I made a mistake last week.
While sharing a bottle of wine with my best friend the topic of being happily married came up. She mentioned that a guy she recently began dating seemed to have a very dismal outlook on marriage based on witnessing his friends’ failed unions. “He said so many of his friends are in the middle of divorces or are regularly unfaithful," she mentioned between sips. "It made me wonder what’s the point. What changes when you get married?” Thinking I was dropping the most bomb advice since Steve Harvey dropped, Think Like a Lady, Act Like a Man I quickly responded, “Nothing. If you’re getting married for the right reasons, nothing should change.”
But now that I’ve thought about it, that’s not entirely true.
The conversation revealed a lot about the expectations that people place on marriage. Compared to some couples, my husband and I are still waiting for the ink to dry on my marriage certificate just celebrating our first wedding anniversary this past September. But from witnessing my parents’ own 38-year-old marriage and those of many of our friends, what I’ve recognized is that when marriage goes wrong it’s usually because somewhere along the way the couples’ expectations conflicted.
See, when I told my friend that nothing should change just because you’re legally man and wife, I meant it. I married my husband because I was happy with how our 10-year relationship was progressing at the time. I looked at that man shoveling both our cars out during one of many Philadelphia's blizzards and I thought to myself, “This is the man I want cleaning my car when we’re 50-something.” Whether we were bingeing on seasons of The Office on Netflix or I was sitting in his parents’ kitchen listening to stories of the frog he set free in his kindergarten classroom, I knew I’d be happy if I had to spend the rest of my life doing just that. I’ve seen him struggle through alcoholism recovery and he’s seen me without my wig, eyebrows half filled-in taking a nebulizer treatment for asthma in the ER.
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It’s not about hoping you'll achieve comfort or happiness one day in the future, or it fixing any insecurities that you’re bringing to the union. It’s about being honest with yourself that if it never gets better than the moment when they’re are at their worst, you’d still feel like the luckiest person on the planet.
But expectations can make or break a marriage as I recognized on a recent season of Married At First Sight. In the FYI series, couples agree to participate in an extreme experiment where four specialists -- a sexologist, a spiritualist, a psychologist and a sociologist -- use scientific matchmaking methods to try and pair successful partnerships between complete strangers who don’t actually meet until their wedding day. Couples are based on personality pros, cons, complimentary careers and lifestyles. The show documents the up’s and down’s in the marriages and after several weeks the couples are united with the specialists to reveal if they want to stay together or go their separate ways. Fans rooted for one couple that was recently featured, Tres and Vanessa. The couple were both young, African-American professionals who were both fairly attractive and anyone could see the sexual chemistry begin to simmer between them the moment they laid eyes on one another.
Tres, a luxury car salesman seemed to balance being cool while being affectionate without turning into a complete cornball. Vanessa, who otherwise appeared fiercely independent with a slight guard up seemed to turn into a bubbly high school freshman nursing a crush on the J. Cole-looking senior while in his presence. It appeared to be everything true love in the making should be. And compared to the other couples who seemed to struggle since day one, we all thought Tres and Vanessa would probably make it. Well a few weeks ago, during the Season 3 “Six Months Later” finale, Vanessa confirmed through tears that the marriage was over and that “things just fell apart”.
Fans of the show are familiar with the fact that Vanessa brought some serious insecurities to the table. The show documented Tres supporting a reunion with the father who had been absent through much of Vanessa's life. But at times she seemed to project those insecurities onto the relationship urging Tres to break his lease so they could properly share a home and make the marriage official, although that might not have made the most sense for their unique situation. Despite Tres’ hardest efforts to make Vanessa feel safe and appreciated, she seemed to keep her defenses up, almost as if she was waiting for him to f**k up.
On the reunion show, Vanessa revealed that shortly after the honeymoon phase the couple basically couldn’t use good sex to distract them from the very real baggage they were bringing to the marriage.
“We stopped being physically intimate.”
The couple revealed they got into a huge argument after Tres didn’t come home until 5 a.m. one night. A blowout led to Vanessa saying some “really mean things” and it was all downhill from there. Tres blamed himself for the lack of intimacy and reveals he basically stopped trying at some point.
“I just felt like at times we would take all these steps forward and [then] we would have to start all over,” he says. “I felt like it didn’t matter what I said … After a while I got burned out on trying to prove myself.”
He also admits that giving up when the going got rough only made the situation worse.
“Intimacy just died out for us, which is definitely a mistake when you’re married,” he says. “And it definitely brought out a lot of insecurities in her, which I understand.”
The finale concluded with couple deciding over dinner to remain friends based on sharing such a unique situation, but why couldn’t this couple make things work?
Survey says? Mismatched expectations, at least in my opinion.
When the couple had to put come clothes on and take on the everyday struggles of a marriage that aren’t so romantic, they were forced to make a tough decision on if the situation was something they were committed to dealing with. Vanessa felt vulnerable enough to reveal the “daddy issues” she was harboring which came off as a severe mistrust of men which Tres represented. And due to the lack of time invested into the relationship because of the experiment, Tres didn’t feel obligated to stick with Vanessa at her worst.
As much as some people love to debate that how much time you’re with a person doesn’t matter and that marriage can work whether you’ve known each other for five days or five years, I must say I feel more invested into someone I’ve survived at least one daylight savings switch with than someone who hasn’t lasted longer than my birth control patch. Successful marriages can happen even when partners know each other after a short time, but I believe they’re the exception. Especially in day and age where divorce is so accessible, people have so many options (our parents didn’t live in a Tinder-kind-of-world) and within a generation where happiness is so prioritized. In other words, I think our generation doesn’t believe you should stay unhappily married simply because you made vows. Time allows you to see a person at their best which helps you balance out those emotions that may tell you to “chuck them deuces up” when you witness them at their worst. Most importantly, time allows you to align your expectations for what you BOTH believe a good marriage should be. And that definition is different for every couple.
So now that I’m not under the influence of Chardonnay, I’d like to slightly adjust the marriage advice I dropped on my BFF a few weeks ago. I still believe marriage shouldn’t change a relationship, but that only works when you and your partner are on the same page about what you expect from the relationship in the first place. What I’m now beginning to realize is that a truly great marriage will however make you grow as a person. Tres and Vanessa didn’t have enough time to realize is that a marriage isn’t about bailing just because you aren’t at fault for the insecurities your partner brings to the relationship. It’s about recognizing that if your partner isn’t at their best, than neither are you, because you signed up to kill it at this life thing together.
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Marriage is hard s**t, so I can’t help but respect the Married at First Sight couples for even making the attempt. Shortly after our first year of marriage, my husband resigned from a stable government job to commit himself to his own business. I was laid off from my job and on top of everything we were new parents. A life I expected to never change experienced changes most couples don’t see for years. But the solid foundation on which our marriage was built, hasn’t changed. Most days you can still find us streaming something on Netflix, with my eyebrows half-filled in and my asthma pump not too far.
What has changed is how I’ve grown as a person.
The challenges we’ve experienced have allowed me to let go of some of my control issues, and allowed myself to be supported and to support someone else. I’m recognizing our decisions affect the both of us and the life we’re building. Most importantly, what I’ve learned from both a reality show and my own life is that it’s not the job of a piece of paper or a fancy ceremony to determine what you’re bringing to a relationship or what you expect from it. That responsibility is completely up to you and your partner.