Shortly before our wedding, someone gave me and my husband this advice: “Marriage is good. It’s hard—and sometimes you’ll want out, but it’s worth it.” I remember thinking that was an odd thing to say to a couple about to get married. It seemed like such a bleak view of marriage.
Since then, I’ve heard plenty of other people say similar things to engaged and newlywed couples. I’ve heard pastors say it during weddings. I’ve heard parents say it at receptions. I’ve heard couples say it within a year of their own weddings. I’ve seen marriage books, blog posts, magazine articles and anniversary posts on social media say it: Marriage is hard.
People tend to say and write this phrase as if it’s a given, a known and indisputable fact. They say it to warn newlyweds about what they’re getting into: It won’t all be a fairytale. They say it to encourage and reassure one another: We have rough patches, too. They say it to make sure they’re not the only ones: Marriage is hard, am I right?
But when I see or hear those words, I don’t feel understood, and I don’t feel relieved. The phrase frustrates me. Instead of saying “Yes, me too,” I have to ask, “Is it really?”
This is not to say that there aren’t broken relationships. This is not to say that anyone is doing it wrong. And this is not to say that we shouldn’t share our struggles or seek help when we need it. We should be honest and vulnerable with one another about our experiences. But we should also choose our words carefully.
Lots of people say that the first year of marriage is the hardest. From the outside, it might seem like my husband and I have good reason to agree. Immediately after our wedding, we moved all the way across the country to a city where we knew no one. We lived in a tiny studio apartment, and we had almost no furniture. We slept on a jumble of blankets on the floor.
A few months later, we packed up a Buick full of our things and moved back across the country. We lived with three other people (one of them an infant) in a two-bedroom apartment. Before the year was up, we had moved two more times. We each had two different jobs and several months of unemployment. At one point, the bank account was very nearly empty.
That first year threw plenty of challenges our way, but marriage wasn’t one of them. We learned plenty about each other. We had conflict. We had to figure out how to live and navigate life together. But that hard apartment floor in that tiny apartment would have been a lot less bearable without the other person lying there, too.
When we say that marriage is hard, we are telling the person who thinks she needs to find herself before having a relationship that she should put off the relationship. We’re telling the person who thinks he needs to get his finances under control before getting engaged that he should put off the proposal. We’re telling the person who thinks she needs to establish her career before getting married that she should put off marriage. We’re telling these people who are buying into the current spirit of the age that they’re right to hang on to their carefully cultivated lives rather than enter into one that’s shared. We’re telling them marriage isn’t worth it.
Often, we’re telling them these things without having very good reasons to do so. Many of the reasons pastors and writers have for saying that marriage is hard are simple and trivial: Marriage is hard because you live with another person who might leave his dirty laundry on the floor. You might marry someone who has different ideas about how to spend money. You might find someone who wants to spend her time focusing on different hobbies. You might be with someone who has a different method for washing the dishes.
Marriage is hard because the two of you come from different homes and different families and different traditions. Marriage is hard because you argue and because you moved to a different city and because you started a new career. Marriage is hard because you have to figure out how to meld two different sets of dreams and passions and ambitions into one shared life.
None of these issues is unique to marriage.
When a newborn enters the world, no one tells him immediately that having a family is rough. When a 5-year-old kid starts school, no one warns her the night before that finding a best friend is hard.
But brothers leave their dirty clothes on the floor. Parents differ from their children about how money should be spent. Best friends don’t always enjoy all the same hobbies. And roommates might have different ideas about how to do the dishes. Friends and roommates come from different homes and families and traditions. Just about everybody moves and changes jobs at some point. Family members share a life filled with differing perspectives, personalities, desires and dreams.
A marriage is just one more type of relationship. A spouse is a family and a best friend and a roommate all wrapped up in one person we get to choose to share in our life. There are challenges associated with living with other people, and there are challenges associated with having relationships. There are challenges associated with living a full life. But marriage means having a person to stand next to us while we navigate and dream and chase and face these challenges.
On a shelf in my bathroom sits a small plaque that was given to us as a wedding gift. On the plaque are the familiar words of 1 Corinthians 13. These words, often read at weddings, help to give us our pictures of what marriage should look like. We hear: “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy …” and we think about our own actions in marriage. We think, “I must be patient, and my spouse must be kind, and we won’t be boastful or proud or rude.” We easily create a picture of how spouses should act, a picture of what a perfect relationship looks like.
Interestingly, the plaque in my bathroom doesn’t start quoting in the typical place. This plaque doesn’t say “Love is patient, love is kind.” Instead, it starts here: “Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.” Just in case our minds started to wander, the passage reminds us that this isn’t about us, and there is no such thing as perfection: Love bears and endures all things.
Marriage, in and of itself, is not hard. Life, on the other hand, is filled with plenty of challenges. And even newlyweds already have the tools they need to face these challenges. There is life after the wedding. But love never fails.