Since mid-life is often a time when we feel the need take stock of our lives, it seems our 25th anniversary is the perfect catalyst for some self-reflection. The meanderings herein are my way of processing and organizing my feelings about marriage and my journey through it, thus far. Make of it what you will.
I am not quite sure how Darren and I find ourselves celebrating a quarter century of shared experience; almost 30, if you count dating in high school and college. Yet, here we are upon the doorstep of our 25th wedding (elopement) anniversary. I can only speak for myself with regards to this experience. But, having known Darren since I was fifteen years old has given me ample opportunity to notice how his brain works, and, though he would likely express it differently, I suspect we are on the same page… or, at least, in the same book!
I could share some trite anniversary sappiness about the joys of marriage, and my anticipation about what the next twenty-five years will bring. But, truth be told, it has not always been easy, and such sentiments would not express the full picture. And, though my anticipation for our future is real, the reality of our journey to the present cannot be summed up in an inspirational social media meme. Marriage has been the breeding ground for personal growth, fraught with communication hurdles, individual differences and moments of downright doubt and uncertainty. Yet, amongst these challenges have been many beautiful moments, fun adventures, lots of laughter and plenty of valuable insights, some of which I will try to articulate here.
I had just turned twenty the month before we crossed the border and applied for our marriage license in Bangor, Maine. Needless to say, I didn’t really know who I was, or what I wanted in life at this point. But, I knew I wanted to figure it out together, and I had relative faith that when I arrived at this place of “knowing,” Darren and I would still be on the same path. If not, whatever. I would deal with that later. Impulsivity came easy at twenty. It felt good. We eloped and lived with my parents in Connecticut for six months, while I worked and we waited for Darren’s green card.
Then, just a little more than a year into our time as husband and wife, we moved to Italy, where Darren would be stationed for three years. This was one of those things in my life that I feel like I truly manifested, out of sheer clarity and desire. Ever since I had lived in Spain in my early teens, I knew I wanted to return to spend time living abroad when I “grew up.” A few years later, when I met Darren in Canada in high school, he was inspired by my European vision and made it his own. This shared focus eventually got us to Italy, via the U.S. military, when Darren enlisted as a helicopter mechanic.
Since then, I now see a few other clear manifestations of intent; those times when there was no doubt about what we wanted and the only thing standing in between us and the outcome were the steps we needed to take. The first of these intentions was to get our education. Whether this was fueled by social conditioning or a love of learning was a later point of contemplation, when we began thinking about homeschooling our own kids. Nonetheless, while living in Italy, I plodded away at my bachelors degree, and during his six year enlistment, Darren did the same. At the time, this felt purposeful and I [mostly] enjoyed the experience.
The next intentional pursuit, a handful of years later and back in the States, was starting a family. That took a little introspection, working on my health, and some medical intervention to get the ball rolling. But, three kids later, we had created a family that looked a lot like we had envisioned. Of course, there were a few unexpected twists and a whole new set of filters through which to see the world, too. No regrets there!
One last vision, though mine alone, but impacting both of us, was my conscious effort, starting in 2005, to bring my physical and mental health into better balance. Over the course of a couple years, I released around 100 pounds and a lot of emotional weight, as well. I am thankful for the support I always felt, as I navigated that challenging task and layed down some new neuropathways in my always-busy brain.
Other smaller focused endeavors were scattered around these milestones of travel, education, health and family. Some included career development, more education, creative pursuits, homeschooling our kids, and building community. It seems the first fifteen years of our marriage were a whirlwind of striving towards goals and “building a life,” whereas, for the most part, the last ten feel more like the “maintenance years.” But, even in the process of maintaining status quo, there are creative elements to sharing space, experience and time that have definitely been enhanced by our partnership.
Yet, in between all these collaborative efforts towards growth, there were times of pulling apart; times when I felt we were not compatible for the long-run and times when I knew Darren felt the same. In the first decade, there was some therapy. It was helpful. Then, life took on a pace of its own. Though our choices have led us to have what would be characterized as a “traditional” relationship, with me fulfilling the role of “homemaker” and, Darren, that of the “breadwinner,” I have never felt traditional or stuck in a role that did not suit me. But, if I’m keeping it real, in the early years of parenthood, my financial dependence on Darren might be a factor in our long-term togetherness, in the sense that it gave me the need to pause and think before acting. Had I had my own financial autonomy, there was a time, or two, when I may have jumped ship when things were not matching up to my soulmate ideal, Oprah-empowered, romanticized vision of the relationship I thought we deserved. And, there was a time when Darren had heard enough Oprah quotes and wanted to take the whole ship and sail away by himself, too!
Thankfully, these experiences helped me learn, early in, that I was responsible for my own feelings. And, though I didn’t always feel understood, I did feel supported in my efforts to sort myself out. We learned that when we endeavor to really understand another person, we feel invested. When we sense the other person is equally invested, we feel we are creating something worthwhile and purposeful. And, meaning and purpose really are the good stuff; the armor that protects us against the apathy that can accompany aging, the fear of the unknown and the inevitable challenges life presents.
Though, with these challenges, there have been times when our understanding of one another has not felt complete, and our desire to “work on” the growth of our relationship has waned, mostly, there was patience, empathy and commitment to sticking with this joint endeavor to see where it would take us. And, as middle-age approached, a deeper appreciation for our shared journey seemed to settle in. That “soulmate” notion of mine had come to see the value of being life partners, each tending to our own souls, and learning the lessons that only existing in relationship can provide.
In the context of marriage, the need to focus on communication revealed itself slowly over time in our relationship. Coming to understand that good communication was something that needed to be cultivated and nurtured, not a skill we inherently possessed, was a lesson we had to learn through trial and error. The foundation of any relationship is built upon the capacity of those in it to understand one another and a willingness to do the work necessary to reach that place of understanding. The old saying “absence makes the heart grow fonder” has a statute of limitations. Whether it be a physical or an emotional absence, there is a threshold at which we stop creating connection when we are not communicating regularly and/or effectively. Communication is our most valuable tool within relationships and the fuel for the flame of love. And, I have definitely done my part to fan that flame over the years.
I will admit that in the early stages of our relationship, I likely tested the limits of Darren’s love for me. My youthful inner turmoil spilled out all over his placid demeanor and he often got caught in my emotional ramblings, philosophical debates and misguided efforts at communication and personal growth. Over time, I learned to “tame my Gremlin,” and recognized that the expression “don’t dish out what you can’t take,” is a solid guideline for any relationship. And, in hindsight, I can see where, without this dynamic of our distinct personalities, I might have missed the opportunity to move through these lessons with as much clarity and grace. And, I am sure Darren has received a few lessons of his own, too.
Parenting and Marriage
Becoming parents most definitely changed the landscape of our relationship, forcing us to consider, more deeply, the people we wanted to be. I cannot imagine any more profound teachers than my children. They shifted my internal compass away from navigating solely by my own ego, towards the instinctual path of selfless love. They provided the mirror I needed to see my reflection more clearly. Of course, I do not doubt that the complexities of existence could have conjured up some other life path to offer similar wisdom, but, parenting is definitely an efficient means. And, parenting in partnership provides an even better opportunity to know the stuff we are made of. Darren and I are no exception. The insights have been profound and the lessons have not been lost on us.
Marinating in Monogamy
As we became parents, and explored alternative lifestyle choices, like veganism and homeschooling, we naturally started becoming aware of other divergent paths, including the variations of healthy relationship dynamics that fall outside the social norm of monogamy. Early on, had the right opportunity presented itself, I am not so sure we might not have explored those variations, for better, or for worse. But, despite my hesitancy to label relationships or put love in a box, the default of monogamy, with its inherent flaws, always seemed most constructive for us. And, twenty-five years in, its parameters do not feel binding, but rather provide a context in which to narrow my focus, in a world that seems to pull it all over the place. I, also, have a strong sense that Darren and I genuinely want each other to be happy in this life, and work to have open communication, which, I think, allows us to feel like there is always room to grow.
When we are young, in our surge towards independence, we often question the institution of marriage, the need for financial partnerships, and the efficacy of lifelong commitments. I would encourage all young people to consider these topics! Though, I really didn’t. I just jumped in, eyes closed! So, maybe I would caution against too much scrutiny and throw out a reminder that relationships are the fabric of life. Within our social structures, our creative potential can be magnified. Whether it be romantic or otherwise, our connections to others create our story, through which the depth and enjoyment of our experience are dependent. There is only so much we can create in isolation; we need others. But, in hindsight, contemplating those needs early on and defining your own expectations can give you a head start in the relationship department, may save you some personal turmoil and expedite the productivity of your future partnerships!
We are Family
Twenty-five years into this endeavor, our relationship feels like a permanent fixture. We are family. I feel fortunate to have Darren in my life and I feel resolute in my commitment to my own personal growth and to our relationship. I appreciate the platform from which this partnership has allowed me to experience myself. Maybe there have been no Jerry McGuire “you complete me” moments, but, there have been many moments of meeting halfway, sharing the load and giving each other perspective. I take full responsibility for completing myself, for filling up my own cup and for communicating my feelings in an authentic and caring way. This love story may not be one that inspires feature films or steamy romance novels, but it is my story and it inspires me to show up fully and honestly. It has allowed me to experience love, with all its nuances and intricacies. And, it’s not over yet! With any luck, there will be time for more lessons, more moments of co-creative inspiration and the chance to know more of ourselves within relationship to each other.
Each marriage is as unique as the individuals that create it. The examples and wisdom of other married people in our lives offer us information about what we want and don’t want within our own relationship(s), but should never be a steadfast standard by which we measure the success of our own marriage. Marriage is a creative endeavor, with lots of room for subjectivity, personal preference and individual artistry. It need not conform to any particular genre, and is measured by individual contentment, not external approval. Accordingly, if I could give one piece of advice on marriage it would be to be kind; to yourself and to each other. From there, it will be easier to work out the rest. <3