If you don’t count song lyrics, I have a short list of things I’ve learned by heart: the 23rd Psalm, a brief poem from my childhood, the Preamble to the Constitution, and Antony’s soliloquy from Julius Caesar. Oh, and the Pledge of Allegiance. Because ‘Merica.
Ancient Greeks used to believe the heart was the seat of intelligence, emotion, and memory. In some ways, that may be true. In many cases, people who have had heart transplants report having at least temporary memories of things that happened to the donor.
This week, we are celebrating our 25th anniversary, and while we may not have exchanged hearts in a literal sense, we do share decades of memories. If such a thing can be true of people and not just poems and pledges, I know him by heart. The date of our ceremony is engraved on the rings we wear, but we started learning about each other about 7 years before that, essentially growing up together since meeting in high school.
On a stifling hot June afternoon, we got married under a canopy of trees in a state park across the street from my parents’ house. After the promises and shy public kiss, we walked hand-in-hand down the aisle to the Beatles singing “Will you still need me, will you still feed me, when I’m 64?”. I was barely 22. He was in the middle of vet school. He had hair. I had a waistline.
We had exactly one fabulous week at the beach, where we both got alarmingly sunburned and had to drive 10 hours home trying not to let our skin touch the seats of the car. Good times.
Cue the sound of crashing expectations. Those first years were sweet, but tough. Tuition and car insurance led to cereal for dinner occasionally. Late nights studying for vet school made for lonely channel surfing instead of foot rubs and cuddles. Stress from work came home with me. We fought. Sometimes badly. This was a far cry from hours of sharing dreams and giggles on the phone at night and going out on dates each week. Now we shared finances, family, furniture. Everything, it seemed, had to be negotiated, compromised.
Eventually, we leaned in. His infinite patience and our shared sense of humor buoyed us. That, and the fact that we treated the union as a third party, something separate from ourselves that needed care and attention. Looking at our wedding photo back when we were fresh and doe-eyed, if I could have shared some wisdom with the Young Us, it might include the following.
- Congratulations! You are now a complete family. Notice children have nothing to do with this, so when people ask you when you plan to start a family, tell them you’ve already checked that off. If later on you feel the need to procreate, rock on. But you’ll just be expanding the family you’ve already made. When the kids leave home, I still got you, babe.
- Your spouse cannot and should not fill all your needs or empty spaces. While you might make a great team and complement each other in all the right places, you still need friends, interests, and soul-filling that have nothing to do with one another. (Ditto for children, by the way.) It’s not in the marriage job description for him or her to make you happy.
- Have a focus outside yourselves that you can look outward toward together. I’m not talking about a weekly trip to Home Depot for the latest DIY project. I mean a common service to your community/world at large, so you can remember that there’s a whole lot going on outside your little bubble of two. Pray together.
- Learn how to fight. Even if you can’t imagine a cross word in your lovey-dovey state of bliss, it will come, and arguments shouldn’t shake your whole foundation. You’ll disagree about something–in-laws, money, sex, division of labor, children, or asinine stuff like rinsing out the cereal bowl or peeing with the door open–and if you know each other’s battle mode and can see beyond the conflict, the casualties are fewer.
- Assume the best. Beyond the morning breath, snoring, hair in the drain, and the way she sings off-key is the person you chose for better or worse. Remember their best self. Don’t see them as they really are, see them as their best version–Spouse 2.0– and stockpile your grace. Hope like crazy they’re doing the same for you. You like someone because. You love someone although.
- If you got married for safety or security, it’s too late for a refund. You should’ve read the fine print. Love is not safe. Human love is never pure or perfect. It comes with truckloads of imperfection. Love like this is the biggest risk out there. If life is kind and nobody gets hit by a bus, the payoff is golden. You get to be those adorable old people that everybody envies walking hand-in-hand in the park. You’ll hold up your hair and he’ll automatically zip up the back of your dress. You’ll straighten his tie and admire how good he looks in a suit.
- Being a person is hard sometimes. When you lose a job, or a parent, or a child, or if there are surgeries and procedures and prognoses involved, hang on. Love is not the honeymoon at the beach. Love is the roof sailing through the wind in the tornado, and the two of you huddling together in the closet, not letting go. Be each other’s weight-bearing wall.
- Find other people who are doing it right and copy them. Don’t make it harder by trying to do it all by yourselves. Ask for help if you need it. Sometimes an objective voice is critical.
- Forgive. Forgive lots of times, and then forgive some more. Kindness goes a long way. Speak life to each other. The world is hard. Be each other’s safe place.