I went to DC this past weekend for one of my best law school friend's weddings. It was a lovely reunion of my closest friends (from LA, Chicago, DC, and Hong Kong) and an even lovelier celebration of the new bride and her husband. The travel was long (9 hours both ways to use miles and make the whole trip as cheap as possible), but the weather cooperated and the food was delicious and I love any excuse to walk around a city and use well-organized public transportation.
And this weekend I head to Austin to attend the wedding of my best childhood friend. JP gets to go with me this time- our first night away from the kids in years, so for the first time in a very long time, I get to go to a wedding with a date! It's so funny that two of my favorite people in the world ended up getting married one week and 1500 miles apart. I wish it wasn't when I was 6 months pregnant (I do love champagne), but I'm mostly just thankful they didn't end up on the same day.
The last time I was in DC for work I had dinner with my friend E (this past Saturday's bride) and she very seriously asked if I had any advice on marriage. I was honored to be asked, but found it hard to answer. Every person, every relationship, is so unique and private- it's hard to go beyond the generic "communicate," "listen," "forgive," that you're going to read in any article on relationships. I did have a story I happened to be thinking of, particularly in light of her hopes to start a family in the very near future, the moral of which is that "sometimes the best thing you can do for your marriage is to go to bed angry." I know it's contrary to the sweetly morbid idea of never going to bed angry because you don't know if you'll wake up, but the chances of not waking up are quite slim and the chances of you or your husband hurting each other's feelings for reasons that are increasingly unrelated to the original anger-inducing situation simply because you're both tired and need to go to bed are far greater. In my experience, particularly when Landon was a baby and nobody slept, even if you are so angry you can't cuddle or kiss each other goodnight, and you lay on your side of the bed in a militantly tense line to ensure that you don't accidentally brush shoulders with the love of your life, you are still doing more for your marriage simply by trying to go to sleep than if you stay up trying to work it out. In the morning, if whatever set you off still matters, you will now have the energy and perspective to deal with it, and if it doesn't, you are now in a better place to make up and deal with that too. Either way, an extra hour or two of sleep instead of yelling can only make things better. I remember a string of about 5 days in 2007 when JP and I couldn't even talk to each other. We were working and studying so much and Landon was sleeping so little and were so fucking tired we could barely function- everything we had was gone by the time we were alone with each other at 9 p.m. Any attempts at speaking ended in a near-fight about something, so we simply stopped interacting much at all. For days. And I remember when the weekend finally rolled around and we both went to bed during Landon's morning nap and we found each other under the covers mid-rest and cuddled and slept more and woke up and talked and just let the humanity come back. It's not a typical romantic story, but I still remember that morning- bringing Landon in bed with us when he woke up and talking with a smiley baby between us and it makes me happy. It had been such an awful week- so tense for no reason other than the fact that we had nothing left to give the other, and the only reason we didn't end every day in yelling is because we trusted our marriage to be bigger than a few really shitty days. No dissecting or analyzing or questioning our relationship, just making food and going to bed and trusting in our foundation. And in doing that, we really only made the foundation stronger.
I don't know if that will be remotely helpful to my friend- going to bed angry isn't your typical marriage advice, but it's what I happened to think of at the time. And maybe she won't even need it- it's been years since JP and I have had to go to bed mad- Claire never made us very tired as a baby, and when rested, we very rarely fight. But the general concept, trusting in your marriage to be bigger than a particular day or week is something I think of often. Our conversation also made me think of an old Q&A I got from a reader several months ago and never felt I could answer. She wrote, "I'm newly married, and I'm surprised that it's not as 'fairy tale' as I thought it would be. Have you ever felt a little bored in your marriage? If so, how do you and J.P. keep the fire alive?"
The short A to the Q came easy- no, I've never been bored in my marriage. We have quite a lot of fire, and while we've gone through some difficult things- law school, Landon's first ten months, a DCFS investigation, unemployment (twice), entrepreneurship, a business break-up, a family break-up, surgeries and more, it's life that's been hard, marriage has always been the easy. It's what makes all the life stuff more bearable. Not that we don't have our moments of marital strife, but they're moments. Our few fights or rough patches are generally attributable to something that life has shat out at us combined with the fact that only with each other are we secure enough to completely let down our guard and just be our worst selves. I'm both softer and harder around him- softer because I don't have to be strong, and harder because I trust him to think I'm wonderful even when I'm showing my selfish, tired, complainy side that no one else gets to see (lucky, lucky him). And the security that allows for the occasional worst comes with the love that brings us back to the best- the apology, understanding, and, most importantly, the moving on from whatever life pulled out of us. Neither of us is particularly forgiving by nature, but for each other we manage, and again, it's the love that makes it, if not always easy, then at least possible.
But the "fairy tale" part of the question kept me thinking for a while. I didn't want to be flip, so I pondered, and I pondered through some rough months of JP's unemployment, but all I kept coming back to is that it is a fairy tale. At least it is to me. It is a fairy tale that two very independent, very strong willed people can love the other person so much more than themselves that both the independence and the strong wills take backseats to compromise, love, and affection. Maybe I just have lower expectations, but for me, the everyday living- the waking up together, going through our morning with the kids separate but in step, smiling when the phone rings and it's him on the screen, being able to say "I miss you" if we get a minute to chat in the middle of the day and meaning it, laughing over the kids' heads at dinner, tucking them in and settling in on the couch for work or reading or tv, and going to bed with the indulgence of cuddles and affection. Reaching my hand out in the night just to feel him beside me. It's a fairy tale.
There are rough times in the fairy tale, even Disney allows that, but there's laughter and affection to balance it, and the hard only makes our relationship stronger. And because of the crappy times, I get to know without a doubt that our marriage is bigger than a few bad weeks. It's bigger than us and at times, we've had to get by on our faith in that alone. That, and the deep-seated knowledge that he loves me like no one else. When I get too focused on something trivial, like his inability to properly hang a bathroom towel or efficiently load a dishwasher, it helps me to pan out and remember the sheer luck of it all. That he's my favorite and he's sexy as hell and he loves me so much. There's nothing he wouldn't do for me if I asked, and most of the time I don't even have to, but he's still so much his own strong-minded person that I get to feel a thrill of victory any time I convince him I'm right about something. So I suppose that would be my other bit of advice- zoom out of whatever little thing you're gearing up to argue about and decide if it's worth it. Sometimes it is, I'm a proponent of a bit of selfishness in a marriage- after all, you're going to live with this person forever and they should know if they're doing something that bugs you, but much of the time I find it's just that I'm annoyed in general and JP is a convenient target. So zoom out, go to bed mad, be kind, fight fair, forgive, touch a lot, and say I love you more. That's most of what I've learned so far. And when things are hard, I just try to remember how incredibly lucky I am. Because for someone who is as independent and stubborn and occasionally argumentative as I am, with my high expectations of others and borderline unrealistic demands of myself, it is nothing short of a fairy tale that I could find such happiness and love and simple ease with another human being as I've found with JP. Or maybe it's a miracle, but fairy tale sounds better.