I recently talked with a friend who is wanting to get married but is struggling to know how to do it. He wants it, but he doesn’t know how to find someone or how to know when he’s found the right person. This short essay grew as an attempt to respond to his concerns. And if you’re hoping for three steps to a happily ever after, you’re reading the wrong blog. There are more than enough of those articles being published. This is an internal exploration of how I got married.
Getting married begins as an imagination of what it is to be married. At a young age I began to imagine flowered isles, rings, music, and all the adventures of a honeymoon. But these were only a frame for a picturesque idea of a best friend and constant companion—someone smart, pretty, and willing to move anywhere and face anything with me. I imagined us joking back and forth, making people laugh, and being all around impressive. Later, I imagined well behaved children that I would be able to teach to read and play.
If you want to get married, you already know that you could not and do not construct these imaginations alone. The idea of true love is played out across movie screens and Facebook posts and everyone seems to want it—and not just want it, it’s practically a frenzy. The overwhelming majority of us have agreed, for one reason or another, that love and marriage are desirable. And our society has built up the imagination for us. To show our social support we have developed a tradition of wedding ceremonies to which we invite family and friends who fly from distant places and bring expensive presents. This love and wedding culture comes together to create a sort of communal agreement and sanction for marriage. We all agree it’s a big deal even if our reasons for believing are diverse.
If you are wanting to get married, you have entertained this imagination and are wanting to finally begin in earnest. You are wanting to move beyond the imagination, beyond the speculation, beyond the experimentation and to start with the real thing. After less than a year of dating, when I was making the final decision of if I would marry Sarah (and thank God I did) she told me “I would rather spend the next year making our marriage work than wondering if it could.” I too wanted to get married because I wanted to move past wondering and imagining and just begin already. There were of course many things to consider before deciding to move forward, but eventually (actually rather quickly), we came to the brink—for those who practice abstinence that brink is normally fairly early in a relationship. And once we jumped from the brink, we entered the actual substance of marriage.
But the actual substance of marriage is hard to tie down. A couple decides that they are going to get married and then what happens? Some guy pronounces them married and magically they are. It’s like a big play on a stage where the narrator informs the audience that the actors are all on a boat, and so all the actors start acting like they really are on a boat—and the audience accepts the fact and follows along.
But at any moment an actor could break the illusion and decide he’s had enough. There is always the reality that a man or a woman could stop playing along. Not much is stopping them except for their imagination (both personal collective). And so in a way, these imaginations are more than childish games or dreams that move us toward marriage. Instead, they come very close to the actual being and essence of marriage.
The imagination of marriage is what raises us to the task, spurs us forwards, gets us engaged, and keeps us committed. So certainly continue to imagine and even idealize marriage, but know that these imaginations can also hinder our forward progress and enfeeble our attempts. As alcohol is to lovemaking, imaginations are to marriage: “it provokes the desire, but it takes away the performance.” This is because imaginations are surreal. They come from reality but they do not correspond directly to it.
For example, my imaginations of marriage, even as a college student were idyllic. In my imagination, years were suppressed into moments. Imaginations capture the beauty of marriage and even create it but not without mutation.
In my imagination character traits of my imagined wife were infinitely malleable and selected by the moment rather than built out of the substance of life. I imagined marrying a girl who was not only gregarious and wonderfully outgoing but was also pensive and quiet and wouldn’t talk much, but when she did talk, it was a blow-you-away kind of comment. The girl I imagined didn’t like shopping but somehow owned perfectly fitted designer clothes. She was athletic but not competitive. These imaginations are like a dream that makes perfect sense while you’re asleep, but when you wake up suddenly things seem fishy and don’t fit together quite right.
That’s the trick of getting married. The imaginations are crucial for raising your desire and putting you up to the task. They will help you choose the right sort of person. But they’re also full of inconsistencies and absurd unrealities. Getting married for me was a process of navigating between imagination and reality. Between my projections and what was really before me.
When I met Sarah, I thought she was pretty and smart and even funny, but not as much as I imagined my wife would be. However, she was (I realize how bad it sounds) “good enough.” The bigger problem was that the falling-in-love bit was not what I expected. Because I had spent so much time imagining falling in love, I felt I had a pretty good understanding of how it should feel, taste, smell, etc. When it wasn’t the way I had imagined, I thought something was wrong. The “knowledge” of how it should feel interfered with how it did feel and made impossible any uncontaminated experience. The conflict between my imagination and reality did not end after marriage. Since deciding to get married, marriage has been nice, but often not as swell as I had imagined. And sex is pleasant, but certainly not the out-of-this world euphoria I had conjured in my mind.
When I focus on my imaginations I find myself trying to create them. Positively, this can mean that I try to improve our family and make our home more fun, peaceful, secure, etc. Imaginations can be instructive in this way. But they can also make me disappointed in what is really before me, because it is not as I had imagined it would be. This can make me easily displeased with my wife when her shirt is ratty or her jokes aren’t funny. This can also make a sexual fantasy become a personal quest and I mutate our natural interaction to become more like what I am picturing in my head.
There is always the difficulty of moving between imagination and real life, and they both need your attention. And they’re both needed if you’re going to get married.
What I have found most helpful is changing how I see the two interacting. Rather than seeing imagination as the ideal form of what is possible and reality as the plain twin sister, I recommend giving reality equal or greater notoriety. When something or someone is different, let it surprise you instead of disappoint you. Let it intrigue you and excite you rather than upset you. You’re bound to be wrong about marriage and you will find holes in the feasibility of your imaginations; everyone knows this and it’s a good thing. If everything worked out how you imagined, it wouldn’t be much worth your time. The thing to know is that the real thing is also exciting and worth your attention.