A few weeks ago, a familiar panic seized me. The thought that my marriage is a sham.
I married my husband at what was one of the most turbulent times of my life. I had quit a dead end job and left Chicago, the city I’d worked hard to build a life, career and identity in after college. I was living in exile with my parents in Denver and working feverishly on my natural hair website, which many of my friends believed — and sometimes vocalized — would never amount to anything. I was in hiding from college friends and former colleagues so I would never have to face the dreaded, “So, what are you doing professionally these days?” question.
Enter my husband. We had been dating on and off for 2 years. When I met him, I knew I would marry him. But not in a dreamy way. In a dreadful way. Kinda like, “I know I will have to take this unpleasant medicine at some point.” Sound harsh? Well at the time I was addicted to bad boys. I was a chaser of looks, accomplishment and infamy. I jumped from one guy to another, launching relationships based on surface attributes. “He’s 6 foot 4!”, “He used to play for the Chicago Bears!” “He got a degree from MIT!” (These are all true characteristics of men I’ve had disastrous dating relationships with…)
So when Norm showed up, offering nothing more than kindness, care and generosity, I knew it was good for me, but I felt it wasn’t enough.
We had broken up before I moved to Denver. I wanted to cut the “dead weight” once and for all. But, after moving, I soon learned that he had burrowed deeper into my heart and my consciousness than I realized. We started chatting on Gmail. We exchanged a few calls. I missed him and I missed Chicago. After 2 months in Denver, I asked him if I could move into his Chicago apartment. Maybe, I suggested, if things worked out we could get married. He agreed.
I quietly and swiftly packed up all my belongings. Norm flew out to Denver a few days later. That afternoon I announced to my deeply religious parents that I was moving in with Norm and we were driving my car back to Chicago that night. It was my final “F you” in a parent/child cohabitation relationship that had gone sour. My father was angry, my mother looked hurt. “You could have at least told us earlier.” I was being a jerk. She knew it and I knew it.
We drove back to Chicago that night, remarking at the beauty of an orange moon that followed us as we crossed from Colorado to Nebraska.
Back in Chicago my guilty, evangelical conscience pinched me. Maybe, I suggested to Norm, we could move up the wedding date? Get married earlier? To make my parents happy?
I changed my Facebook status to “engaged” and the congratulations came pouring in. When people asked for the engagement story, I remained vague. I was ashamed to tell them that marrying Norman was essentially my idea, and part of a plan to escape life at my parent’s home.
Norman was laid off a month after I moved in with him. So we had 8 months to plan a wedding on a shoestring budget. We had to move out of Norm’s apartment and in with his mother. She didn’t like me and I didn’t like her. Like my father, she was at best skeptical and at worst totally opposed to our marriage. Emotions ran high and in the midst of the chaos we never stopped to ask ourselves if we were marrying for the right reasons. By the time our wedding rolled around in August 2010, we were exhausted. We flew to Portland and got married on Cannon Beach, a few hours from where Norman was born.
On our flight back to Chicago we were more relieved than joyful. We had done it. It was over.
Life smoothed out after the wedding. Norm found a job in government finance. My hair site started to generate revenue. We moved out of my mother-in-law’s house to a cute apartment in a young, trendy Chicago neighborhood. We took bike rides, barbecued on our tiny apartment balcony, watched movies together on the couch after work, my feet resting in Norm’s lap.
But with the gift of calm came more time for reflection, and it became more and more obvious to me that, though our marriage was happy, my reasons for marrying Norm were horrible. I had essentially applied a permanent fix — marriage — to a temporary problem — my loneliness, and lack of money. The thought seized me with panic and fear.
I felt twinges of anger, jealousy and regret every time I scrolled through wedding and engagement albums on Facebook. Everyone had a fairy tale but me. What I had settled for was a grotesque version of the Prince Charming story.
But for all my jealousy, my marriage was happy — very happy. My husband’s humor, kindness and wisdom had gotten us through our courtship, and those same things had created a solid foundation for our marriage.
And still, I wondered. Had I made a mistake? Had I shortchanged myself? Had I married the wrong person because of my panic?
In an email entitled, “Questions about Marriage”, I brought these questions to my pastor. This was his response.
First, learning of your initial motivations for marrying doesn’t mean anything necessarily for the marriage now. You made the choice to marry for the reasons you mentioned, but you still get to negotiate what your current relationship is to those first motives. In some ways, I’d suggest that what you’re experiencing is normal. Making a choice at 27 (or in my case 23) can’t lock you up; motives change because we age in the choices we’ve made. At 40 or 60, you’ll have different (maybe more or less) reasons than when you were 27.
Second, as with any of your relationships (i.e., friendships, family of origin relationships, parent/child), you determine why you’re in those relationships. In other words, to maintain a good marriage, you have to choose reasons to stay. The reasons you start a marriage are always what they are. They’re fine to have. They’re even meaningful (as full of meaning as you allow them to be). And yet, you continually choose why you’re in a lifelong relationship. You do that daily. You live your vows daily, so that there’s increasing distance between why you did what you did (on your wedding day) and the current moment. There’s a thread, but the longer you live as a wife, the more your reasons will change.
Third, there are many reasons to get married and many reasons to stay married. Because your feelings for your spouse cover the spectrum in a week or a month or a year, restricting yourself to a certain set of “good reasons to be married” is a set up for failure. No list stays the same and nobody’s list of reasons why they married looks alike. It’s a myth that there are better or worse reasons to marry. Sure, there is a need for a relationship to be healthy, but it’s presumptuous to believe that if you didn’t have, say, intense and deep emotional connection on your list, then your relationship is doomed. Think about history and culture and how God has brought millions of people together in thriving marriages who got married for “worse” reasons than yours.
My marriage is not a fairy tale. My reasons for marrying Norm were not the best. But even in that imperfection, something beautiful and lasting was created — and continues to be created. And that, I am beginning to realize, is my picture of love.