Thursday, December 10, 2009

Private details of a marriage

Last night I read an article from the New York Times Magazine called Married (Happily) With Issues. As I read it--the full thing, all 10 pages--I found myself almost involuntarily comparing my marriage with the author's. Not just in terms of length of marriage but also in terms of routines, affection, communication, sources of conflict. I found more differences than similarities. And yet like the author, I know that my marriage is very happy.

Only the people who are in a relationship can really know what's going on in that relationship (and sometimes even they don't know). Even if I sat here and wrote a blog post that spelled out every mundane detail, every little interaction and discussion and piece of our marriage, still nobody except Torsten and me could ever know what it's like or how it feels.

The author of this article walked us through some very intimate parts of her marriage, fights and sources of pain. She gave great detail. And as I read, I tried not to judge. Because even these things that she was describing, even the ones that sounded foreign and horrifying to me, even those things can't really be understood by anyone who wasn't a part of them. Because different things are sacred to different people. What is a horrible, cruel thing to say in one marriage is irrelevant and casual in another.

I'm reminded of a post that Slynnro wrote once (and that I now cannot find) about how she and her husband do not go grocery shopping together, and people judge them for it. I can see why some people's first reaction would be surprise, or even horror, if for them shopping is a big deal, and a source of intimacy or collaboration. But I think that's what people are really reacting to when they learn details of other people's marriages. It's not, "How can you be happy together if you can't even shop together?" (even if those are the words that are said); it's, "I interpret this detail to mean that you don't share intimacy, because I myself draw something important from this same detail in my own relationship."

This is why, even if I shared every detail of my marriage on my blog, my readers could still never really know exactly what it all means and how it all feels. Because ultimately, though of course we're capable of empathy, our reactions to other people are usually reflections of ourselves.

And still, even believing this to be true, I found myself judging some of the things the author described. For example, I was horrified when she detailed how her husband invoked divorce during a fight. For us, in our marriage, such a thing is unthinkable. If Torsten ever suggested anything about a divorce to me, I can't even imagine how I would react--it's just that unfathomable. I can't imagine any situation, ever, where I would say such a thing to him.

But that doesn't mean it's the same for all couples. And that doesn't mean that just because neither of us can even conceive of contemplating divorce in any context, our marriage is perfect. I will say that so far, we haven't had those struggles that people talk about when they say that being married is hard, and takes work. Of course, it does--I acknowledge that--and yet at the same time as I think about it, I don't think it's hard, and I don't think we work at it, exactly.

And maybe that's bad? Maybe we should be working at it. Or maybe we're just defining "work" differently--because we do take care of each other, and make a point to be thoughtful toward each other, and make compromises for each other, and make choices that we wouldn't make if we as individuals were the only factor in the equation. Maybe that's what other people call "work"? Or maybe we're missing something that is necessary for some couples to be happy together, but is not necessary for us.

Of course, we've only been married for a little over a year. We don't have kids and our lives are relatively stress-free. Perhaps what causes a marriage to require work is time, and distance, and competing priorities. Maybe right now our marriage doesn't feel like work because it's so easy and natural to focus on each other.

Certainly there are things we could do better, and this article, though the author's marriage seems quite different from my own, made me realize some of them. In some places in our marriage, I put myself first, and then I feel guilty about it. And in other places I put Torsten first without even realizing it, and to my own detriment, and in a way that isn't necessary. Maybe I feel that one balances out the other? And I'm pretty sure that the key to balancing this out without creating a competition, even if it's all in my head, is to talk to him about it and express my thoughts and needs.

The thing is that I'm so comfortable with him, and he's so easy to talk to, and we talk about so many different things, that I don't even really notice if there's something I'm not talking to him about. I don't notice that it's there or that it needs to be discussed. It isn't actively bothering me. My needs are met, as are my non-need-wants, and so are his. And so I don't even notice the little things that slip through the cracks sometimes. But that doesn't mean I shouldn't bring them up when I do notice them.

And maybe in other marriages these little things would be big things, huge problems. Or maybe they wouldn't be things at all. I can speculate about this, but I can't know. Because the only marriage I can really access and understand is my own.


  1. OMG, I totally don't feel like marriage is work, either!! In fact, I almost feel like it *shouldn't* be as hard as some people make it. (But that could just be me being all Judgy McJudgerson.)

  2. From time to time, I ask Sweets whether he's truly, fundamentally happy with me. So far, each and every time, he looks at me like I'm insane and says of course he is. The reason I do it is not because I need to hear affirmation about how good we both feel about our marriage. No. It's actually to remind him (and myself) to keep the lines of communication open. To remind him that I'm open to having the tough talks, if we ever need to have them. And that checking in from time to time isn't such a bad way to do it.

  3. How can living with another human being day in and day out not be work? Unless you are mirror images of each other and truly never disagree on anything in your life, there has to be work involved. You make decisions together, you negotiate, you come to some compromises. My husband wants a 55 inch tv, we don't have the space or budget right now. We discussed it, we even went and looked at some, in the end, we decided no. I want granite countertops, even had a guy come out, measure, give us a quote. For the same reasons as above, we've decided not to do it. Neither one of those decisions was a 5 minutes, oh you want this? I don't think so and the other person saying, oh you are right, let's forget it. It took weeks in some cases. That's work. And, it's not a bad thing to work at your marriage. Anything worth having is worth working hard for. If I don't pull myself out of a rut, we'd spend 3 hrs everyday in front of the tv after work and then asleep. Every now and then, we WORK at it to make a romantic evening out of it.

    Oh, and I don't like shopping with anybody else. I usually have a list, an agenda, my pile of coupons and other people just slow me down.

    On the other hand, we love window shopping at Bed Bath and Beyond together.

  4. Oh heavens, marriage is hard! It's easy, too, but it's also hard. But the "work" people refer to isn't, to me and my marriage, is to remember to always be considerate to him. To give when it would be easier for me to take or to be mean because I'm in a crappy mood. It's remembering to appreciate him when I am overwhelmed because of all the things *I* do around the house and with the baby. It's compromising on something I really wanted or didn't want because he felt just as strongly in the opposite direction. It's finding a win/win for both of us, rather than one of us winning.

    Yes, that stuff is work. Worth it, but it's work. And when I was married for a year or so, I would have said the same things you say here. But almost seven years into our marriage and 11 years into our relationship, I feel differently.

  5. LOL Jonniker said what I wanted to say, better and in less words!

  6. we were talking about this this morning on the drive into work. people have such different tastes and levels of what is o.k. with them. for us, i'm sure many people would look in with their magnifying glass and pick us apart. but i have never had anyone ask me, "are you really happy?" i credit that to the fact that people can tell i am. if we were so different from everyone else AND i seemed unhappy, i think there would be reason for concern.

  7. I never felt like marriage was work until we had kids, and both parties are suddenly having this unspoken fight about who is doing the most work and is the most tired! (That's mostly said lightly, though, fear not. You get over it.)
    Wait, though. Now I'm really thinking about it... I guess even before kids, there were a few occasions when I felt that we had to try really, really hard (to work, if you will!) to put aside our own ideas of what a normal reaction to a certain thing would be and understand that what the other person was feeling wasn't WRONG, it was just different than our reaction. Does that make sense? We're just SUCH different people- he's extremely cerebral and right brained (left handed, even) and analytical, and I am much more about the feelings and the intuition and the empathy- that there were times when we literally felt we were speaking different languages. I'd say that particular area has been genuine work for us. Everything else, it's more just about remembering not to take for granted the person you live with!

  8. Oh Jess you always write the most thoughtful posts. If I ever get married, I might call on you for help/advice. You and Torsten seem to have it right.

  9. I read that article too. Nicely commentary, Jess. B and I feel like we've been married a year longer than we actually have - since the day we moved into our house together. That was our adjustment year, our figuring out "this one person I've agreed to spend my life with now comes above everyone else in my life" year. It had it's fights, it's arguments. I know for a fact my best friend judged us and talked about our little spats to our other friends. But there's an adjustment period. We're through that - not to say we don't disagree.

    The thing I find fascinating is the friends who try to avoid fights and conflict. Now, I'm not okay with constant stress and fighting, it doesn't work for us, but that's not to say it doesn't work for others. But in my marriage, some things just can't be calmly handled, and definitely I can't just let every little thing slide for the sake of not arguing. Every relationship is private and different from every other relationship. And I try to remind myself of that when I'm thinking about a former roommate, "Just because you pride yourself on not letting your boyfriend know when you're upset about things doesn't mean your relationship is happy".

  10. And I agree that most of the time, marriage isn't a lot of work. But I'm prepared to work at it. When we have kids, I'm prepared to work to make time for just the two of us.

  11. In a rare moment, we bought the Sunday Times and I can not bring myself to read that article, but that's out of boredom not disgust or anything. We had our own trial by fire (before kids, thank goodness) and true to the saying, "what does not break us will make us stronger" we are in such a place today that I do not even care to hear how other marriages are going (or not).

    That said, whatever gets a couple to "the other side" -from discord to unity- is probably strange to someone else. I'm sure if I wrote all about our marriage in the Times we would seem like a crazy weird couple too. Yet we feel pretty damn solid, and normal.

  12. I am so interested in the marriage talk here.

    I read the whole article, after reading this, and I'm really curious which parts (other than the divorce thing) made you uncomfortable. I know (well, I think anyway) that my marriage was an outlier in the BAD way, but I really thought the author's experience was pretty typical for a couple who have been married that long, with kids. But, what do I know.

    I will say that I DO think marriage is and should be hard work, where "work" is defined as "trying in a conscious way". That can be easy, or hard, depending on what else is going on in your life at the time.

  13. OK, I'm on page 3, but I had to come back and say that so far my favorite line is "I realized that my favorite books about marriage — Calvin Trillin’s “About Alice” and Joan Didion’s “Year of Magical Thinking” — included one spouse who was dead." That just cracked me up. It's a fascinating article.

  14. This is the most brilliant thing I've read today, this week, possibly in 2009: "our reactions to other people are usually reflections of ourselves"

    This could easily change the way I look at my relationships and a new goal for 2010 is to stop reacting to people the way I'd react to myself.

  15. I pretty much just think that if you are happy together than whatever you are doing is working, wether it requires "work" or not.

  16. I absolutely, heartily second jonniker's comment. It IS work to remember to appreciate your spouse, and to compromise, and make time to listen spend time together. And it definitely gets harder as the years go by and as you have children. And definitely worth it.

  17. My husband and I both devoured that article. I agree with most of what you said. I try very hard to remember that every relationship is different and different things work for different people. It can be hard sometimes though. We are friends with a couple that argue a lot - over games, news, restaurants - and they argue in front of people. This sort of horrifies us but they clearly thrive on this dynamic. It's almost seems like foreplay to them. ;)

    You clearly have a strong marriage and I definitely identify more with yours (the limited amount I know about it) than with the couple in the article. I am 29 and have been with my husband 9.5 years (married for 5.5). Only in the last couple of years have I begun to believe that marriage is "work." That is just the easiest term to use. But what I mean by that is that as our lives get more complicated and as we each change and grow as individuals over time, our relationship HAS to change too. So navigating those changes, figuring out what works for each of us, learning and relearning things about each other - that is what I mean by "work" - work is just such a silly word though. It is isn't work. It's called lifelong partnership.

  18. Great post, Jess! One thing I always like about your blog is your careful evaluation of topic and how you are purposeful about the things you do.

    I often feel like you do about marriage, thinking, "What so and so did/does what? That could never work for me!" And when I talk with girlfriends about their marriages, I often feel left out of the it's so hard/why do we fight so much conversations. Our relationship just isn't like that.

    It doesn't feel like work yet, but we do make a point to serve each other, to care for each other and to look out for the others interests. I guess that's what others might consider work, in this very selfish society of ours.

    Kudos to you and Tosten.

  19. This was so well put! I agree, that relationships (since I'm not married, yet!) take a lot of work. It's so easy to fall into a selfish, or completely selfless, pattern, that reminding yourself and your other of that balance is important. And yes, I agree, that relationship should be natural. The "work" doesn't necessarily have to be conscious, hard, or time consuming.

    Taking that time each day to say "I love You", not because you're saying "goodbye" for the time being, or because it's a thank you for something nice, but because you truly mean it, is important.

    As SoMi said, it's all about communication.

    Great post!

  20. I read that same article and I couldn't get past the fact that they were spending more than mortgage on groceries every month. Blew my mind.

  21. Most of the time I am certain that we can barely understand the nuances of our own relationships let alone other people's. I get wanting to talk/vent/share about our relationship woes and to a certain degree it's cathartic and helpful. It's when we start to compare or listen to people other than ourselves that our relationships can take a big blow.

  22. Thank you for this post. It was great.

  23. Go GROCERY SHOPPING together? We're supposed to go GROCERY SHOPPING together? I wonder, must we also accompany each other to the dentist? Clean the bathroom together? It seems like it might be pleasant to go together, but it's easily a one-person task.

    I liked everything you wrote here.

  24. My marraige was NEVER work. Before we had kids. We were insanely happy and our relationship was so easy. Even our differences just seemed to enhance our relationship because I was strong where he was weak and vice versa.

    Then we had a baby and the first year I was going around thinking, "Why does everyone say having kids is so hard? We're HAPPIER than we ever were!" Then I quit my job to be home full time and our family dynamic changed. This caused conflict. Then the baby turned into a kid who needed PARENTING and DISCIPLINE and turns out, we have VERY different ideas about how certain things should be handled (though when we talked about it at length prior to having kids, we seemed to be in synch.)

    We both love our kids more than anything, more than AIR, so we find ourselves having heated arguements we never used to have because we both feel so PASSIONATE about our own side.

    That said, we're still very happy in our marraige, but I finally understand the work people talked about. Because it really is work for us to trust each other as parents. To let go of how I was raised or how he was raised and come to a middle ground about how to raise our kids.

    8 years together, 4 years of parenting...yeah it's work, but work I am more than willing to do.

  25. My husband and I read this article, too, and it was an interesting read for two people who have been married only two months (tomorrow!). It seems silly at this point to say that I don't feel like marriage is work, because all we've done so far is take a honeymoon and adopt a kitten, but I think that the article (and the other awesome commenters!) had some good insights. I did cringe when I read about how much they were paying for groceries, but also saw some things that I could relate to. This may be the newlywed in me talking, but I feel like all this "work" on our marriages is something we're agreeing to on the wedding day (which means I am SO with you on being horrified by any mention of divorce).

  26. Lovely and thoughtful post, as usual.

    I think in marriage, sometimes it's so much WORK and sometimes it's just pretty smooth sailing. We've had two significant times in our marriage where it was WORK and those were trying and wearing, but so many other times where I think "how could you not love being married?"

    When I have some time, I'll have to go read the article.

  27. I don't think of marriage as "work" per se, but I do think you have to be conscientious in ways that you don't if you aren't married.

    And where is that damn post? Driving me crazy.

  28. There is some work and assembly required. I think it comes easier to some, some choose their partners wisely and might have less "work" or it doesn't feel like work, some marry someone they adore but who's, for example, fiercely independant and there is conflict over that.
    My marriage was definitely work. At some point too much work, but I also picked the wrong person for me...of course heading off to Iraq 3 out of 5 years marriage makes a young marriage even harder...and more "work". If you love someone, "work" doesn't really as much "work". :) It's more growing together, figuring each other out and adjusting accordingly.

  29. I've been thinking about this since you wrote it, and I think that less-compatible people DO in general have to work more at their marriages than more-compatible people do. But I ALSO think that less-ALIKE people have to work more: a couple might be soulmate-level compatible but still not have the same interests or shopping priorities and would have to deal with that (how much time one spends playing tennis, whether the other gets to buy the expensive sound system for music only she/he likes to hear at that level of quality).

    I think, too, that relationships have Harder Work times and No Work times, and I think this TENDS to be more of a longer-marriage issue (even superficial and incompatible Hollywood marriages make it for a short time), but the trade-off is that I also find it easier with time because I get used to it ("This happened before and it was okay") and because it seems more and more worth the work ("This is a tough time but it's also a 12-year marriage and I'm not tossing it out because of a little disagreement").

  30. Oh! And I meant to say that I think it can also happen that the work can be in the EARLY part of the marriage, when things are being figured out, and when maybe there are some surprises about what it's like to live with another/that person. My parents, for example, had a HORRIBLE first year of marriage, then a few years that were okay, and since then they've had a really good marriage. They were both just really surprised about how it was to be married to the other one at first.

  31. As time goes by in a marriage life usually gets more complicated (in-laws, children, careers, etc.) so it's inevitable that it will need some work or attention. When you would like a little motivation and inspiration to continue to make your marriage the best it can be, take a look at "A Short Guide to a Happy Marriage."

  32. WHAT WHAT WHAT?? Slynnro DOESN'T GO GROCERY SHOPPING WITH HER HUSBAND? Well then clearly her marriage is DOOMED!!!

    I am obviously joking as my marriage is doomed if that was the case. But you are correct, what works for some people doesn't work for others and even after giving every minute detail on a blog, no one will ever know what your marriage is TRULY like.

    Every detail sounds kind of boring anyway! :-)

  33. My other half and I joke about divorce or dumping each other all the time. We know we are solid enough as a couple that we couldn't possibly mean it. My personal blindspot is couples who don't eat together or like any of the same foods. I really don't get that. But then food is a big part of mine and T's lives.

    But we do have to work at our relationship. It's not that we resent doing that and a lot of what we would term "working at our relationship" is stuff we want to do for each other like compromising over what to do at the weekend or making each other breakfast in bed sometimes. But some of it is harder than that. We both have stuff in our past that's been hard to deal with and get past and it's easier to say you understand than it is to actually live with the consequences. We've both had serious health problems that are not easy to live with, for either of us. And some of the big things in life, like buying a house and starting a family, we wanted at different times and that's some tough compromising.

    On the other hand, day to day we are gloriously happy and we have no doubt that we will spend our entire lives together. We bicker but apologise quickly. We know we are happy and lucky to have what we have.

    So yeah: I do think long-term relationships take some work and you should count yourselves lucky if that's not been hard. Or maybe it's just that you're both very grounded, realistic people so being thoughtful of one another is just how you are. You'd be surprised how many people out there aren't so considerate.