Happy wedding season! Many of us will spend this month inundated with dreamy, idealistic images of marriage. I do love a wedding. And yet. I’ve been with my husband for 16 years now. And so I know now that the fantasy a wedding day conjures has about as much in common with the reality of a long marriage as a tropical vacation poster does with a long flight delay there.
And yes, this is why I never give toasts at weddings.
Who wants to hear, on their wedding day, that they will likely suffer? That a big part of the way you stay married is, to quote my mother, just “not getting divorced”? That for both parties to stay 100 per cent monogamous for 50 years will not be effortless? And so I sit quietly under the twinkling lights, enjoying other people’s toast-making efforts.
That said, I am always impressed with a good wedding toast, because in my experience, finding something new or helpful to say about marriage feels borderline impossible. “It’s difficult to think about marriage,” says a friend of mine who has been married for thirty years. “It’s like trying to describe your own face.”
And so we offer clichéd advice like the dubious Ephesians paraphrase, “Don’t go to bed angry.” (Personally, I have avoided many fights by going to bed angry and waking up to realise that I’d just been tired.) Now in the second decade of my second marriage, I can’t look newlyweds in the eye and promise they’ll never regret marrying. (Well, not sober. Maybe this is why weddings correlate with binge drinking.) I adore my husband and plan to be with him forever. I also want to run screaming from the house because the person I promised to love all the days of my life insists on falling asleep to Frasier reruns.
“The first twenty years are the hardest,” an older woman once told me. At the time I thought she was joking. She was not. And, again, this is why I don’t give wedding toasts – because I’d probably end up saying that even good marriages sometimes involve flinging a remote control at the wall.
This is not, of course, what newlyweds want to hear. In the throes of romantic love, we often neglect to ponder the meaning of marriage beyond a vague (and mistaken) expectation that it will make us happy. “I’m afraid I think this rage for happiness rather vulgar,” says one of the more sensible characters in George Bernard Shaw’s play Getting Married. But marriage is not a happiness factory. Contrary to what our capitalist brains like to imagine, you don’t clock in and receive dividends of pleasure.
I adore my husband and plan to be with him forever. I also want to run screaming from the house because the person I promised to love all the days of my life insists on falling asleep to Frasier reruns
“On one hand, I have a lot of compassion for couples early on,” a rabbi once told me. “How could they know? Like all of the challenging and worthwhile undertakings that we engage in in our lives, there’s no way to know what it’s going to be like. On the other hand, I think there are tons of unrealistic expectations. It’s part of my task to introduce realistic ones: Marriage is a microcosm of life. It’s natural to seek stability, stasis, guarantees. We want things to remain okay. But that’s never the truth in any aspect of our lives.”
The main problem with marriage, in other words, may be that it’s not better than the rest of life. Suffering occurs in marriage because we think it will be different – purer, deeper, gentler – than other relationships. We expect our partners and ourselves to be better – more patient, more faithful, more generous – than we are. We believe ourselves exceptional, first in the depth of our passion and then in the breadth of our failure.
“In pastoral counselling around marriages,” said the priest who married me and my husband, “I’ve consistently found that people think what they’re experiencing is a sign of their uniquely defective interpersonal drama. One thing about marriages is that they’re amazingly similar.”
And what’s one thing that breaks up an awful lot of marriages? Infidelity. Sex advice columnist Dan Savage says that everyone talks in their wedding vows about how they would “walk through fire” or “take a bullet” for each other without realizing that more often than not, the bullet and the fire is your spouse saying to you, “I have feelings for another person” or “I slept with someone else.”
Many of us who have been through this would prefer a literal bullet to the metaphorical one. (Dan Savage and his husband, taking the approach that the best offence is a good defence, consider themselves “monogamish.”)
The thing is, when we marry, we still find ourselves looking down rows of appealing people, having to choose the same one, year after year. I’ve begun to suspect that fidelity is less a problem you solve than a chronic condition you manage with willpower and strategy – a decision to skip drinks, to tell the body no, or not again, or definitely only twice more. (The comedian Rick Shapiro once described a disastrous bender that led him to a crystal-clear conclusion: “Man, I really need to give up cocaine in five years.”)
To hitch your rickety wagon to the flickering star of another fallible human being – what an insane thing to do
Still, I do believe in monogamy and I do believe in marriage. I think that for the same reason that I’ve always found parties are better on rainy nights. I think it’s because bad weather weeds out the ambivalent, the uncommitted. To leave the house in a storm, you must do the work of finding an umbrella or preparing yourself for a soaking. This requires faith that leaving your dry house will pay off, that you will travel through the cold, dark, unwelcoming night and end up somewhere better than where you left. People who only ever go to parties on sunny days miss the joy of reaching a cozy room during a downpour. People who don’t marry miss both the pelting hardships of marriage and its warm rewards.
Whether religious or secular, a wedding ceremony casts a spell over the couple, renders them from that instant on apart, a bit, from the rest of the world. Marriage isn’t an achievement, the culmination of a love affair, but, rather, the announcement of an intention to live in a new way.
The day after a wedding, even if nothing but the jewelry appears different – you’re keeping your names, you already shared a home, a bed, friends – something important has changed. From then on, every day you stay, you keep that vow. Even if you have to grapple with a crush here or there. Even if you want to kill your partner because of conflicts in TV viewing. Just by staying married, we give something to ourselves and to others: hope. Hope that in steadfastly loving someone, we ourselves, for all our faults, will be loved; that the broken world will be made whole. To hitch your rickety wagon to the flickering star of another fallible human being – what an insane thing to do. What a burden, and what a gift.
This essay is adapted from Wedding Toasts I’ll Never Give, out this month from W.W. Norton & Co. U.K.