Three years ago, I got home from my honeymoon and I, the veteran wedding blogger, looked around to find the online community that was talking about marriage. Friends, there were crickets. There were some blogs about buying pillows for your new married nest, and some blogs about getting knocked up. I already had pillows. I did not, at the time, want to get knocked up. I didn’t know where to turn.
With no chattering companionship for the journey, it suddenly seemed like I had no clue what I’d gotten myself into. I mean, yes, I was lucky enough to have some idea of what it meant to have a long and successful marriage thanks to my parents. But I had no idea of what it meant to have a young marriage in our particular generation, in this present cultural moment. And it turned out, there were not a lot of signposts, and hints about what lay ahead were pretty thin. (Unless, of course, you were looking for signposts pointing to doom and gloom, and hints about your probable impending divorce. Then, there were plenty.)
And then, there was the fact that the word “wife” made me uncomfortable. It seemed so negative. So laden with ideas that I couldn’t, or wouldn’t, subscribe to. So I started an online conversation about marriage, under the title of Reclaiming Wife. Over the past three years, we’ve tried to tease out what on earth being a wife might mean. It seems that it’s complicated.
As I sat down to write this piece, I decided to poll my section of the Internet, via Twitter and Facebook. What was the most surprising thing about the newlywed phase? What was good? What was bad? And the answers that rolled in are enlightening, if only in their contradictory nature. It turns out there is no one answer to what being married means, but there are many hints and sign posts (thank goodness).
The standard cultural narrative is that you’ll feel depressed that your wedding is over (you might), or that the first year will be really hard (also possible). But it seems that for many of us, the first year was a joy (it was this way for my husband and I, perhaps as a counterbalance to the really difficult emotional work that our engagement involved). The first year can mean putting down roots, finding a deeper sense of belonging, and relaxing into a new sense of security (kept lively by the stress of doing a variety of things like merging finances, moving in together, dealing with brand new in-laws, and wondering how the hell we got ourselves roped into forever). But I’ve also heard tales of the newlywed phase being surprisingly difficult, or married life not feeling at all different from the way things were before.
The reason marriage works as in institution is that it’s as different as the people in it.
So when I asked Twitter what had surprised them about newlywed life, good and bad, I got an earful — a wonderful, really smart earful. And not one person mentioned pillows.
Weddings are a community event. For better or worse, a whole ton of people are involved in your life during wedding planning, and people want to celebrate you both. Many people mentioned how, when returning to civilian life, the silence felt a little deafening. Some single friends stopped calling. No one was around to help them write those final thank you notes and organize the gifts. Sometimes, there was a bit of post-wedding depression. A time consuming life event was over, and it was time to figure out what was next.
The New (Tiny) Community
But as much as the big community celebration was over, people spoke of the creation of a brand new family. They talked about suddenly feeling a sense of responsibility for that family’s happiness and protection. They mentioned feeling a responsibility to set and reach goals, both together and apart. They said they felt more like a team: from feeling more comfortable merging finances to suddenly being willing to move to Africa for their partner’s work. And people talked about their new role in their wider community: their ability to provide more emotional and tangible support for friends, given stability that marriage offered them.
The Hard Bits
But the other side of the wedding isn’t easy for everyone. For some, the new-found sense of security served as a license to be less kind to one another, or more fearful of what being in a relationship for the long haul really meant. Others spoke of the way the world suddenly intruded upon the private boundaries of their relationship, with parents questioning your life choices, and strangers constantly asking you if you were going to get pregnant any time soon (hint: back off). For some, the public and permanent nature of marriage was not, at least initially, a blessing.
The important thing to remember when you’re sorting through your feelings after the wedding is that it’s all normal. It’s normal if you feel a little blue post wedding planning. It’s normal if things in your relationship change somewhat. It’s normal if your first year is full of totally unexpected joy, but it’s also normal if it’s full of new fears and challenges. The little discussed truth is that when you get married, you’re making a big life change (and not a purely symbolic one). It’s probably going to take you a little while to sort out (and discover) what your feelings really are. And that’s not just normal, it’s a once in a lifetime chance for self-exploration.
But it’s also smart to listen to yourselves and your wisdom together as a couple. Before, when you were dating (or single), chances are the world at large didn’t have much of an opinion what you did. So you put everything you owned in storage and went to India for a year? People just chalked it up to youthful exploration. But after the wedding is over, everyone is invested in you, and that investment often looks like goading to meet other people’s standards for adulthood: house, car, good job, kids, settling down, less adventure. Ignore that (as much as you can).
Just like wedding planning allowed you to create the kind of wedding you wanted, marriage should allow you to intentionally create the kind of life you want. Maybe that’s living in a tiny Manhattan studio with no kids. Maybe that’s moving to Africa for a year. Maybe that’s having three kids in three years. The truth is, only the two of you know.