Virtually everyone is online now and we can sometimes forget that we are real people in real relationships with real issues. I believe that transparency is crucial when talking about relationships. Most just share their highlight reel, and comparison is the thief of joy. So I want to share our real experience, not just our highlight reel.
One year ago, I married my best friend. While married for only one, my husband and I have been together for seven years now, having met in our early twenties. Nearly a decade together.
Our wedding day felt surreal, like something out of a dream. I remember wishing I could somehow freeze time because you blink and then it’s over. In an instant, it fades into oblivion. I will always clutch this day closely to my chest, and I have vivid recollection of every detail—my husband’s face when he saw me for the first time and the build up of emotions. I remember each time my husband would lightly trace circles on the top of my hands with the tips of his fingers and how he caressed my face as he pulled me in for our kiss.
Some people say that nothing changes when you get married, especially if you have already been together for such a long time and were already cohabiting. Some say that marriage is just a piece of paper. But in our experience, marriage does bring change. Almost as soon as the ceremony came to an end, things did change. I experienced a shift. We both felt this shift and we talked about it in the following days. It was a subtle shift, but it made a significant impact. We basked in the glow of our post-wedding bliss. We replayed the day over and over again, discussing our favorite moments and the magic of it all. It feels like walking on air at first. My husband described it as a visible aura around us and we swore everyone else could see it, too.
Life together is both extraordinary and mundane. But you love the mundane because you get to do it all with your person. You can be your weird, messy selves with each other that no one else ever gets to see and you relish every second. You are now officially recognized in the eyes of the law as a family. You know you are safe to truly be yourself with this person. You didn’t think you could love your person more than you already do until they do something that reminds you exactly why you chose to spend forever with them and you are inundated with feelings of intense love all over again.
But it’s not all sunshine and meadows full of roses. Real life is never so easy and marriage is no exception. Some say that the first year of marriage is the hardest. There may be more discord this first year. And for us, there was. For us, some periods were downright tempestuous. But we endured. You learn how to work with each other instead of against each other. You make a choice to ride out the storm.
During the course of the first few months, you slowly ease into a new normal. You merge your finances. You change your name if you choose to, which involves quite a bit of tedious paperwork. Everything is somehow the same, yet nothing is as it was. It is hard to describe. There is of course a sense of permanence. I mean, you did vow to share the rest of your life with this one special person. You vowed to share in all moments of happiness and sorrow together. And it really starts to sink in that you will see each other through every season. For better or worse. Till death do you part.
The concept of ‘forever’ floats around in your mind and what it means, and sometimes the weight of it scares you. And you realize you married this person as they are, which includes all of their imperfections. During heated moments, the word ‘divorce’ burns in the back of your throat like a loaded gun. There is so much more at stake now. The devil on your shoulder urges you to pull the trigger. The one thing I had my husband promise me prior to getting married was that neither of us would ever threaten the sanctity of our marriage. It is emotionally immature, an act of betrayal and I simply would not stand for it. I wanted us to be better than that.
Well, three months in, I was the one who broke that promise. As soon as the words left my lips, I felt stinging regret. I wondered if he would call my bluff. And even if he didn’t, there was now damage to be dealt with. We both ended up breaking that promise, but conflict resolution was never our strong suit and getting married doesn’t change that. It is not healthy, but we are human. Humans make mistakes and can learn from said mistakes. Ultimatums should never be the solution, especially when it comes to divorce. I never thought I would do it and I did. What’s more is that I now don’t remember what the original argument was even about. I just know that I was triggered.
Your spouse will inevitably trigger you sometimes. Your spouse can trigger traumas that you thought you had dealt with. Maybe they even trigger trauma you didn’t even know you had. You both trigger each other sometimes and this is normal. What matters is your ability to regulate yourself when you are triggered. Both of you need to learn to manage your reactions to your triggers. You need to learn how to respond instead of react when you are triggered.
At first, you may not even understand or recognize your triggers. But when triggered, you both resort back to old patterns. You do what you learned to do a long time ago in order to cope and what you had learned back then is not always necessarily healthy. In those moments, self-preservation is paramount and right now, you don’t know any other way.
For some—like my husband—this can be shutting down and building a metaphorical impenetrable wall between the two of you, known as stonewalling. And for others—like me—it can be an all-encompassing wave of emotion that just pours out, drowning out all logic and reasoning. You are utterly frantic. You feel unhinged. This is usually accompanied by physical symptoms—nausea, heart palpitations, etc. Space is perceived as abandonment, even though it isn’t, but you cannot rationalize in such a heightened state. And when you bring these two together, it can be cataclysmic.
Eventually, you are able to identify your triggers and be cognizant when you are about to react and instead choose to respond. You catch yourself when you are being defensive, projecting, or shutting down. You catch yourself when you are reacting and may even realize your strong emotional reaction has nothing to do with your spouse or the actual situation at hand, but maybe something in your past. And you can now pinpoint what it is. During an argument now, if we both need some time to cool off, I actually will just have a conversation with myself, trying to get to the root of what is coming up for me when I have been triggered. I am able to reassure myself that whatever happened then that was so traumatic is not happening now and that I am safe. In time, it gets easier.
You come to understand why you both are the way you are and why you think the way you do. You understand that you come from different backgrounds, different families. And you can then finally meet in a place of mutual understanding and make each other feel heard and validated, leading to true intimacy.
None of this is done effortlessly, though. It takes effort. It is work. Hard work. It is the hardest work to change patterns that have been ingrained in your families for copious generations. But you both want to break the cycle, so you can be the best you can be for each other. You come to understand that you really can’t read each other’s minds, but sometimes we make assumptions about feelings and thoughts that aren’t even our own.
Perhaps all of this is common sense for some people. Perhaps you have never threatened divorce and wouldn’t dream of it. Perhaps you don’t withdraw or become a frantic wave of emotion that just consumes you whole. Perhaps you developed a secure attachment style and already know how to self-regulate. Perhaps communication and conflict resolution simply come naturally to you and your spouse.
Perhaps for others, like me and my husband, it is like trying to read a map of a foreign country. And that’s okay. We had to learn this. It is something that can be fixed if you both want to fix it. It is something that can be learned, but it takes time and continuous conscious effort. And sometimes, those of us that did not grow up with healthy communication/attachment styles and struggle with trauma and mental illness may need help. All of the progress we have made has been possible for us through Marriage Counseling.
One of my goals with this article is to destigmatize seeing a Marriage Counselor/Couples Therapist. It doesn’t have to be approached with trepidation and it should not be shameful. Even the couples who appear to have it all together, can and do benefit from it. We are now able to effectively communicate about hard things outside of counseling and continue to make each other feel validated and understood. It makes all the difference to now be able to say, “I understand why you feel that way.”
We are able to identify our feelings and express them. We understand we aren’t mind readers and the lines of communication are truly open. We don’t make ultimatums. We don’t threaten the sanctity of our marriage. This doesn’t mean that we don’t become frustrated with each other or trigger each other from time to time. What it does mean is that the difficulties are now far easier to navigate. Marriage Counseling—and therapy in general—is an invaluable tool.
We are in a much better place now than we were when we started counseling seven months ago, but we still go to counseling on a monthly basis as a check in or if anything new comes up. We both thoroughly enjoy it and we get so much out of our sessions. We sometimes go in with a plan of what we would like to discuss and then end up going a different route entirely. I actually love when that happens.
Even if you don’t ever want to get married or want to/are engaged, but are not yet married, go to counseling together. Something our Counselor said in our first session that definitely stood out to both of us is that most couples he has seen wait 10 or 15 years into the marriage to seek help. And by that point, the roots of resentment and contempt may penetrate too deep. Both parties may be too set in their ways and unwilling to change. The Gottman Institute highlights the Four Horsemen, known as criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling. If left unaddressed, any of these four can lead to the demise of the marriage.
So, if you both truly want this to work, don’t wait. (Note: Abusive relationships and coercive control situations are the exception here. If you are in a domestic violence situation, get help. It doesn’t get better and there are resources available.)
This year has forced us both to look deep within and identify not only what needs healing but also what needs accepting—like when one of you (my husband) genuinely likes to wake up when there’s just a mere sliver of light outside and the other–like me–hates mornings with a burning fiery passion. And my husband has accepted that sometimes you need to listen to your body and rest and that not every waking second needs to be productive. He encourages me to get up and go when I am procrastinating and I encourage him to slow down once in a while. I remind him that letting the tears flow is okay and I don’t need him to rescue me from my emotions and he encourages me to get out of my head now and then. We both truly do balance each other and our differences make us stronger.
This year has laid the foundation for the rest of our marriage. We are both endlessly grateful for this first year of marriage and everything we have learned about ourselves, our backgrounds, and about each other. Our marriage is leagues from perfect, but it is real. I love my husband more than I ever have and I know he feels the same.