Recently, a private moms group I’m in had a discussion about the difficulties of marriage. It was the first time we’d had such an open, honest conversation about it. Once a couple of women admitted they were struggling, the floodgates opened and everyone got real.
We learned that many of us are in the thick of major marital problems. Some of us are ready to leave, but haven’t told our spouses yet. Some of us have drawn up paperwork with our soon-to-be-former spouses, divided assets even, but haven’t yet told the kids. Some of us are in therapy, with or without spouses. Some of us came this close to getting divorced but sought therapy or found a way back and are now happier than ever.
But, regardless of anyone’s situation, the prevailing sentiment of that thread was, “Marriage isn’t a fairytale, it’s fucking hard, get used to it” with a side of “love ebbs and flows, hang in there, it gets better.”
This advice is solid and realistic. Of course we can’t expect marriage to be perfect. Of course our partners can’t fulfill our every need. Of course there will be ups and downs. Humans aren’t perfect, so when we share our lives together, there are bound to be bumps in the road.
Marriage is unbelievably hard and requires effort, humility, and compromise in order to succeed.
Sometimes we need to hear that we aren’t the only ones struggling. Sometimes knowing we aren’t alone is enough to renew our optimism or at least give us a little strength to continue doing the hard work of moving on.
But we need to add a caveat to the “marriage isn’t a fairytale” mantra, and here’s why: Sometimes the problems in a marriage aren’t normal. Sometimes the unhappiness will never go away. Sometimes the differences are insurmountable.
And when someone’s gut is screaming at them that everything is wrong, and the advice they constantly hear is, “Oh, that’s totally normal—after all, marriage isn’t a fairytale,” they might ignore their gut. They might stay in their marriage when they really, really shouldn’t.
I know this because I am in the process of leaving a 15-year marriage. I stayed too long. I was dissatisfied and uncomfortable, I knew something was irreparably wrong, but for years I accepted the reassurance that my feelings of wrongness were something every married person feels. I encountered this reassurance every single place I looked. So, I held on and ignored my own feelings and desires, because I thought that’s what I was supposed to do.
Granted, I’m a unique case. The primary reason I’m leaving my marriage is because I have come to terms with the fact that I’m gay. But back when this truth first started to make itself known, I was also in a place where I kind of didn’t like my husband. For a lot of reasons. We don’t like the same movies. I’m a book nerd, and he doesn’t read at all. He couldn’t care less about art, and I love it. Our senses of humor are totally opposite. These differences may seem superficial, but shouldn’t one still enjoy hanging out with their spouse? I didn’t. I didn’t want to have sex with him, didn’t want to talk to him, didn’t want to go places with him. If I had a choice between hanging out with him or my girlfriends (platonic ones), the girlfriends always won, no contest. I was generally unhappy and unsatisfied for a very long time.
Except, of course, I’m gay. Obviously, I would be unfulfilled by my heterosexual relationship. But there were much deeper problems—things that, looking back, should have been deal-breakers regardless of my sexual orientation. My husband was and is a person I don’t respect. He was a cheap tipper, rude to service people, mean to the cat, irrationally stubborn, arrogant, bigoted, homophobic. He was nice to me and our two daughters but he was also all of these other things. And I was his moral compass, constantly counseling him on how to be a good human while telling myself, “Hey, this is marriage. He’s a good provider—you can’t have everything!”
I had read that “contempt” was the big ugly warning sign. If you felt contempt for your spouse, it meant you were already on a path to divorce. So I worked really hard not to feel contempt—sure there was something wrong with me for feeling it.
All of this only confused me even more about my sexuality. For years, I told myself my homosexual feelings were just my seeking a way out of an unhappy marriage. Marriage isn’t a fairytale, I kept telling myself. You’re expecting too much and it’s making you think you’re gay.
I shared my feelings of dissatisfaction (but not my sexuality) with a few close friends and googled things like, “Is it normal to dislike your husband?” Every time, I was reassured that what I was feeling was par for the course in marriage. Marriage is boring! Marriage is fucking hard! Fairytales aren’t real! All marriages struggled and I was supposed to put in the work to make things better. Do fun things to reconnect. Date nights! Exciting trips! Sex! (Even if you’re not into it because it’s paramount to “preserve intimacy!”)
I was painfully disinterested in my marriage and fighting my identity, convincing myself I was just an angsty housewife who wanted to try something new. I ignored all those red flags in my husband’s behavior that should have been deal-breakers whether I was gay or not. Because “marriage isn’t a fairytale.”
This message isn’t dangerous only to people questioning their sexuality. Some marriages just shouldn’t be. And there are plenty of marriages that are truly happy and fulfilling—not every couple ends up in the wasteland of “good enough.” My brother and his wife have been together two decades and are stupid happy together. Sure, they bicker and have their ups and downs, but it is very clear they are each other’s “person.” It’s real.
So, yes, we should accept that marriage is incredibly hard no matter what. Yes, we should do the work to repair what is broken. But, only if we truly want to. We must also ask ourselves whether the thing that is causing our unhappiness will ever change. For me, obviously, being gay isn’t going to change. This is who I am. But, even if I weren’t gay, my marriage still would have ended. I wouldn’t have been able to make my husband into a generous, compassionate person. He said many times during our marriage that he was happy he had me around to make him a better person. Looking back, this disgusts me. I didn’t sign up to be Jiminy Cricket.
I want to be with someone who already knows how to be a good person without constant coaching.
When it comes to marriage, it is rarely a good idea to give blanket advice. Each individual has to analyze their own situation because they are the only ones experiencing it firsthand. Only they know the darkest, most private recesses of their relationship and all the tiny details that contribute to their sense of inertia or unhappiness. Only they can determine whether their situation can be altered enough to bring them back to contentment.
There may be no such thing as a fairytale, but there also isn’t any such thing as “normal,” and constantly espousing that a certain amount of discontent is “normal” can make people who are genuinely miserable (or even unsafe) in their marriages feel trapped and like something is wrong with them. We only get one short life. No one should feel compelled to spend theirs attempting to adapt to mediocrity.