[Photo of the Parc del Laberint d’Horta, Barcelona]
On our tenth anniversary, I wasn’t sure we’d make it to our eleventh.
Admitting that out loud is one of the scariest things I’ve ever done. One doesn’t just up and say something like that; one keeps her head down and her best foot forward and her problems to herself until enough time has passed that she can preface the story with a respectable “Once upon a time…” One year certainly does not count as Enough.
As nerve-wracking as it may be to tell this to you right now though, admitting it to myself was far worse. Dan and I were catching up on The Office (Steve Carell version) at this time last year. The final season focuses heavily on a marriage that is struggling to survive the husband’s new work ventures, the wife’s new artistic opportunities, and the slow breakdown of communication over their decade-long relationship. I watched every episode in a kind of emotional stupor as our story—our work-related dreams and difficulties, our major life decisions, our inability to speak on the same page—flickered across the screen. Every line of it could have been written about us until the final episode, over which my sense of kinship with the characters crash-landed into the base of my throat. Because who was going to script our grand reconciliation? Who was going to supply us with the lines and the props that would make everything okay again?
I didn’t know if we had another year of marriage in us. By that, I don’t mean that I necessarily saw us getting a divorce, but I could no longer see joy in our future, no more easy camaraderie or neutral topics, no more uncensored breaths when the other was in the room. We no longer knew how to be ourselves in each other’s company, and if that didn’t right itself, then “husband and wife” would become no more than semantics.
I’m not ready to share all the details of our disconnect, but I will say this: Maintaining a healthy marriage while starting up a company in a foreign culture with a bureaucratic system designed by Caribbean crazy ants is… well, not im-POSSIBLE, but certainly im-PROBABLE (as our latest family read-aloud would say). Add to that a pair of children, fluctuating bank accounts, poor communication habits, and the wear and tear of so many years rubbing shoulders together, and it’s small wonder that we limped into last summer like a pair of emotional refugees.
We didn’t so much celebrate our tenth anniversary as we did survive it.
This was crushing to me. I had always thought of tenth anniversaries as milestones, gold-plated “You Are Here” signs along the paths of successful marriages. After ten years, we couldn’t fail to have our relationship figured out. After ten years, our exotic Hawaiian vow-renewal ceremony would practically write itself. After ten years… well, we definitely wouldn’t be staring down into our anniversary sangrias to avoid meeting each other’s eyes.
Expectations are the cruelest pranksters.
I opened up my computer about a hundred times that week to write a tribute to our marital “milestone”… a Facebook status if nothing else, a recitation of that annual mantra about each day together being better than the last. It was what everyone would be expecting. I couldn’t do it though. I loved Dan, but I had no vocabulary for making the daily canyon climb of our relationship sound like love. There was no heartwarming retrospect in which to package our struggle. I tried rising to the occasion, but my veins felt like they had been injected with plaster of Paris. I was alone, and Dan was alone, and the connection we still shared made our isolation all the more acute.
“I wanna turn this thing around
I wanna drink with you all night until we both fall down
‘Til we go low rising
Cause we’ve gotta come up
We’ve gotta come up”
Writing this one year later on the morning of our eleventh anniversary, I’d love to be able to say that we came, we saw, and we conquered this whole marriage business thank you very much. I’d bust into a Queen ballad while I was at it, maybe rip my sleeves to show off all those bulging interpersonal muscles I’ve developed. And truth be told, Dan and I have developed some interpersonal muscle power over the past year as we’ve fought our instincts and our habits and our expectations in order to fight for us.
But it hasn’t been a glamorous business, and we are nowhere close to throwing ourselves a victory parade. Rather, we’re more aware than we’ve ever been that marriage is not a thing to be vanquished. There is no finish line, no achievement score after which we can dust our hands off and call it a job well done. In fact, that’s part of where my thinking went wrong years ago, because success in marriage is not a destination at the end of an anniversary-studded path; success in marriage is the daily choice to connect. (You’re welcome to use that, Dr. Phil.)
The hardest truth I’ve learned over the past year is that the counter resets every morning. Just because we kicked ass at marriage yesterday (or last month, or on our honeymoon) doesn’t mean that we’ll be on the same page today. That has got to be one of the most unfair principles in the whole construct of humanity; can’t we just play the good rapport card and have it remain in circulation for the rest of the game?
No. No we cannot. That card might not even remain in circulation for the rest of the hour if our busy lives have anything to do with it.
Which is why my husband of eleven years and I have been relearning how to talk. We’ve been at it for around six months now, and do you know why toddlers need fifteen hours of sleep a day? Because learning how to talk is like running back-to-back triathlons in your own brain. Dan and I are having to rediscover when to talk, where to talk, what tones to use, and what wording will work… and then come the hows. How to bring up sensitive topics. How to figure out what’s going on behind the scenes. How to be honest without weaponizing that honesty. How to confirm that we understand what the other is saying. Lord o’ mercy. This book has been helpful in getting us started, but the work we’re having to put into using the English language is like nothing I’ve experienced since the age of two. It makes us want nothing more than to zone out in front of the TV at the end of the day, arguably one of the main ways we ended up in this mess in the first place.
When we have enough energy (and/or resolve) to go spelunking in each other’s minds instead of zoning out though, good things happen. For instance, we remember that we like each other. We remember why we like each other too. Even when our conversations delve into places that wound or frighten, we’re together in the turbulence instead of standing under our single-serving rain clouds, and as much as I hate and resist those emotionally volatile talks, it’s worth remembering that Dan is the person I most want by my side through them.
On our tenth anniversary, I didn’t have the heart to share the following photo, snapped during a small pocket of happiness on our getaway to Barcelona. It looked like a lie to me—our smiles and closeness a tableau of everything our relationship lacked. I see it differently today though. That pocket of happiness wasn’t a lie; it was a success of the small, daily variety that counts the most to me now. We were making it, one shutter click at a time. One tongue-stumbling conversation when we’d rather reach for the remote. One afternoon set aside to rediscover why my husband is my favorite kind of company. One hard-won year to celebrate, not as a milestone but as 365 of them.