I run a tutoring center at a university, and I was chatting with one of my student employees about what he wanted in a future wife. He was in his early 20s, a student athlete from an upper-middle-class home. I can’t recall how we got on the subject, but what I do recall was that his list of expectations for the woman he hoped to marry sounded like he was searching for a unicorn.
He started with the way he wanted her to look, like so many men in their early-20s often do. He wanted someone not too tall, but not too short, with the right hair color and breast size. She needed to be curvy in some places, and not curvy in others. He wanted her to be smart and funny, but also supportive. He wanted her to be athletic, smart, and into video games. She needed to be good with kids and good in bed. He wanted someone chill, but also passionate about certain causes. Someone not stuck-up, but interested in fashion.
He went on for a while. Obviously he’d put some serious thought into this.
Once he was finished, I said, “Let’s say you find this dream woman, and you marry her. What are you going to do when she changes?”
He paused for a moment. I don’t think he was expecting that question.
“What do you mean?” he said.
“What are you going to do when she spends more of her time focused on the kids, and less on athletics? What are you going to do when she decides that video games are stupid, and that she’d rather pursue a law degree? What are you going to do when she has a really rough pregnancy, and although she made it through like a champ, her body changes in ways you weren’t expecting? What are you going to do when she starts shopping in yoga pants and Crocs because she stays up late to get time to herself and gets up early with the kids, and even though she’s a great mom, she simply doesn’t have as much time for herself anymore? Are you still going to love her?”
As we spoke, I thought about my own marriage. I’ve been married for 13 years, and together we have three children. I can’t honestly recall what my expectations were for a future wife when I was in my 20s, but I’m pretty sure that they were similar to what my student was offering up. And to be honest, when Mel and I first met, she was pretty perfect for me. I remember thinking that she met all my criteria. I’m not sure what Mel’s criteria for a husband was, but for the sake of this essay, I’m going to say that I met them.
But the fact is, now we are both very different people. I’m 15 pounds heavier. I’ve changed careers a couple times. I’ve changed hobbies and passions. I started snoring a few years ago. I’ve gotten into the habit of not closing the door all the way when I use the bathroom. I’m not as charming as I once was. I’m starting to lose some hair. I fart all the time. I’m going gray. I mostly wear work polos and cargo shorts.
Mel, she’s different too. She’s become a vegetarian (that was a hard transition). She went back to school, which was unexpected. Sometimes she will go a couple days without a shower because of kids. Her brown hair is now streaked with gray.
Honestly, at this stage in our lives, we still love each other, but we also get under each other’s skin. There was this one time that Mel and I were driving to the store, and she caught me wiping a booger under the seat of her new van. Oh boy, that was almost grounds for divorce. And then there was the time that Mel got a speeding ticket and didn’t tell me about it for over a year.
None of these changes have been deal-breakers. We don’t have any substance use problems or infidelity issues. We still love each other. But to make my marriage work, it has taken a certain level of settling. Of realizing that the woman I love isn’t perfect. Sometimes she does things I find irritating. Sometimes we don’t agree with how best to raise our children. Our bodies have changed in lopsided ways, and that’s just the reality of being with someone for a long time.
This student and I sat in silence for what seemed like a long time, but probably only lasted a few moments. Eventually, I commended him on his high standards. Having high standards isn’t a bad thing. But at the same time, I couldn’t help but laugh at what he was telling me.
“Here’s the thing: You should be looking for someone who fits what you want right now. There is nothing wrong with that. But what you need to realize is that finding someone who fits your expectations isn’t as important as finding someone you can grow with. Because the reality is, you will both change, and finding someone who can accept your changes, and you can accept theirs, is the reality of a successful marriage.”
“I guess I’ve never thought about it that way,” he said.
He looked nervous.
“I didn’t think about any of that when I got married. I didn’t realize that Mel would change in ways I couldn’t anticipate, and that I would too. And somehow, with all this change and growth, we still love each other. But it’s meant casting aside that ideal person we wanted at the beginning, and growing together, in lopsided, gray-haired ways. And you know what? I love her more now than I did before because I know that she accepts me for who I am now and who I will become.”
I don’t know if this all made sense to him. It seemed like one of those things that might click later. Or at least I hoped it did.
I have a feeling anyone reading this who has been married for more than a couple years understands this. Because the reality is, if they ever were the perfect fit, they won’t be forever. And that isn’t a bad thing. It’s just the reality of long-term commitment. You have to be willing to accept the imperfections of your partner and hope that they will accept yours. And when that happens, you grow together and life keeps getting better, and it’s a pretty amazing thing.