Illustration: Charlotte Orr

LOVE & SEX

I have been married for a year now and this is what I’ve learned

Emma Jane Unsworth reflects on the realisations that come with marrying, one year on

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By Emma Jane Unsworth on

My friend Sally said it first. “Since I got married, I really believe in marriage.”

I stared at her. Sally had been married for almost three years. “Come again, mate?”

“I really believe in marriage now,” she said simply and took another sip of her pint. Sally is one of my wildest, wisest friends. But this wasn’t just why it struck me as an odd thing for her to say. I asked her to elaborate. “Well,” she said, “I wanted to be married to the man I loved, but that was as far as it went. Now, I feel something for the marriage itself. I respect it.”

I was confused. The “marriage itself”. The institution? Sally’s words ran around my head. I couldn’t decide whether she’d been brainwashed into some marriage-apologist cult or was winding me up. But it’s funny how these things can lie in wait and ambush you. I got married last August and, after just celebrating our first anniversary, I feel like I have a sense of what she meant.

Emma and her husband on their wedding day.
Photo: joannabrownphotography.com
 

A few disclaimers. I’m still not 100% sure about marriage. I’m not 100% sure about anything and I think that’s just a curious, soulful way to live. To harbour conflicting ideologies is a useful part of life, in order to grow and change and experience all those other signs of aliveness, rather than deadness. Marriage is one of those big life-decision paradoxes, along with babies, moving in with someone, living abroad, facial tattoos – as in, how do you know what they’ll really be like until you actually do them? You have no prior experience, plus every situation is unique due to infinite varying factors. (A paradox Sheila Heti grapples with, regarding babies, in Motherhood.) Sometimes, the biggest decisions in life are decisions you can’t intelligently make. Which is a headfuck, to use the technical term.

Anniversaries beg a retrospective and, as I’ve been looking back over the past year, I’ve realised that I, like Sally, have come to love my marriage – as in, the thing itself, which is something I never thought I’d say. After all, it’s an archaic thing, on paper, isn’t it? It’s the real people living the lives that give it its vibe and meaning. But I have come to ponder and take heart from the vows my husband, Ian, and I made – vows that you can, of course, make in any long-term relationship, but vows that for us, for the people we are, somehow needed to be formalised in this way, on that day.

It was the marriage that made me think about what I could learn – about myself, and life, and love

In one of my favourite albums about love, I Love You, Honeybear, Father John Misty sings about being “tired of running” in the song The Ideal Husband. Misty calls it “dumb”, he is “succumbing” – but this is definitely part of it for me. On a deeply personal level (because it can only be deeply personal), before I was married I felt I could leave relationships more easily. I stress the deeply personal thing, because obviously, you should always leave – marriage or no marriage – if you’re in a toxic nightmare, or even just something that makes you feel bad more than it makes you feel good. Also, I’m sure plenty of people feel that they can’t run, either logistically, spiritually or both, and more, when they’re not married but in a relationship that is long-term or serious for all manner of reasons. But I know that I ran in the past when there was a faint snifter of things starting to go wrong, presuming that if something wasn’t perfect then it was inherently fucked.

For me, marriage somehow smashed that fear of rejection. My marriage has been a fast-track learning curve in staying put and working through things, rather than legging it to the next potentially perfect situation (which, of course, would never exist, once reality got a hold on it). Not even having a son before I was married made me feel as committed in the present. I knew that Ian and I would always be in each other’s lives in some context, but, in a way, that wasn’t about our relationship as much as what we were doing as parents. I have plenty of single-mum friends raising brilliant kids and, while it’s hard as hell, they are inspiring and they are doing it. No, it was the marriage that made me think about what I could learn – about myself, and life, and love – by staying focused on the damaged or seemingly flawed thing in front of me, and sorting, and talking, and seeing where I could compromise and where I couldn’t, and cooling down, and coming back, and agreeing to agree to disagree on certain things.

I see our marriage as a creative project – one that we started pitching on our wedding day, and will spend however many years redrafting. An ex once said to me, “Love shouldn’t feel like hard work; it should be easy.” I nodded and obliged at the time. Now, I heartily disagree. He had it so wrong. I also suspect what he was really saying was, “Don’t give me any aggro,” so that, once again, emotional labour becomes another job for women – keeping the peace, making men’s lives pleasant and fragrant. Nah. These days, I’m up for the rows when they’re needed. I argue with my husband more than I’ve ever argued with anyone – often because we’re knackered and frustrated, but also because it feels like my healthiest, most honest, most mature partnership. We argue in a measured way, containing our arguments and arriving at real conclusions, without too much overspill or resentment. The tricky thing, in this age of social airbrushing, is toeing the line between what we should change about ourselves and what we should accept. It’s a fine balance – and I’m not sure it swings further one way the older we get, more that we just get better at seeing the line, and what falls on either side.

We’ve had other things to navigate – things that have made us have to be more respectful housemates, fairer negotiators, more considerate companions. I had postnatal depression, for a long time undiagnosed (no rare thing), which manifested as rage and dread, and the birth caused my husband’s OCD to flare up, associated as it was with ideas of protecting the family. Both of these things pushed us to our limits and, with our families far away, it has been – and is – a long, slow climb back to sanity, especially with exhaustion in the mix. But we have done it roped together, hauling each other up in turn. “Thanks for meeting me, and holding me, constantly,” I wrote in his anniversary card. I really meant that.

An ex once said to me, ‘Love shouldn’t feel like hard work; it should be easy.’ I nodded and obliged at the time. Now, I heartily disagree. He had it so wrong. I also suspect what he was really saying was, ‘Don’t give me any aggro’

There are plenty of things about marriage, and what it represents in society, that I struggle with. Many things I find rank and dangerous. The one time I almost bolted wasn’t in the run-up to the actual ceremony but months before, when we went to give notice at Brighton registry office, and the form asked me to name my father’s profession but not my mother’s. I still feel an angry gut-fire when I think about that. I raised it with the registrar. He agreed it was outrageous. Where did we go from there? I didn’t bolt, but I’m conflicted about it, still.

As the wedding got closer, I was full of uncertainty, but I didn't know whether what I was feeling was ordinary pre-wedding fear or PND-related or something hormonal or real alarm bells, rather than wedding bells. I told my therapist that I felt as though, when I was writing my wedding speech, I was trying to make a case for marriage. I knew I needed to, to myself, but only through living it have I been able to. Clarity has crept in, as I have recovered from the hardest, strangest few years, and Ian and I have worked through a thousand issues – allowing space for each other, sacrificing, staking claims, making the broken mythologies joint heirlooms rather than private albatrosses. Would these things have happened if I hadn’t got married? I can’t answer that. All I can say is, I’m glad I did get married.

I value our marriage as something growing – and something that is making me grow as a person, too. Like motherhood, it is fraught with ambivalence, but I am seeing it as part of my self-development, rather than a negation of it. It needs constant interrogation and checking, but it holds. To have an anniversary to celebrate – that ritual means something, too; that annual renewal; that celebration and taking stock and saying, we made it this far. Not the institution (fuck institutions), but the commitment and bond.

Photo: joannabrownphotography.com
 

The remains of the PND – what the antidepressants could not shift – required a change in attitude on my part; something I am still working on. Accentuating the positive. Counting my lucky stars. It’s hard work. But I promised Ian – as he promised me – that we would not live a life of “half measures”. “No half measures” became our motto when we decided to live together. I had a pink neon sign of it made for his birthday. We hung it in the lounge. Those words were one of our vows on our wedding day. (Bizarrely, while I have been writing this piece today, the postman has delivered an anniversary present from my family – a certificate saying they have named a star for us and named it… “No Half Measures”. Another lucky star to count!) It means being adventurous, but it also means giving 100%. I knew how much of the PND was “me” and how much of it wasn’t “me”. I am well enough now to know it’s my move, and I’m doing it, for me, for him, for us. These last few steps out of the hole are steep and slippery, but someone’s got my back. It takes everything to fight your own brain sometimes, but everything is what I promised to bring.

We rumble on, knocking the corners off each other, learning, growing, moving, not dying

When his OCD is under control, my husband is pretty zen. He makes us remember Kurt Vonnegut’s words: “If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is…” We say it walking along together, having a drink, enjoying a good dinner. He makes me sit on the beach and not look at my phone. He tells me I have a “Protestant work ethic” and that I need to relax. I have to agree. I tell him he has no idea what it’s like to be a self-employed woman who barely had any maternity leave. He has to agree. And so we rumble on, knocking the corners off each other, learning, growing, moving, not dying. I am coming to appreciate a vast and intricate tenderness spreading beneath our shared life. I realised last Christmas, lying in bed after a work disappointment, that love and work have swapped places in terms of my expectations and desires. Where I used to seek danger in love, now I want security there. I used to mistake romance for passion and then wonder why it died. These days, I want love to be like a giant mattress waiting for me to fall and then boing me back up on to my feet again. I get enough precariousness in my work, like most self-employed women.     

Photo: joannabrownphotography.com
 

All of this feels right, if not radical. A year on, I can see the sagacity in Sally’s seemingly contradictory words. I never expected my reasoning to be so clearly defined – almost as though marriage was the hazy abstract you escaped into, rather than a stark reality that only gets harder and deeper and more interesting (I wrote that in his card, too). Here’s to getting married. And here’s to not getting married. And here’s to finding out more about things after you’ve gone all in, and that not making you naïve or desperate, but human and questing and free. I recognise now that my marriage was a formal announcement to myself to work at something. It’s not for everyone, but it’s working for me.

@emjaneunsworth

Illustration: Charlotte Orr
Tagged in:
Marriage
Love
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