Before & After We Marry, Part 1

Friends have asked me to officiate at their wedding in a few months. Which has me thinking again about something that is never covered in wedding planning or marriage counseling.

Actually, it’s never really discussed anywhere.

In movies, it’s portrayed as cold feet in funny scenes that typically end with realizing it wasn’t the idea of marriage that caused hesitancy but rather, marrying the wrong person. The message is always this: when you marry the right person, the only thing you feel is bliss.

And that’s hogwash.[i]

Though, to be fair, the excitement of the wedding can so overshadow all other emotions that they don’t reveal themselves until after the ceremony. Until you’re deep into the marriage. And then – especially then – the feelings get buried because, well, now you’re married. There’s a general sense that it’s too late to deal with these emotions. You’re supposed to be happily married – and if you feel anything else, then there’s something wrong with you.

This is hogwash too. Whatever we try to hide or suppress will always manifest in another way. We have to acknowledge our fears and hesitancies to keep them from over-powering us later in ways we don’t expect.

This happened to me when I turned twenty. I was living in San Francisco with roommates, far away from my parents, working several jobs, going to school, in a serious relationship, leading an important committee at church – and – I was the only one who knew my father was HIV positive. Without realizing it—or realizing it fully—I began speaking in a baby voice. A LOT. Kinda like the voice you use with dogs. Completely out of character for me. Yet, I did it all the time. Finally, after a few months, my boyfriend couldn’t take it anymore and called me out. I had some rationale for it until, with deeper probing, I realized I was freaked out about turning twenty. I already was so responsible, so mature, and such an adult. I never acted like a teenager. I never did stupid or risky things. And I wasn’t about to then. But turning twenty meant I was no longer a teenager. If I did do something stupid or if I wanted to do something dumb, I could no longer blame it on being a kid.

Getting married is similar.

“All changes, even the most longed for, have their melancholy; for what we leave behind us is a part of ourselves; we must die to one life before we can enter another.” – Anatole France, The Crime of Sylvestre Bonnard

This didn’t happen when I got married. Partly because I had been very clear and vocal about what I expected from a marriage commitment. Though in retrospect, this was heavily influenced by the impending death of my father. It was easily a decade before I realized my expectations were an attempt to not leave behind a part of myself when my father died. Essentially, my hope was that my beloved would become a replacement for my father. Like I said, it took years before I figured this out. But I do believe that having had these serious and thoughtful conversations around expectations before we married—even without understanding the complexes under which I was operating that motivated my expectations—did help us profoundly when our marriage hit the rocks.

The thing is, after a wedding, you are really never the same. There’s no going back to who you once were. There will always be the time before you were married and the time after. Marriage is a defining line in our lives. Once we marry, a part of us is gone forever.

Maybe all you’ve ever wanted is to be married. To find that special someone, the one who completes you. To wear a ring on your hand, to be called spouse, to know that you belong to another. Maybe you have always been in relationship, for as long as you can remember, and autonomy is the last thing you desire. Maybe your life as a single person has been less than happy and you’re ready for a new identity.

But if we look at current statistics, many of us are choosing to marry later in life. We’ve been or content as single people. We have our own money, our own friends, our own property. We buy what we want and do what we want, when we want. We have a lifetime of stories, a lifetime of being ourselves.

If you’re completely honest, there are probably some parts of your autonomy that you’re going to miss. I can’t tell you what those things are – only you know. But they may have something to do with what I just mentioned.

For women, there’s also the question of your name. Will you keep your “maiden” name or take your husband’s? Yes, I put maiden in quotes because it’s an outdated concept. More and more of us are far from being maids when we marry. We’ve been out of our parent’s house for quite some time. Yet when we marry, the question of our name always comes up. It doesn’t matter how old we are, how established in our career we are, or how long we’ve been together. There is still a cultural expectation that women take their husband’s name.[ii]  If a woman decides to keep her name – the name which has defined her for decades – it will always be a question that is asked. Assumptions will be made.

All I’m saying, far less eloquently than Anatole France, is that even as we embrace our new beginning with joy, anticipation, and full-hearted celebration, it helps to recognize what we leave behind.

Marriage isn’t a fairy tale. It takes work. To make it the best it can be—and the best we can be as spouses—we need to think about, and talk about, what marriage really means to each of us. What we look forward to and what we will miss. Don’t assume your betrothed feels the same. And don’t confuse fears with desires or intentions. Be honest. Listen. Be compassionate. Honor all your feelings. Because if you don’t, I guarantee, they’ll bite you in the butt eventually.

[i] Sometimes only a good old-fashioned word will do. Hogwash. In the 15th century, this meant kitchen waste fed to domesticated animals, such as pigs; slop. By the 17th century, it also meant cheap bad wine; swill. Today it is associated with anything ridiculous: nonsense, balderdash. Balderdash! There’s another fun word! I encourage you to use hogwash or balderdash in conversation today. Just for the fun of it.

[ii] A study by Dr. Emily Fitzgibbons Shafer published in Gender Issues Journal in 2017, found that more than 70% of adults think women should change their surname when they marry men and 50% believe they should be required by law to do so. The most common reason given by folks who believe this is a belief that women should prioritize their marriage and family ahead of themselves.

What do you think?

In Before & After We Marry, Part 2, we’ll look at what it means to be a married couple and how all of this relates to home.

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