Earlier this month I attended my cousin Emily’s wedding. The event was special in a multitude of ways, but the phrase that has been echoing in my head ever since is one spoken by my Uncle Jack, one of the wisest men I know: I love you anyway.
Weddings have always evoked a hurricane of emotions for me. When I was young, the romantic in me yearned for a forever love of my own while feeling sadness and disappointment about my parents’ failed marriage. While Pete and I were dating and engaged, each wedding brought anticipation and excitement about finally being able to have a special day of our own.
In the years after we were married, I’ve at times been grateful, nostalgic, melancholy, and cynical. A few week’s short of our tenth wedding anniversary, and in the same church where Pete and I said our vows, Emily’s wedding inspired all of these emotions plus something new.
Newlyweds are optimistic and full of hopeful expectations for their new spouse and the life they will spend together, as they should be. Emily beamed and Chris shed sincere tears of gratitude and love. The church was full of family and friends, supporting them, loving them, and wishing for their happily-ever-after life together. Sunlight shone through the intricate stained-glass windows and danced off of the marble aisle and ornately decorated alter, transporting me to June 28th, 2008 when Pete and I began our lives together in the very same way.
Lucy was with me at the wedding and her big brown eyes widened at the wonderful spectacle. I watched as she processed her first wedding and wondered if she would dream of her own day as most little girls do, developing unrealistic fantasies that do not match the gritty, difficult, every-day challenge of marriage.
I thought about the argument Pete and I had the previous day (and what seemed like every other day for ten years). I also thought about the tragedies, hardships, harsh words, family turmoil, lost friends, and disappointments Pete and I had endured together. Marriage is a life-long battle that we covertly begin with flowers, fancy clothes, cake, and a party.
We traveled to Emily and Chris’ party in our fancy clothes in anticipation of a fun evening, but I held on to this nagging feeling of cynicism. My feelings about marriage have always been conflicted. When my parents divorced when I was nine, my young mind processed a flood of emotions, but the overwhelming one was a relief.
I honestly do not ever remember my parents happy in their marriage. All I remember is the fighting: my mom locking my dad out of the house and making him sleep on the porch because he stayed out too late partying, my dad looking miserable as he complained about my mom’s cooking, the late night arguments I always heard about money, priorities, and everything else under the sun. When I found out that my parents were going to split up, a guilty wave of relief washed over me. At least the tension in the house would dissolve and the fighting would stop, or so I thought.
Despite witnessing my parents’ tumultuous divorce and years of rejecting the traditional family model of two parents, two children, and a house with a white picket fence, a part of me still longed for what I never had. I watched a bit of enviously as my aunts, uncles, and cousins lived their seemingly perfect lives in their “unbroken” families.
I looked adoringly upon both sets of my grandparents, who only let death part them, and kept a mental list of marriages that worked and the traits that I wanted to emulate. When Pete and I married, I sought out married couples for advice and noted the little elements that seemed to keep their marriages solid. One of those couples at the top of my list is my Uncle Jack and Aunt Elaine.
The sight of Jack and Elaine at Emily’s wedding reception overwhelmed me with gratitude and love. Jack has been battling cancer and 5 months previously, his doctors had given him 6 months to live. I have never known my Uncle Jack without Aunt Elaine and she spoke with me about preparing to be his widow.
Jack and Elaine have lived an incredible adventure of a life together, and I only know a minute spec of the turmoil, strife, and hardships they’ve encountered. Somehow, though, they fought the battle of life and marriage together successfully and now Elaine was facing losing her most loyal ally and, I’m guessing, fiercest opponent. Miraculously, through what Jack believes is a mixture of prayer and alternative medicine, cancer has shrunk and my uncle’s life has been prolonged to give them more time together.
As I sat and listened to two people I have admired all my life talk about their newest and gravest challenge, I looked around, took a sip of my pinot and a jagged breath in, exhaling, “Marriage is hard.”
They briefly looked at each other and then at me and my uncle bestowed his wisest advice yet, “Nik, someone once told me that there are three magic words for a strong marriage: I love you. I learned that there are actually four: I love you anyway.”
Sitting with my aunt and uncle in the middle of a gorgeously perfect wedding reception, surrounded by family, and hearing those words, the hard cynicism that had been building began to melt and replaced with new clarity.
Suddenly the struggles of my marriage were interrupted by all of the beauty of it: flowers each month for no reason, Pete waiting at every finish line, full belly laughs, perfectly-planted hanging baskets, family dinners, babies sleeping on Dad’s chest, parties in the backyard, fancy dinners, my front-yard garden, late night conversations, concerts, ball games, craft beers, and admiring smiles.
Our marriage is neither a perfect fairytale nor is it a constant fight. Yes, it is hard, but it is also a joyful gift. I am fortunate to have a husband who challenges me but also respects my independence. We are both stubborn and imperfect but have managed somehow to help each other become better people. Each day we make choices and we hope that more of those choices move us forward than set us back.
We don’t hide our arguments from Lucy and Mateo, which I’m often conflicted about, but ultimately I hope that our children learn not to over-romanticize marriage. As ten years and some very wise mentors have taught me, the key to a successful marriage is to accept imperfection, fight the toughest battles as allies, and productively move past the obstacles that will inevitably arise.
Ten years in and I love my husband more deeply than ever because my eyes are wide open and the cloud of naive fairytale optimism has dissipated. We’ve turned an important corner, but we still face a lifetime of arguments and struggles. I’m confident, though, that as long as we make the most important choice to love each other anyway, our imperfectly wonderful family will get through it all, together.
Photo Credit: Matthew Jenkins Photography