I have recently been called upon to answer some questions about the meaning of love and marriage.
I asked myself these questions, neither clearly nor directly, and it took me several weeks to understand the query and the interrogator. It took a lot out of me. I was nearly reduced to a sad degenerate, a person I know I cannot and should not be, but I pulled through it with a sense of clarity I hadn’t realized I needed.
Something strange happens when one is about to make a life-changing decision. It feels a little like the stages of grief, with the necessity of feeling your way through each one without understanding why. It is only when you have reached the end of the line and beaten that which seeks to either destroy or strengthen you, that you find yourself grateful for the struggle.
I decided a year ago to marry a man I thought I loved. Naïveté had me believe that I was ready, and pride would allow me no moments of honesty. In honesty I would have discovered anxiety and doubt. However natural it may be to find yourself afraid to commit to another person for life, I refused to entertain those thoughts. It was all ivory dresses and celebration up until the two month mark. Then there was fear.
There are a lot of ways in which I consider myself mature for my years, and I have gathered strength from so many trials and mistakes. The thought that I would be devoted every day to someone who I knew would do the same for me should have brought me comfort. Instead, I was cynical.
I may know well enough that you cannot expect others to discern your thoughts, to anticipate your needs, but I am not always reasonable. It is often difficult to remember that each person is very much his or her own, and cannot always understand you without careful explanation. I wanted him to know my thoughts before I even knew them, to dispel the anxiety I felt without ever admitting my feelings. I know this was unfair, but emotions are not always subject to rationality. As expected, he was unable to resolve a problem that I could not even define. I knew there was something so important that needed to be expressed, but the words were lost amidst my growing sense of dread. For the first time I truly considered the possibility that our marriage could fail and we might not make it.
Of course, I couldn’t just say those words without any kind of preface. To give that power to my fear before fully grasping it may have meant succumbing to it. First I needed to understand the nature of my doubts, and to do that I required a clear idea of what getting married meant to me. Thus, I arrived at the second stage of my emotional reckoning.
It is nice to say that you love someone, to tell them how much you’d sacrifice to keep them forever. These self-satisfying proclamations of endearment were the kind that made everyone around us feel something, but brought me little relief. The impact that loving another person can have on one’s life is profound, but announcing a willingness to kill or to die for the beloved somehow misses the most important aspects of true commitment.
It was with these words that I started to formulate my own definition of marriage, and it sounded far less heroic to everyone including my fiancé. Surrounded by old friends, honesty came effortlessly, and I calmly stated that there are many people in this world that I would kill for and die for if necessary. It wasn’t meant to cheapen the words spoken by the man I am to marry, but I do not always think about the repercussions of honest dialogue. My point was only to say that killing or dying for someone is not nearly as noble as living for him or her. Choosing every day to affect the course of your life for the sake of another person can be more difficult than walking out to fight or die for your most sacred beliefs. An act of courage does not have to be so glamorous as gunfire and romantic martyrdom.
It is interesting to find that making a seemingly nonchalant statement can open your mind enough to finally grasp a problem with which you have long struggled. I said these words and so many things came into view. I realized why I was afraid to promise myself to this man, and what I needed to know before I could do so in good faith.
A good marriage is not built on love alone. Love can send you out to battle or into a passionate rage, but it cannot always keep you faithful. It cannot keep your relationship strong on its own. Some kind of nurtured inner strength is also necessary. It does not come from attraction or romance. It is practiced daily, with a drive to work harder at this than anything else in your life. It is not easy, and it will often be painful.
So many people believe that marriage fosters happiness, and they are often correct. But it should also house the most intense vulnerability, the willingness to be truly seen for who and what you are. While it may sound like an obvious requirement for any meaningful relationship, it is so often downplayed to the point of nonexistence. This kind of vulnerability means knowing that you will hurt each other. The truth often stings, and sometimes the wound never fully heals. It may be easier to pretend that reality is something other than it is, but that harms rather than builds a marriage. Really loving someone is understanding that they will hurt you, that you will hurt them, and that this is not only okay but necessary. After feeling the pain of admitting weakness and fault, you grow stronger as a couple. After finding the resolution rather than giving into fatigue, you understand each other a little more. Over time this image of your beloved that you have been compiling and correcting becomes clearer and more beautiful. This is the closeness humans crave, whether or not they comprehend that hunger.
I cannot stress enough to myself or to him that it will not be easy. We will lie and hide things from each other until we are ready to be honest. I hope we will always find a way to be strong. The worst thing that can happen to a relationship is an unrealistic expectation. I am not without a complicated past, and neither is he. I have weaknesses of which I am neither proud nor ashamed, because I am this person who is full of passion and questions and love. He is not the only one who will struggle with honesty. Difficult conversations will be had, and all I can hope is that we can manage to come from a place of love more often than a place of fear or doubt. I can ask myself to be strong when I am presented with adversity, but always remember that to err can promote growth. I can believe in the strength of our bond and its ability to withstand the mistakes that we will make in words and in actions. Most importantly, I can make a promise to say the words “I do” with a full understanding of what I mean by them. That is the best offering I have, an honest and unwavering intention to be his wife.