how frustrated I’ll get when you’re the epitome of patience in our adoption and I’m…not but in the way that knows literally everything about you and still loves you hopelessly, completely and truly.
I know it’s not sexy to title this one “How to Survive 14 Years of Marriage” but anyone who has been married will tell you that is what it is. There are so many variables that work against a marriage and sometimes it feels like you’ve built your marriage on the sand. There will be days, weeks or years when it feels like every time you try to add value to the marriage you’ll watch an even bigger piece get washed away. Sometimes it will feel like the tide is always high and that you’re fighting a battle you just cannot win. And then there are days, weeks or years when it feels like you’ve built your marriage within a bomb shelter. So even when outside forces hurl themselves at your doors you remain safe, protected, huddled inside, together.
This might be uniquely American but I feel like long term relationships are so hard because their success literally goes against virtually every American ethos out there. Independence? Not always great in a marriage. Dog eat dog world? Not so much. Pick yourself up by your bootstraps? Negates the necessity of interdependence. So while our culture tells us to put your head down, risk it all to find success in whatever makes you happy-marriage is asking us to sit down together and brainstorm what’s best for our entire family unit. While our culture celebrates independence, long term relationships wither under it and thrive on selflessness and interdependence. While our culture tells us to find jobs that will allow us the big house, the two nice cars and the family trips to exotic locales-a healthy marriage tells us that none of that matters as much as a husband who is home relatively early at night and who finds fulfillment in his job, a mom who loves her time at home with her babies making a few pennies teaching classes and creating a podcast and kids who don’t get world class vacations but road trips to see National Parks and hike trails left untouched by most of America.
And our marriage specifically is constantly struggling against a patriarchal society that tells Zach he needs to “man up”, push down his emotions and hide them from anyone-including his wife-lest they think he weak. A healthy marriage requires constant communication and openness but traditional patriarchy (celebrated in America) asks Zach to avoid these things and just get to work-leave the talking and the feelings to me. Most of our arguments these days are because I can tell Zach is avoiding his feelings. He’s still feeling them, mind you, but hasn’t been taught the words to use or the way to voice them. As desperate as I am to hear how he’s feeling, he’s (sometimes rightfully so) worried I’m not strong enough to handle it.
But patriarchy has a way of working against me as well, right? We are often fighting this martyr complex that is built on the other side of a patriarchy that bills men as the breadwinner and women as everything else. Zach is constantly reminding me that taking on more than I can joyfully bear isn’t a sacrifice worth doing for our family and that doing all of the things in the hopes that someone will find me to be the closest thing since Jesus Christ-and then being SUPER pissed when they don’t-is maybe not healthy. And I also have to fight against the idea that if Zach tells me he is worried about the future in any way that it means we are all doomed. When I react in a negative way to his vulnerability it makes him less likely to share with me, understandably so. I find myself constantly fighting against this kind of cultural reaction so prevalent in the underbelly of patriarchy. Because WE are strong enough to weather whatever emotions come from either one of us.
And then this new phenomenon I refer to as the social media marriage. All the couples going on incredible vacations, beautiful date nights and taking professional pictures. The ones who must live in a space that has perfect lighting and 24 hour access to nutritious food and personal trainers. The outside perception of these relationships can burden the very real marriage you’re living with, right? The one that any candid photo would show you still in your house clothes and him in the other room getting a few more things done for work. You know, the one whose anniversary is today but because of kids and life might not allow for you to share space let alone good lighting until the sun’s down. The “spouse challenge” was going around Facebook recently where you were supposed to post a picture of you and your spouse for 7 days. I got tagged to do it a number of times but never did. Because all of the pictures of Zach and I looked the same-a quick selfie before a rare date night that had no less than 4 filters to hide the black chin hairs I forgot to pluck and the stray gray eyebrow of his that grows overnight. I don’t want to be just another unrealistic representation of marriage out there for people, I want to try as hard as I can to represent our marriage and our life as real as humanly possible (with a few filters, obviously. I’m only human). Unrealistic expectations in a relationship can be fatal, I have no interest in contributing to those.
This is why survival is really the best term for marriage. Because you never come to an anniversary smelling like roses-you come smelling like the mud and muck you’ve treaded through to arrive at a place where you can high five each other and say, “Whew. We made it. Another year down. Hey can you wipe off my ass a little bit? Still dirty from the last fall. Ok, let’s get back to it then.” Some years there will be enough time for a full dinner and a full bottle of wine but other years might be a cup of coffee gone cold or one sip of wine before tending to the screaming child you snuggle until you’re both asleep. At 8pm.
Our marriage had humble beginnings in almost every way (except for the actual wedding-thanks mom and dad!) and continues that way as well. But in so many ways I’m grateful that we’ve had to claw and scratch for everything we’ve had because just 14 years in and we are some of the best fighters I know. When it’s with each other we’ve learned to wait until we can do it in a way that’s vulnerable, open and calm. When we are fighting outside forces we fight back to back, knowing we will always be supported and protected by the other. We’re not afraid to get a little scrappy if it means we grow closer to each other and thank goodness for that.
I don’t know how to survive 15 years of marriage or 20 years or 60 years but this is how we’ve survived 14. And I hope that when one of my kids or grandkids is considering marriage and they come to me asking how we’ve done it that I have the courage to say: “Honey if I could show you my heart you would see that it’s been battered and it’s been bruised. Because in all these years I’ve endured all the ways in which forever linking yourself with another human can hurt you. But if you could see my heart you would also notice that it’s twice the size of your average person because Zach has made it grow and bloom in a way that can only happen when you choose to stay with someone every day. You want to know how we’ve lasted? Because both of us in the hard times whispered to ourselves ‘It will be hard but it will be worth it.’ And that’s never been truer than it is today.”
Reader I don’t know your current status in life and I don’t know whether you’re in a season where your marriage or partnership feels like it’s currently built on sand or cement but I want you to know that you’re not alone. There is not a single marriage out there that hasn’t been where you are. Maybe you’ll make it through together, maybe you won’t. This post isn’t to persuade you to stick it out, it’s really just an acknowledgement that sticking it out is hard.
But for me it’s been so worth it. Because Zach is truly the best thing that has ever happened to me. And he continues to be my harvester of light.
Love you more than you can possibly imagine, Z, thanks for continuing to choose me every hour, every day and every year.