Editor’s Note: This is the concluding post in Simi Lichtman’s blog exploring her first year of married life as a young Modern Orthodox woman. Simi will still be writing for the Sisterhood blog and for the Forward. You’ll be able to find Just Married in Forward.com’s archives.
Jeremy and I watched a movie recently in which a couple getting married is told, “If you can make it through the first year, you can make it through anything.” Aside from that being just about the worst thing to tell a couple at their wedding, it just didn’t ring true. Is the first year really the hardest? About 10 months in, Jeremy and I are worried about the coming years, about what the future will hold, whether we will make it through challenges as yet unknown. But this year? We are in our honeymoon phase, aren’t we?
I posed this question to someone who got married about a year before me, and she responded, “We also thought that. But now that our first year is over, we realize just how much happier we are.” She pointed out that the first year is a time of settling in together, learning to live with each other and learning how to fight the right way. After thinking about it, I realized that even over the course of our first year, Jeremy and I have grown more comfortable with each other. We’ve rounded off each other’s sharper edges, or we’ve learned to accept them. We fight less because we know each other better — or because every fight we had at the beginning was resolved so we didn’t have to fight about those things anymore.
We’ve nearly made it through our first year. We’re more of a team now, more so that married couple who know each other so well we can communicate with our eyes across the dining room table (sorry, guests). But we don’t know each other so well that we’re bored. We’ve gotten through the hurdles of figuring each other out, but we haven’t really been faced with an outside challenge, with the bigger problems that life may hold for us. The first year is ending, but that just means there are many more years of relationship building and testing to come. We have decades of happiness and love to look forward to — but also to prepare for.
My older brother just left on a trip to Europe. When I say Europe, I don’t mean one or two European countries. I mean he bought a one-way ticket to London with a bus ticket the next day to Belgium and he doesn’t plan to stop traveling until he runs out of money or fun. Following in his little sister’s footsteps, he’ll be keeping a blog during his travels, which is how I and the rest of his family plans on keeping track of him as he wanders the continent.
Of course, as a Jewish mother-in-training, I spent a good part of the past couple of months leading up to his trip worrying over him and imagining him becoming one of those kids with a backpack on the sidewalk and a sign “Need Money for Plane Ticket.” The rest of the time, though, in those brief moments when I remembered that he’s an adult, I thought about how much his trip sounds like something I would love doing.
Jeremy and I plan on traveling to Greece this summer, but a perfectly planned trip to one country with every night in a comfy hotel bed is not exactly the same type of Euro-trip my brother is taking. Getting married is, to a certain extent, like signing a waiver: “I will no longer cast off all responsibilities and go on adventures to discover the world and find myself.” It’s that very obligation to another human being that keeps so many from marrying, or at least marrying young. It’s the philosophy that settling down seems most sensible once you’ve seen the world and found out everything about yourself that you can. According to some very reliable website I found, I have seen five percent of the world and am only beginning to understand myself, so I clearly didn’t choose that sensible route.
After Jeremy and I dropped my brother off at the airport — living in Jersey, near Newark, apparently does have some advantages after all — we both mentioned how we’d theoretically love to have a similar Euro-trip, even if the thought of my brother doing it turns me into a fretful bubbe. But the option to strike out on our own and discover ourselves through backpacking self-reliance is gone to us forever. Even though we could, theoretically, each quit our responsibilities, ditch our material goods at our parents’, and strike off across Europe together; even if the very idea of throwing our lives off their current course didn’t strike me as preposterous, there would still be the inevitable fact of our marriage. We wouldn’t be able to leave each other for our own journeys. The time for our separate self-discovery is over.
But we got married because we were ready to be bound to another person. Because neither of us felt truly fulfilled without someone else to care for. And because, we believe, we are ready for the next step of self-discovery, the kind that we can do with the help of and in the presence of another person. Being married does not preclude growth or an inner journey; it just changes how the growing is done. Instead of in a hostel in Nice, it might take place on a reflective night in our apartment. It’s a lot less glamorous, but equally rewarding. And in the meantime, I can always live vicariously through my brother’s blog, if he ever stops moving long enough to write another post.
Before Jeremy and I got married, the rabbi who performed our ceremony asked us to make a list of three things that excited us about marriage and three things that scared us. We both said that we were scared of living together and perhaps coming to resent certain aspects of each other’s personalities that didn’t bother us or didn’t come up when we lived apart.
Maybe one of us would be messy; maybe the other would get anal about messes. These were things we couldn’t know about each other until we’d lived together, and we both were smart enough to know those were things that could nudge their ways into our happiness and make us squirm with exasperation.
“When you get married, you vow to love your spouse for better or worse. Most people think this means you support each other through the big things in life — getting sick, going broke, or your dog throwing up all over the house. I think what it really means is you need to love your spouse for their better habits, along with their worse habits,” writes Leslie Rasmussen, creator of Marriage-Project.com, in The Huffington Post.
I couldn’t agree more. I can easily envision devoting myself to Jeremy should he, God forbid, fall ill. But occasionally I come home to find the bathroom sink dripping, and that drives me berserk.
And he would support me emotionally and otherwise if I lost all our money somehow — but it makes him crazy to know that I’m going to assume he’s the one who left the sink dripping.
Marriage brings out the best in me and it brings out the worst in me. A commenter recently remarked on a blog post of mine that I painted too much of a “fairy tale” picture of marriage:
Although I understand that you are only sharing your impressions of married life after a month, you paint a distorted picture of marriage. As you noted, marriage also takes work. It is not “one big sleepover” nor is every night is “exceptional couch potato living”. Sometimes, it can be frustrating and disappointing. You wont always want to just “watch movies and eat all night together”.
Your single and married friends and many others will be reading this blog. Marriage is about compromise, communication, and mutual respect. This takes hard work. Your fairy-tale portrayal is not only false; it’s dangerous. It contributes to many of the difficulties couples have adjusting to married-life and recent trends of newly-weds separating because their marriage is more work than they expected. Also, what about the friends of the newly weds? They deserve to know that after the wedding, when you forget to call back it’s because not every day is a honeymoon.
So for the record, I agree: Marriage is hard. Not exactly mind-blowing, I know, and you’ve heard it before, but that doesn’t change the truth of the statement. Marriage is not easy.
I can feel Jeremy making me a better, stronger person. Even in small ways — when he’s standing next to me, I feel fuller, more confident, more sure of who I am and what I want to say and do. He truly is my better half. But being married is also a constant struggle not to give into the smallness of my worst self. Jeremy and I fight. We always have. It’s part of our relationship, and we always try to fight fair and to communicate afterwards.
But sometimes you just wake up earlier than the sun, and you’re grumpy, and he moves a smidge too slow for your snippy mood, and suddenly you’re deeply, strongly pissed for a reason you can’t really articulate. And you don’t want to be mad. You know there’s no reason to grunt at him when he tries to talk to you, but you can’t help it.
And then there are the real fights, the ones that take your perfect blissful first-year bubble of love and shake it, hard. The ones where you can’t see there ever being a resolution, and you’re both right, and you’re both trying, and it just seems like everything is wrong and maybe this marriage won’t work, because who’s to say we’re smarter than everyone else who gets married and ends up splitting up?
But then one of you takes a breath and invites logic back into your emotional turmoil — usually him — and you can suddenly think calmly and lovingly. He’s not the enemy, he’s the partner, and you need only to remember that to figure things out. And you might disagree, in fact your track record shows you probably will, but you can respect each other and make up and feel your love even more strongly because of it. And then he’s brought out the worst of you and the best of you all within a half hour, or even three times in one day, and you know you’ll be okay.
Marriage is not a fairy tale, though it is wonderful and beautiful and with my whole two months of experience, I find it utterly fulfilling. But it’s not simple by any stretch of any imagination.
Marriage is hard. It’s messy and sticky and there are bumps and tears and real, scary moments where you look deep into your soul and you’re not sure you like what you see. But it’s worth it.
When I first got my driver’s license, I was sure a cop would pull me over at any moment, demanding to see I.D. I have always looked younger than my age, and I couldn’t imagine the policeman wouldn’t be suspicious that I was a 12-year-old out for a joy ride with my mother’s car. It never happened, and by the time I was 21 I looked about old enough to be driving, so I stopped worrying.
Now I’m married, and while a cop can’t exactly pull me aside and demand to know why a teenager is wearing a wedding band, I’m still waiting for someone to laugh when I mention my husband. In this recurring daydream, the other person arches their eyebrows dubiously. “You’re married?” they ask. “How old are you?” And then I explain that I’m 23, and yes I know I look about 16, and my husband is 24. And while that’s a fairly average age to get married in the Modern Orthodox community, this inquisitive stranger might still think it’s weird that someone so young is married.
When I was engaged, I wrote a blog post about the strangeness of saying the word “fiancé.” I was engaged for six months, so by the time I was married I was used to the word — just in time to stop using it, of course. Now I’ve got a whole new word with its own, more significant weight to acclimate to. “Husband.” The word evokes all sorts of serious things, like financial finesse and responsible decision-making. It makes me feel like I’m posing as someone my parents’ age, playing dress-up with grown-up words like “husband” and “married,” when in truth I still giggle over words like “doodoo.”
But what about the word is so weighty? It doesn’t seem like marriage is such an incredibly huge deal. The legal age for marriage in almost all 50 states is 18 — that means the law considers a sip of beer more significant than a husband. You need three whole years of maturity and brain development between getting married and having champagne. (Or more, actually. With parental consent, you can get married even younger.) But this is just another example of the law being nonsensical. Because getting married is much more serious than taking a shot. Getting married is one of the most serious things a person can do. And that’s why the word carries so much gravity.
A husband isn’t the same as a boyfriend, or even a fiancé. And not just the word “husband” — I need to get used to hearing myself referred to as a wife. “Husband” implies long-term commitment and dedication to working on the same relationship for the rest of my life. “Husband” implies all sorts of other things too, like family and children. “Wife” means all those things too, in addition to jokes about whether I cook and clean well. Being husband and wife means we have to be willing to sacrifice, and be responsible, and above all, be emotionally mature. And that’s pretty serious stuff for anyone, especially a 23-year-old. But the truth is, I don’t need to be 30 to be ready for a husband. Age doesn’t equal maturity. And while I find scatological humor, and the word scatological, hilarious, I can be surprisingly (to myself, most of all) mature.
But that doesn’t mean I don’t stand taller when I say “my husband,” trying to look older than I naturally do. It doesn’t mean I don’t look behind me every time he calls me his wife, checking to make sure that he’s actually talking to me. Those words are a lot to get used to. But along with the weight of the words is the wonder of marriage.
So, yes, the word “husband” overwhelms me. The word “wife’ makes me do a double take. But I’m also fully ready to take them, and everything that comes along with them, on.