Krista is recently married and looks back on her first years with her husband and new daughter at what the real work of marriage is about. Marriage is a living thing that’s not anything close to the idealized beauty we see on the wedding day, she writes. It’s hard and painful work that means choosing every day to see each other for all our flaws and all our glory.
In our first year of marriage, when people asked how long we’d been married, they’d respond, “Oh you’re still in the honeymoon phase!” Well, if that was true, then we were on a honeymoon in hell with no turndown service or chocolates on the pillows, no umbrella cocktails or origami towels.
Our first year of marriage was filled with sweet moments and happy memories in my mind — and it was also way harder than I expected or was prepared for. No one told me how painful it would be to do the intimate work of “two becoming one.” I expected some compromise — a few arguments, maybe — but I never expected it to be so damn hard.
On our wedding day, the congregation stood and turned as my dad walked me down the aisle toward the man who would become my husband. At the foot of the altar, my dad lifted the veil from my face, kissed my cheek, hugged Jeff, then found his seat.
Looking back, that moment is an image that represents our whole first year of marriage. “Great are the joys in marriage,” said Venerable Archbishop Fulton Sheen, “as there is the lifting of progressive veils until one is brought into the blazing lights of the Presence of God.” It’s a quote that sounds nice and inspiring, but the veils that have been lifted in our marriage have exposed a terrible beauty.
We’ve been married for nearing two years now, practically no time in the grand scheme of things. Last night, Jeff walked in the front door to find me weary and worn, our fussy baby’s body resting on my postpartum belly, the two of us swaying back and forth while she nursed in my aching arms.
My greasy hair perched on top of my head in the messiest of buns and I smelled like sweat and spoiled milk, wearing the same spit-up stained nursing tank and yoga pants as the day before, and possibly the day before that. A full basket of laundry stared at us from the kitchen table that was covered in mail, packages to return, and a few pieces of clothing I’d managed to fold. Dinner would have to wait until after a bedtime that couldn’t come soon enough. It had been One of Those Days.
I looked around our house, caught my reflection in the mirror, glanced at the checklist of all the things I meant to do but hadn’t gotten around to, and stood with my arms full yet also seemingly empty of anything to show for the day.
I thought about the early weeks and months of marriage, and how I believed myself to be a natural at the whole wife thing. I presented Jeff with beautiful, candlelit dinners and carefully packed his lunches with love notes and sliced apples with peanut butter, just the way he likes. I waited eagerly for him to walk through the door on the nights he worked late, and we spent evenings tangled together on the couch or playing cards. We lingered lazily in bed on Sunday mornings and crafted extravagant brunches from scratch, leaving the dishes for later while we took a walk or a nap. We traveled and went out for last minute dinners with friends.
Jeff kissed my forehead and reached for our daughter, and I saw how a veil had been lifted. He didn’t tell me I’ve never been more beautiful. I have. He didn’t tell me the house looks great. It didn’t.
He didn’t even say he loves me. He didn’t need to.
The last verse of the second reading from our wedding echoed in my mind: “And the two will become one flesh.”
That line doesn’t sound nearly as romantic as it did then. This is the work of marriage: the lifting of veils so that only nakedness remains — two becoming one in body, mind, and soul. It’s brutal work, hard work, painful work.
It’s only in the weeks since our daughter was born that I can appreciate all the painful ways we exposed and crucified our self-centeredness, our expectations, our flaws in that first year.
One night stands out in my memory. We’d had another fight. It was over something stupid — a replay of pretty much every other fight we’d had. We retreated to separate corners of the house — me to the shower, Jeff to the living room. As I tied the belt of my bathrobe in our small bathroom, I heard Ben Rector’s cover of “Do You Believe In Love” coming from the speaker in the kitchen.
It was playing from my phone, so I paused it, walked to the kitchen and awkwardly asked Jeff to dance as he stood at the sink. “Can I finish the dishes first?” he asked and I shuffled back to the bathroom to brush my hair, lonely and embarrassed.
I came back out, hit play and wrapped my arms around my husband’s neck. We swayed side to side on the cold linoleum, my tears falling onto his shoulder, wrapped in the familiar words. “Now I wonder, where does true love begin, I’m going under, so I’m letting you in…”
A veil was lifted and the light of love revealed something new and tender in that moment.
True love begins after the party ends — when the white dress has been packed away in the back of the closet and the photos have been hung in frames — as we let each other in on the best and worst of who we were and are and hope to be. I don’t remember anyone telling us this during marriage prep. Maybe they did and I ignored them. Or maybe I thought that we would somehow be exempt.
If marriage feels hard, it doesn’t mean you’re doing it wrong. If it feels like you’re bad at it, it’s because you are and that’s okay. We all start out bad at marriage because we have no clue how to be married. No book or weekend retreat can truly prepare us for the reality of married life. We learn how to be married one day at a time.
In the New Testament, when Jesus tells the apostles about the new rules of marriage, they say “but that’s impossible.” But Jesus doesn’t back down — in fact, he digs in even deeper. Damn right, it’s impossible!
Marriage is impossible when we try to muscle through on our own. We need friends and mentors, we need marriage counselors and confession. We need Jesus and red wine and date nights.
Marriage is a living thing, a promise made and renewed each morning. Some days it will feel easy like Sunday morning and others it will feel impossibly heavy. Both are true and real and have been so in every marriage since the beginning of time.
What matters is that we’re always lifting the veil, always drawing nearer and shedding all the illusions of who we wish we were or think we should be, choosing to see each other for all our flaws and all our glory, doing the work of two becoming one — day by day by day.