Marital Work-Study

Earlier this week, two story endings collided with each other in my headspace. The first was the leave-all-the-lights-on season finale of True Detective. (Did you see it? And will you ever step foot on a nature preserve again?) Less than twenty-four hours later, I finished reading (and by reading, I mean listening to the audiobook version of) Gone Girl. If you haven’t watched or read these yet, don’t worry; my blog is spoiler-free. All you need to know for the purposes of this post is that both stories involve, to some extent or another, a marriage that is unraveling.

It’s so easy to follow the decline of love when it’s outlined in pithy narrative, isn’t it? We watch fictional spouses behave like idiots or ingrates and wonder how in God’s name they don’t see what’s coming to them. We see all the little tendernesses taken for granted and the little barbs of bitterness digging in. We groan when the unhappily married protagonist catches the eye of some young hot thing at a bar because we already know the trajectory of that eye contact, how it will brush against skin and burrow into bed before curving toward a final showdown of heartbreak. Relational cause-effect is obvious under the lens of story.

Without that lens though, out in the unfiltered single-take of reality, nothing is obvious. When I look at my husband across the breakfast table, I don’t have a camera crew helping me zoom in on the adorable curve of his grin. There is no spotlight positioned to bring out the color of his eyes, no director coaxing my perspective toward an unseen worry line, no narrator highlighting the nuances of his words. I don’t think to study him, not the way I do movie characters. It doesn’t occur to me to practice literary analysis on the open book of our marriage. It doesn’t occur to me to notice.

I’ve been thinking about that a lot this week while mulling over plot lines (and debating whether or not to set foot in the state of Louisiana again). I can see so clearly how fictional husbands and wives sabotage their intimacy, but can I see it in myself? Do I have enough perspective to spot the inattention or fierce bouts of selfishness that I wedge into my marriage?

We celebrate our eleventh wedding anniversary this summer. I’d always thought that by ten years, I’d have marriage down pat, as if it were a skill that muscle memory could take over for me. I’ve come to see that that’s the real issue though—my ever thinking that long-term love should be as automatic and reflexive as pedaling a bike.

The following Fiona Apple song has been on repeat in my head lately, my mind reverberating with her line, “You’re more likely to get cut with a dull tool than a sharp one.” Isn’t that the truth of relationships? The hard, undeniable truth that passivity is lethal in matters of love? Here’s the song, every line razor-edged with honesty (I’ll warn you that the language isn’t polite, so listen at your own discretion):

“You forgot you have to try,
you have to try,
you have to try…”

The truth is that I don’t have marriage down pat. I do have to try, still, every day. Dan and I are continuously figuring out the practical implications of that vaguely ominous newlywed admonishment, “Marriage takes work.” (Best if said with funereal voice and knelling head.) I will freely admit that I had no idea what this meant when I first got married. What could possibly constitute “work” when it came to something as nebulous and giddy as love?

On the off-chance that you’re wondering the same thing right now, here is by far the most practical definition that “work” has taken (is taking) in my own marriage: intentionality. Being present when we’re together rather than letting my mind drift. Making conscious decisions about our relationship rather than letting it slide into poor habits. Noticing my husband. Being curious about him. Paying attention to what’s going on behind the scenes of his words and actions. Considering what goes into my words and actions in response. Setting aside time to spend with him. Letting him in on what I’m thinking. Being proactive about everything from affection to problem-solving. Intentionality, intentionality, intentionality.

And goodness, is that ever an example of easier said than done. Dan and I have kids. We both work from home. We are busy (which I fully realize is code for “average adult humanoid”), and we both want our relationship to be a respite from work, a worry-free zone where we can kick our feet up in easy companionship. The last thing that we want to do most evenings is sit down at the table to hash out communication issues and try to delve into each other’s psyches. That’s when being present in our relationship really does constitute work. Hard work. Hard work that—despite my love for that man—I would really, really rather not put in most of the time. (Just being honest, folks.)

Without intentionality though, a relationship begins to slip as surely as a rock climber whose concentration has lapsed. I know this. I’ve watched it happen before in my own marriage, a marriage which started out so breezily that I couldn’t imagine a context for work within it. I’m aware there are many, many other factors that go into relationships—communication skills, compatibility, psychological elements, circumstantial ones—but this is a big one. Like Ms. Apple sings, you have to try, you have to try, you HAVE to TRY. Without effort, without the genuine inconvenient labor of being present, a marriage can crumble into the past tense.

I would rather live here in the muddy now working to harmonize my perspective with my husband’s than be an narrator omniscient with retrospect, aware of all the wrong turns we took but powerless to change our story. I don’t want this good thing we have here to slip away when [because] I’m not looking. That’s why I’m writing this post, in fact: not because I’m trying to join the ranks of lugubrious advice-givers but because acknowledgement is such a big part of intentionality. I want this down in writing, for myself as much as for anyone else, as a reminder that marriage can be hard—really hard—but that hard can also be good.

Really good.

Photo by Dalton Photography

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  1. Your blog makes me so happy 🙂 Thanks for sharing once again!

  2. I’m just over here on the other side of the world vigorously nodding my head because YES to all of it.

  3. Well said, Bethany. I can honestly say that I wish I had known some of these things when I was 11 years in! It will be 45 years for us this month. The first 2 years very rocky. Now I finally know some stuff. I applaud and encourage you to follow those thoughts because it is worth the work! It can be really good!!

  4. So, so good, darling Bethany. XO You’ve captured so much of what I’ve been thinking too. The lethality of passivity, the healing power of looking, noticing, caring, listening, working. XO Thanks for these powerful reminders. XO

  5. Yes. Marriage is SUPER hard. Especially when there are kids and jobs and laundry. I tend to be more passive now than in the past. But that is because of TIME. Some days the stuff gets pushed to the top. In a matter of seconds. It takes a long time to realize what you see on TV isn’t real. 🙂

  6. Thank you all!

    Gail – 45? Wow. I wish that I could pick your and Bob’s brains about marriage; I can only imagine how much we could learn from the two of you. Thanks for your encouragement!

    Krista – I knew that the noticing part would especially click with you. 🙂 I love reading the little bits of couple life that you share, the ways that you celebrate that sweet guy of yours. So nice to be doing this along with you.

    Megsie – Time… my goodness. That’s the biggest culprit when our marriage goes slack too, I think. When time is being pulled out from under our feet by a hundred different responsibilities, there is so little left to put toward intentional romance. I wish all-expenses-paid annual couple vacations were a thing. 🙂

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