As I’ve spoken about previously, last August Austin and I set some intentions for our 5th year of marriage: one for me, one for him, one for us as a couple. The hope that we wanted to put into words was to be braver talking about our marriage, to let it affect and be affected by others in its honesty and in its rawness. In many ways, this partnership is the most prominent teacher in my life; it’s exquisite and it’s muddy, and it’s not easy to show you, not easy to put up for others to see without the immediate recoiling fear of being judged.
When we were planning our wedding, the process regarding the ceremony was entirely ours to own, and it proved to be the point of the most tension with my parents. Most of my extended family are evangelical Christians, and both Austin and I are harder to pin down. The core of my parents’ concern was that our ceremony would be too ‘spiritual’ and not Christian enough, that it would be odd to the rest of my family. A few days before the wedding I sobbed to my Dad in our living room saying that if something that small were going to make my cousins, aunts, uncles, grandparents stop loving me, then mostly that just felt really sad. It didn’t feel like something to try to mitigate; it felt like something to grieve.
We will have been married 5 years this August, and it strikes me still how infrequently we all collectively speak honestly about each others’ marriages and partnerships beyond the Instagram posts and planned date nights. Across many categories, I’m beginning to wake up to the many ways in which so many of us subscribe to a certain idea of normal or ‘the way things are done’, and how those assumed ‘shoulds’ keep us small. I believe there is a messiness about everything good and true in life, but my experience has been that bringing the messy seems threatening to other people, it scares them away. I think that’s where we need to start.
Growing up against a Christian backdrop that was meant to catch all of our morals, I saw marriage as the finish line. It was the light at the end of the horrendous dating tunnel, the thing to work toward. In college and beyond, I treated every single-ish guy as a potential future husband in my mind. Could we date? Is this awkward silence actually the beginning of something beautiful? Who do I have to pretend to be in order to be attractive to you? It was the worst.
Meeting and dating Austin was a fast dash to the journey’s end because I felt more comfortable with him than I had with any other man, and that was all I needed to call my mom and announce that I had found the one, before we even went out for our first date. I look back now and see my little baby heart, stunted romantically, no doubt, from years of not feeling at all comfortable with my sensuality, my body, my presence, how I took up space in a room. I was 25 years old but in this particular area, so, so much younger and less sure. It is grace upon grace that I could, with all of these ages and feelings, move forward with this other person, with all his ages and feelings. It still is. It still is.
I used to assume that there was this magic, this secret sauce, to finding a partner, and that some people had it and other people didn’t. If I had to come up with the sauce’s recipe, it would most definitely include being thin and smiley, highly accommodating, athletic and sporty in all the right ways, smart but not too smart, interested in a diversity of activities but humble when talking about them. And, of course, if you grow up believing a certain story about your desirability (as I did), the ingredients are the bible; sticking to them, morphing to them was my best hope. Some girls were popular and cool with their high school boyfriends and locker room stories, others bloomed late. I’m still blooming. I think we all are. I think that’s the point.
The first two years of being married were difficult, as so many people said they would be. I look back and see that I was working through a lot and being so unbelievably hard on myself, operating from an understanding that there was a right way to be married, to be a wife, to be a couple, and that deviation from that ideal of perfection meant failure and doom. “Hold fast to the marriage” was advice I heard frequently, but I never quite understood what that meant. I had a particularly hard time with sex because Christian communities tend to restrict that sort of self-expression and exploration, and it didn’t help that I was healing from an eating disorder, unsure about how to be present with my body in such vulnerability. We had a hard time not always being on the same page with expectations or money, or the fact that I lean toward introvert and need copious amounts of alone time to be silent and still, and Austin is extroverted, through and through.
It was also ridiculously fun. We had pet rats that Austin would try to teach how to swim in our bathtub. We made each other breakfast in bed, were doubled over laughing more often than not, and had friends over for dinner frequently. I felt like I had won the lottery with him, that somehow I had stumbled into the best thing that’s ever happened to me, but that if I didn't fulfill the wife checklist with flying colors, that somebody somehow was going to take it away from me, not because I didn’t trust Austin but because if the marriage was the goal, then not living up to it was always a threat.
Fast forward to now, people will often ask how Austin is, how we’re doing, I always say ‘good’, and I mean it. It’s so good. But it’s not the same as your marriage or your relationship or your idea of how marriage or relationships should be. It’s ours, it’s entirely and without apology ours. So many of us operate with fundamental assumption that there is marriage, that it has characteristics and traits and a trajectory and that all of our relationships are there to serve the partnership. But how can that be if each of us are entirely unique with our own emotional and psychological landscapes? Shouldn’t the relationship serve the people in it, not the other way around?
I believe that marriage is a commitment to see the other through their own transformation, their continuation, their wholeness with their holes (see what I did there?). To see the other through. Maybe throughout a life, maybe throughout a season, maybe for years, maybe not.
All of our interactions are living, breathing, dynamic happenings. Nothing about my marriage is fixed or static because nothing about how we move through the world and all of the big and small ways we help each other do the same is fixed or static. As Carlo Rovelli puts it, a rock is a thing. The rock is bound to a time and location, but a kiss is a happening. It’s an action, and it’s here one second and gone the next.
Anything that’s alive, that’s a happening, anything that has the agency to move and change, has seasons of growth and of ruin. It’s how we’re all made, it’s how the entirety of the world operates: in cycles and in intervals; impermanence is the only constant. The waves don’t wash up to shore only to stay. They go back, they return, always. The sun rises and falls. The moon, soft and tender, wanes and waxes— never the same. Our crops come and go with seasons, and all flora follows suit. Every creature have a lifespan, nothing is ever fixed that has life inside of them.
In that same vein, where two or more are gathered, in all interactions and all relationships, there is a life that forms entirely on its own. This new entity of the connection has an energy about it, a shelf life to it, its own unique cycle of growth, death, regrowth. I’m learning this particular lesson with friendships right now, that there is a wisdom is letting things run their course, even if my pride or my ego want it to be on my own terms. Sometimes things end that need to end. This is the truth and the strange mystery of it all; and it takes a certain bravery, which is difficult to develop if the group mentality makes you feel like a disappointment when things end or change. As a culture we don’t hold fast to seasons, we hold fast to agency and success. We create a reality with each other and our institutions that fosters this sort of self-driven, destination-seeking mentality, which inevitably fails because we live in a reality of seasons and consequent fluctuations.
Austin and I are constantly renegotiating the terms of our marriage because it’s always moving, breathing, growing, birthing itself into something new, just like I am, just like he is. This understanding, this surrender to the life that lives within and throughout, is a white flag that has saved me. Choosing to ride the wave of variation instead of standing firm against the tide has meant the difference between living our partnership out of love instead of out of fear. It has made all of the difference.
We have our hand-written vows framed in our home, vows that we were written after knowing each other for less than a year, vows that were emphatically read in front of our people, many of whom knew that what we were entering into was anything but a finish line, that the real work was just about to begin, who held such hope for us anyway. Among other things, we vowed to keep learning each other, celebrating and examining what we found, and showing up time and time again even and especially when we fail and fall. I love our words for their innocence but also for their prophecy; somehow they’ve rung true through all of our intervals and all of the ways we’ve grown both as individuals and together. We wrote them on our own and only read them to each other the evening before we were to be married, alone in my car as we stepped toward this bounding of a future we could not have conceived of, that we carefully avoided investigating. We wrote them with our little baby hearts, without edits and without knowledge of any of this, and they have been our greatest guides, promising us toward a future yet unknown.