Wednesday, February 12, 2014

You can have a great marriage without any superpowers. (Right?)

by Mary C. Tillotson
Marriage is hard, everybody. Really hard.

Luke and I dated for a while, then he proposed and I said yes and we were engaged. We glowed for a few days, and then the bad news started coming in droves.

"Marriage is hard, you know," I heard. Over and over again.

This one retirement-aged lady from church: "Marriage is really hard. You know, my sister-in-law got married before we did, and she told us the first five years were the hardest. At the end of five years, I called her and said 'At least we're through the hard part!' And she said, 'No, the first 10 years are the hardest.' At the end of 10 years, I called her again and she told me the first 15 years are the hardest. You know, it's really all hard."

Let me describe that conversation in two words: Not encouraging. Or seven: Not what engaged people need to hear.

She was laughing in that way moms laugh about kids throwing up all over everything and ruining your life goals and your priceless, inherited-from-four-generations dishes. If you want to commiserate with people who have already experienced the same thing, go for it, but don't talk to me about it! You're just making me doubt whether this is really a good idea after all.

We turned out okay: for one thing, Luke is the sort of man you don't not marry when he asks, and for another, we had very supportive parents so we could mostly deflect these kinds of comments. But aside from our parents, we mostly heard two messages about marriage:

Sparkles! Magic! Butterflies and rainbows! Your dreams come true! Happily ever after!

Or two:

Don't get your hopes up. Marriage isn't about romance. It's really hard. You know, people get divorced all the time because they think marriage is all about sparkles and magic, and then reality hits. They realize that even though they thought they married someone great, they actually married a jerk, and what's worse, it turns out they're both jerks. Marriage is pretty miserable, actually, and you just have to tough it out.

This, people, is why millennials don't get married. It may not be the only reason, but it's a big part of it.

Luke and I were fortunate enough to have stable families to grow up in, but many in our generation didn't, and I can hardly blame them for being afraid to get married. Either you can believe in sparkles and magic (which not everyone is temperamentally capable of) and have your world come crashing down on you when you realize that's not reality, or you can believe the people who make marriage sound about as attractive as walking across the Sahara in a snowsuit, with nothing to drink but one can of warm, flat Coke. (And probably not get married.)

People talk too much about how hard marriage is. Sure, it's not all rainbows and butterflies, and people need to know that. But it's doable, and it's worth it. You don't need superpowers or lottery-winning luck.

Last year, when Luke and I could still remember what it was like to be single, we told our friends this constantly. A friend of his was considering proposing, and Luke told him what we were both thinking: marriage is the hardest thing we'd ever done, but also the best and most worthwhile thing we'd ever done, and we were absolutely glad we'd gotten married. A friend of mine was already engaged and called me (per her then-fiance's instructions, I heard) whenever she got nervous about getting married. I told her: sure, marriage is hard, but so was Hillsdale, and that was a would-do-it-again-in-a-heartbeat experience.

My friend told me this: "People in our generation don't need to hear that marriage is hard. We need to hear that marriage is possible."

Yes. This is true. We need to hear things like this:

It isn't luck; people aren't born to it, [and] there is no magic. Great marriages are not the result of good fortune or other accidents. Couples in great marriages simply practice certain skills and habits that lesser couples don't. More importantly, those skills and habits can be taught. You can learn them. By cultivating these habits and skills in the first five years, any couple -- especially you -- can establish the basis for long-term marital health and happiness.

That's from Just Married by Greg and Lisa Popcak, which my parents gave us for Christmas. It's intended for newly married Catholics, but I think any couple, Catholic or not, could benefit. It's been a fascinating read so far, in part because they spell out pretty clearly some things Luke and I spent months figuring out and some things we hadn't thought about yet.

To millennials, and others apprehensive about marriage: you can do it. You don't need luck or superpowers. You just need to make your marriage a priority, make your spouse a priority, be unselfish, and if you're stuck, ask for help. Read books written by people who've helped couples have great marriages (the Popcaks aren't the only ones) or see a marriage counselor. You just have to learn new skills, then practice them, which you can do. (Even if you aren't stuck, reading those books can help you improve the good marriage you already have.)

To you boomers and Gen-Xers who have been married, 10, 20, 30 years -- we need to hear from you, too.

Is marriage still good decades down the road? Is it worth it? Can you stay in love that long? How do you do it? Are you glad you got married and stayed married? What's the best part about being married? Do you think you would have been happier if you'd gotten settled in a career before marrying? If you could do it all over again, would you have made the same decision? Can ordinary people do it?

Ordinary people.

I know the answers to these questions because I've seen my own parents, still happily married after 30-something years, and many of their friends. It was normal, in the world of my childhood, for 30-somethings and 40-somethings to be married, have kids, and get together to pray, laugh, celebrate, and watch football. I'm not worried about my own future. But for the sake of all the millennials and others afraid to marry (or just nervous about marrying!) we need some nudges in the direction of marriage, and some positive press.

Readers, can you recommend any books or websites? Can you offer encouragement for young couples?

Tire image by madaboutmarriage.
Pink image by hdwallpaper.
Couple image by Ian MacKenzie.
Punctuation on the Just Married quote was slightly altered for clarity. The first sentence actually reads, "Hopefully by now you can at least begin to understand that it isn't luck, that people aren't born into it, that there is no magic." Page 23.


  1. I love that - "marriage is possible." I also disliked hearing how "hard" marriage is; sure, it is, but so is doing core max and waking up early and eating healthy. The best advice I can give is to be open, trust the other person, and work at it. You have to want to be married for the long-haul, not just expect it to be that way. Oh, and have fun!!

    1. Yes! Fun is an important part of it. I remember another friend told me this about marriage: "you get to move in with your best friend." Yeah! You do. Marriage is sometimes made out to be this big, scary thing, but it's actually really great to have your best friend around, navigating adulthood with you.

  2. Loved this story! I hate how so many adults tell younger people, "don't get married it's hard" or other things of the like esp from widows because it's not what young people want to hear and it's not going to fix our generation.

    1. It's hard, but doable and worth it -- as Julie said, so are many other worthwhile things in life. I know a widow who has an attitude of "it was the worst thing in the world when he died, and widowhood is a risk you have to take when marrying, but marrying him was absolutely worth it, and if you find a wonderful man, marry him." I really appreciate that.


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