The Truth About Marriage

On July 17th, 2009 I married my husband David. Today marks our 10 year wedding anniversary, and I thought I’d celebrate by sharing what I believe to be the truth about marriage.

For some reason when I go to weddings, I often think about the speech I would give if I was the maid of honor. I’ve never been a maid of honor, which means I’ve never had a chance to deliver my speech. This might actually be a blessing in disguise, because I think some of the guests wouldn’t be too pleased with what I have to say. But various parts of the speech have been playing in my head for years. I figure that my 10 year wedding anniversary is a good reason to finally share my speech in the hope that it will inspire you to contemplate your relationship deeply and authentically (whether you’re married or not). So here goes.

The Truth About Marriage

Today I’ve decided to share what I believe to be the truth about marriage. I am by no means an expert on the topic, but I’ve been in a relationship for almost 16 years (married for 10), and I also did my PhD on romantic relationships, so I feel I have a unique perspective on marriage both personally and professionally. That being said, I’m not going to talk about science today. Firstly because I might put you to sleep, and secondly because I want to go deeper than science.

I want to share the deepest, most beautiful, and most difficult truths about marriage.

Newly married couple, this is what I want to share with you:

Instead of saying that you are perfectly matched for an eternity of wedded bliss, I want to share that you are perfectly matched to push each other’s buttons in the exact ways that will help you grow. You are mirrors for each other - reflecting each other’s strengths and shadows. The shadows are the parts that none of us want to deal with (and that we certainly don’t bring up at weddings). But the sooner you acknowledge your shadows, and are honest with each other about them, the more you will grow as individuals and as a couple. Growth involves growing pains. This will not be easy. But if you can step back from your initial emotional reactions, and perceive the shadows with love, they will transform you.

Instead of advising you to never go to bed angry, I’m here to tell you that you will, in fact, go to bed angry sometimes. Or sleep on the couch. Or in your car. Or not sleep at all because you’re so angry that you can’t see straight. Your partner will make you angry, and this is normal. Despite your best efforts, you will hurt each other. These hurts might be major or minor. They might be easily forgotten, or they might sit underneath your partnership for a long time, like a deep bruise. You will not live through this marriage without picking up a few scars along the way.

Instead of encouraging you to be 100% honest with each other all the time, I’d like to break this illusion by telling you that you will lie to each other. You might tell small white lies that don’t have much consequence, or you might tell bigger lies that eat away at the very fabric of your union. You might eventually tell each other your truths, both big and small, or you might carry some secrets to your grave. You will need to use discernment to figure out when to speak versus when to remain silent. No one, not even your partner, knows what truths lay in the depths of your being. Only you and your soul will know whether to share or hold your peace.

Instead of making the audacious assumption that you want or are capable of having children, I will share that bringing another human being into this world will be the most miraculously beautiful and excruciatingly difficult thing that you will ever do together. You will experience love like you have never felt before. And you will experience stress that keeps you up at night and turns your insides into knots. This is to be expected, because your child, if you decide to have one, will be a mixture of the two of you (genetically and/or environmentally). This means that you have created a tiny being that is perfectly designed to push all of the buttons that you both have, all at the same time. Parenting is a formidable task that will require every ounce of your maturity, strength, and of course, love. If, on the other hand, you decide not to (or cannot) have children, you will need to be ready for the unavoidable questions and intrusions from those who mean well, but who really have no business asking about your reproductive decisions. I encourage all of the guests here to avoid projecting your needs onto the newlyweds - they will have children if and when they are ready, and not a moment sooner.

Instead of trying to inspire you to keep your passion and intimacy alive, I will let you in on the fact that there will be times when you don’t feel very attracted to each other. These periods might last a few days, weeks, months, or even years. You might think all of your married friends have a better sex life than you do, but in most cases I can assure you that you’re wrong. You might try to spice things up with a variety of tools and techniques, and sometimes these things work. Other times they fall flat. It’s impossible to be in a long-term relationship and be turned on 100% of the time. Instead of counting the days since you last had sex, or comparing yourself to others, I encourage you to simply be with these fallow periods in the same way that mother nature holds winter. She doesn’t give up, or go anywhere, because she knows that beneath the surface all of her roots are preparing for spring.

Instead of perpetuating the ideal that you will only love each other for the rest of your lives, I’m here to tell you that love knows no bounds. You might already love other people, or you might fall in love with new people along the way. Rest assured that it is possible to love more than one person at the same time. This doesn’t mean you have to welcome additional people into your marriage (although you might choose to do this if it feels right for you). Instead, it means that you choose to honor and respect your partner’s sovereignty. Your partner was not made specifically for you, like the story of Eve being created from Adam’s rib. Instead, both you and your partner are here to embody love in all of it’s forms. This might mean only having eyes for each other, or it might mean something beyond that. Know this: you will be tempted by other people. Whether it’s the cute cashier, the hot personal trainer, or your former high school sweetheart who happens to be passing through town. You will want other people. You will fantasize about other people. Instead of feeling wrong or ashamed of this, know that it is something we all face. Only you and your partner will know how to handle these temptations in ways that honor your partnership and honor love itself.

Instead of giving you the mistaken idea that you now need to spend the majority of your time together, I want to share that you will actually need to spend time apart. Never forget that there are three “beings” in your relationship: you, your partner, and the two of you together. Never lose sight of yourself, even the parts of you that your partner disagrees with or that make your partner scared. These parts are actually keys to unlock doors that will help you and your partner grow. Know that it’s ok to take time for yourself, whether that means a week spent with your closest friend(s) or an entire month or more apart. This is called taking a “marriage sabbatical” and it can be incredibly healthy. This doesn’t necessarily mean that you see other people during your sabbatical, or that you don’t see each other at all. It’s your marriage - you get to make the rules.

Instead of painting a picture of this being your one and only marriage, I’m here to tell you that you will have multiple marriages. I don’t necessarily mean that you will get divorced and marry other people. What I mean is that you will have multiple marriages within the same marriage. There will perhaps be a marriage of intense passion that lasts a few months, a marriage of childrearing that lasts many years, a marriage of illness or betrayal that tests all of your strength, a marriage of having multiple partners, or a marriage of professional pursuit or schooling. You will have one marriage before a major life event, and a different marriage afterwards. There will be phases in your marriage that might feel like distinctly different relationships. None of these marriages is better or worse than the other. They are all part of it.

Instead of assuring you that you will always feel love for your partner, I will share that there will be times when you feel like you hate each other. Sometimes your anger or hurt might be so great that you will have trouble feeling or finding the love buried deep inside of you. Or sometimes your love might transmute into something that feels more like friendship. Know that you will take your partner, and your love, for granted. This might only happen once in awhile, like when you’re having a bad day, or it might go unnoticed and be something that you only realize after it’s too late.

Instead of comforting you by saying that you are going to spend the rest of your lives together, I will share the hard truth that unless you die together, one of you is going to die first. This might seem like an inappropriate thing to say at a wedding, but if you approach your partnership knowing that you will, in fact, not be together forever, then you can better appreciate and use the time that you have. I encourage you to approach your partnership with this question from Wayne Muller in mind, “How shall we live, knowing that we will die?”

Instead of mindlessly sharing the words, “In sickness and in health,” I want you to take a moment to consider this statement very seriously. You will get sick. Your partner will get sick. These illnesses might range from the common cold to something more serious. Even if you manage to live a long and happy life together, you will grow old, and one or both of you will need support. Be ready to provide this support to your partner - from picking up aspirin on your way home to feeding your partner if they can no longer feed themselves. Cherish your health when you have it, and open your arms to the lessons that can be learned through illness.

Instead of sending you off into happily ever after, I’m here to tell you that life is fucking hard. Sure, you will share incredibly beautiful moments together. But you will also share heart wrenching difficulties. No matter how hard you try, you cannot escape the sometimes brutal aspects of this human life. We all suffer, in ways big and small. You will be with your partner when they go through some of the most difficult things they have ever been through. And there are some problems that you simply will not be able to fix. You cannot resurrect a parent who has passed away, or bring a baby back to life after a miscarriage, or cure a life threatening illness. The only thing that you can do is be with your partner. Do your best to hold space for their sadness, their rage, their inescapable grief. And hope that they will hold the same loving space for you.

Instead of saying that your marriage will last forever, I need you to know that despite your best intentions, it might not. Life throws us so many curve balls that no one can guarantee that you will be together 40, 30, 10 or even 5 years from now. And sometimes the most true and loving thing that two people can do for each other is to end their relationship. If you do someday decide to part ways, my hope is that you can do it consciously, respectfully and lovingly.

These truths might be hard for you to hear. But they need to be shared. We need to stop perpetuating the collective myth of wedded bliss, because it is ruining the very marriages that we are trying to uphold. As Rumi says, we need to welcome all of the visitors into our wedded guesthouse - the joy, the dark thought, the shame and the malice, because each has been sent as a guide from beyond. If you enter into this partnership with your eyes open, you have a much better chance of weathering its inevitable storms.

So the question becomes, why on earth did you sign up for this?

Why choose to marry someone when it can be so hard?

Because when we enter into authentic partnership, we embody true love on this planet.

Because being in relationship is one of the most potent forms of self-growth that we will ever encounter.

When we are willing to step into the truth of marriage, miracles can happen.

When we are willing to risk our hearts for the sake of embodying love, the universe rejoices.

When we are willing to be our most vulnerable, most tender selves with each other, we create a web of safety that resonates all around us.

When we are willing to show our partner our rage, our fears, our longings, our needs, we open ourselves up to seeing each other’s full humanity.

When we decide to go on this shit show roller coaster ride of life together, we become living examples that love really is at the root of it all.

Love is at the root of both togetherness and separation. Regardless of how long your marriage lasts, or what difficulties you might face, you are entering into a partnership that has the potential to show others how to navigate life with love.

Marriage is a potent cauldron that will set fire to every expectation you’ve ever had about yourself and about relationships. This fire will transmute your expectations into the alchemy of truth. This truth - the truth of love without expectation or need or attachment - is the healing balm that is necessary for the evolution of this planet.

These might sound like big words and lofty ideas, but by healing our relationships with each other, through marriage or otherwise, we have the potential to bring about a shift in the way that humans relate to each other and to mother earth. By embodying love, we treat each other, and this planet, with the respect that we all deserve.

We are all here to learn love through relationship with each other.

When we learn how to be in right relationship, not just in marriage but in all of our relationships, we embody our humanity and our divinity at the exact same time.

This is why your partnership is no small feat. Enter into it with open eyes, and you have the potential to change the world.

This, my friends, is the truth about marriage.

May yours be so achingly beautiful that it brings you to your knees with love.

Wedding and engagement photos by Ewan G. Phelan