What I Wish I’d Known About Marriage Before I Got Married

by Elaine Roth
Originally Published: 
Courtesy of Elaine Roth

My twelfth wedding anniversary is coming up this weekend. Twelve years married, but he only lived for nine of them. He lived for nine of them, and died months before our tenth anniversary. He died and, in the eyes of the law that had bound us together, my marriage ceased.

With the anniversary coming up, grief and nostalgia have me looking through our wedding album and digging through the boxes I’d stacked away in the closet. I’m not sure why. I don’t need help remembering. In fact, sometimes I feel as if I remember too vividly and too much. And yet, I dig.

My most recent find is a box filled with cards that belong to a game I played at my wedding shower. Each guest filled out an index card sized piece of parchment paper and told me their best marriage advice. The cards read from the cliché, “don’t go to bed angry” to the smile-worthy “always remind him that a happy wife means a happy life.” (My late husband took a particular liking to that piece of advice—and fine, I’ll admit, I supported it, too.) But none of that advice really reflected what I truly wish I’d known about marriage.

I thought marriage was easy, an extension of living together with a lot of legalese making it official. I thought marriage was filing taxes together and arguing over whose turn it was to take out the garbage. I didn’t know.

Courtesy of Elaine Roth

I wish someone had told me it’s not easy. I wish someone had told me that weaving every part of your life together with someone else is hard. That it’s a daily study of patience and compromise and checking your own ego. And yet, I wish someone told me that it’s also effortless, as easy as breathing, as easy as simply loving the person by your side. I wish I’d known both things can be true, and the tension between effortless and effort is the heart of marriage.

I wish I’d known not to be disenchanted by real life, that the day to day rarely feels like butterflies and shooting stars. I wish I’d known it’s smelly socks and budgeting and the logistics of figuring out which relative’s house you’re going to on Thanksgiving. I wish I’d known it can’t always be beautiful, but the mundane moments are necessary and can be the groundwork for something extraordinary. I wish I’d known it can’t always be magic, and yet also, I wish I’d known to look for magic even in the mundane.

I wish I’d known that words matter, even in marriage. I wish I’d known to always say the words on my mind, because I’m left now wondering whether I said enough. Also, I wish I’d known sometimes there are no words, sometimes there is just showing up and being there and holding their hand, and that’s enough and more meaningful than any words ever.

I wish I’d known to take more pictures, and to print them out. Not necessarily only of the best posed moments, but of the messy ones, too. But also I wish someone had told me to put my phone down, because some of my favorite memories could not be caught by technology anyway. I wish I’d known that pictures would be all I’d have left, and also that pictures would never do justice to the memories in my mind.

I wish I’d known that sometimes you can’t save them no matter how hard you try. I wish I’d known that through sickness and health means more than handing out medication and monitoring symptoms. I wish I’d know that it means being the person who they search for in a room full of doctors, bearing the immeasurable responsibility of knowing you are their soft landing and grounding force when the world is jagged and upside down. And yet, I wish I’d known that they don’t need you to save them; they just need you to stand beside them as they try to save themselves.

Courtesy of Elaine Roth

I wish I’d known to make the most of every moment. Also, I wish I’d known that advice like “make the most of every moment” is unrealistic, and too high a benchmark. Some moments fade, some blur. Some moments are better lost to the tapestry of memory. But also, I wish I’d understood what it meant to make the most of every moment—even the ones better lost. I wish I’d known that making the most meant being authentically yourself in every moment and letting someone else see that and love that, and also seeing and loving that authenticity in someone else.

I wish I’d known how it would end before it all began. I wish I’d known to be prepared for how hard everything would come crashing down so I could brace myself for the fall. And yet, I wish I’d known that knowing the ending wouldn’t have made me change one moment of the rest, because you can never truly brace yourself for the fall, so you might as well soar while you have the chance.

I wish I’d known it will never feel like enough time no matter how much time you get.

I wish I’d known that marriage is full of contradictions, as is life, as is loss.

I wish I’d known that no amount of advice would ever prepare me for marriage.

The truth is: I wish I had known all that I didn’t know and also I’m glad that no one told me. Some lessons can’t be learned without living them, and I’m grateful I had the chance to learn for myself.

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