I was at work, on break, reading an article by Ada Calhoun in the New York Times where she discusses the changes she, and all married couples, go through. Ultimately, she’s trying to make the argument that while we assume the person we marry is going to be the same person forever, the fact is we all change, and we need to accept and anticipate it.
One paragraph in particular gave me pause: “Several long-married people I know have said this exact line: ‘I’ve had at least three marriages. They’ve just all been with the same person.’ I’d say Neal and I have had at least three marriages: Our partying 20s, child-centric 30s and home-owning 40s.”
When Mel and I first got married, we were very different people. Thirteen years, three children, and three college degrees between the two of us can do that to people. When we first met, at 21, I didn’t know how to type, I’d never read a novel, and my primary goals were to ride mountain bikes professionally and get tattoos. Now I have a graduate degree, work at a university, just signed a book deal, and own a minivan along with a large wardrobe of cargo shorts and work polos. The joke Mel and I make is that if my current self met my younger self, my younger self would have kicked the older version’s ass.
Mel, well, she’s changed too. When we first met, she’d just finished her associate’s degree and felt that she was ready to settle down and raise a family. Now she has a bachelor’s degree, works at an elementary school, and is a vegetarian.
We’ve grown together — that’s for sure. We dress similarly now. We both wear the same large-framed dorky glasses and watch the same romantic comedies. But we’ve changed a lot between our 20s and mid-30s, and during that time, we’ve gone through a few phases, obviously, but I’d never really thought about it until I read that paragraph by Calhoun.
Mel and I have gone through very similar phases as her, only I think we were out of sync at times, one of us moving into the next phase before the other. At first, it felt like I was still in the socializing stage, while Mel was in the “let’s settle down” phase. We had a lot of arguments early in our marriage concerning me hanging out with friends and attending concerts when I should have been being a father and husband.
Once I started to settle, I went into the “get done with college” stage, while she was in the “I want to be home with the kids” phase. And now we are both in the “own a home and focus on your children” phase.
All of these changes have come with a lot of ups and downs and arguments, and a lot of those arguments have resulted in Mel and I figuring out how to live happily together. And I think the reason I find this so fascinating is that I never saw it coming, and I don’t think a lot of other couples do either.
I once listened to a TED Talk by Dan Gilbert where he asked a collection of people to imagine themselves in 10 years. What he found is that “people predict that the friend they have now is the friend they’ll have in 10 years, the vacation they most enjoy now is the one they’ll enjoy in 10 years, and yet, people who are 10 years older all say, ‘Eh, you know, that’s really changed.'” He goes on to say, “The bottom line is, time is a powerful force. It transforms our preferences. It reshapes our values. It alters our personalities. We seem to appreciate this fact, but only in retrospect.”
This is a very human problem and often comes out sideways in marriage. When I married Mel, I assumed that we would be, more or less, the same people for the rest of our lives, with the same friends, along with the same likes and dislikes. I knew that we would age some. I knew that the way we looked would change. Our fashion would change. But when it came to what we valued, and the way we thought, I figured that would stay the same.
But looking back now, to when we first got married, my values and concerns are very different. I no longer care about tattoos; I care about making my house payment. I no longer care about seeing this or that punk band; I care about making it to my son’s soccer practice. I used to worry about looking cool; now I drive a minivan because it’s practical. To think that the person you marry is some unchanging, ever-consistent thing is a joke. It’s a fallacy. In many ways, I think it’s the worst thing you can do for your early marriage.
I used to jokingly tell my friends that the reality of long-term investment is looking at your spouse and imagining them with gray hair and an extra 30 pounds. Now after being married for over a decade, I can obviously say with certainty that it’s much more complicated than that. It means looking at the person you are with and imagining them changing religions, or taking up knitting, or deciding to run a marathon, or becoming a vegetarian, or taking up playing the piano even though they have no musical talent and you might have to listen to them play off beat for the next 10 years.
It means still loving someone when you develop a love for travel, and they become a homebody. It means loving them enough to get excited about their change, to embrace it, and hope that they will do the same for you. And sometimes, it means changing who you are to accommodate their change.
When I got married, I got a lot of advice. Most of it had to do with compromise and listening. I wish someone had told me that change is okay. That I might be married three times to the same woman, but that’s normal and healthy and necessary for growth.
Dan Gilbert finished his TED talk with a pretty powerful statement that I think sums up this whole idea: “Human beings are works in progress that mistakenly think they’re finished. The person you are right now is as transient, as fleeting and as temporary as all the people you’ve ever been. The one constant in our life is change.” The same is true for marriage.