10 Things I Wish I'd Known When I Said 'I Do'


Life and love lessons from 25 years of marriage.

It was one hot day. I remember it well. Our wedding was in a small stone chapel in the mountains of North Carolina. The chapel is usually cool, and there is almost always a breeze. But that day, it was sweltering. And those windows that might have let in a breeze? My stylish mother-in-law matched the maids-of-honor dresses to the stain glass windows; they were shut tight. I later heard how many people found it sweet that I was "crying" through the service. I hated to disillusion everyone, but I was standing in a worsted wool tuxedo. My father was handing me a handkerchief, not to wipe away tears, but to wipe the sweat running down my face. Did I mention it was hot that day?

As with all weddings, that day was not without its events. The reception staff decided to strike that day. The wedding cake was slowly sliding into an avalanche, being one layer too high and in too-warm air for the icing to hold it. Still, at the end of the day, we were married. To me, that was all that mattered.

I do remember one vivid thought; "Was that it? Thirty minutes of a service, and I go from single to married? I don't feel different." I can't tell you what I expected to feel, only that I did not feel it. As I signed us into the hotel for the beginning of the honeymoon, I felt like a fraud pretending to be married. I had the ring on my finger and the signed license locked in our decorated car, but it just seemed a bit surreal. It seemed too easy, too simple. And I felt very uneducated about being married. Wasn't there some secret guide that should be given to the couple? Some inside secret on how to be married?

I did have great role models, with parents who love each other and many other successful couples in my life. But I guess I had hoped that the secret guide that would be handed to us would tell us how to make a successful marriage. Instead, there was a ceremony, a hug and kiss and off we went to build a life together.

Over 25 years have passed. We have stumbled and bumbled our way through, learning and growing along the way. Between us, we acquired another four graduate degrees, all in the area of human relationships and counseling. Yet, the training was about how to help other people, not so much about building our own relationship. We just got lots of "on the job training." Since both of us are trained therapists, people often have imagined what our marriage must be like. They imagine the two of us seeking to understand each other, both understanding the underlying dynamics between us. They somehow imagine it must be conflict and struggle-free. We laugh about that. It is one thing to dispassionately help other people to work through their difficulties. It is quite another to be the passionate ones in a relationship and in the midst of life.

As with all things, though, it is the struggles that teach the lessons. I have come to realize we only grow stronger when we take on the difficulties and learn how to be better people (and better spouses) because of the difficult moments, not by avoiding them. Along the way, I learned some lessons. I wish I had known them that hot day in August. If only I knew these lessons when I said "I do."

1. A Marriage License Is Like A Driver's License: It gives you permission to learn how to be married. At the point when you receive a driver's license, you aren't really a driver. You just have permission to drive. From there, you learn more and more skills. How to drive in bad weather, low lighting, heavy traffic, and a multitude of other circumstances are skills you pick up along the way to being an accomplished driver.

The same is true for a marriage license. The license only shows you have started the process. Through the difficult days and through the fun days, through illnesses and healthy days, and through tough financial times as well as more plentiful days (sound vaguely familiar?), you pick up the skills of working together as a team. Each of those struggles presents an opportunity to learn more about each other, the relationship, and how to work as a unit. It also presents an opportunity to turn inward, against the other, and refuse to take responsibility for being part of a team. It is a choice on which way each of us turns.

Unfortunately, couples tend to focus on the mistakes along the way. We remember the hurts, slights and missteps. Many people remember these moments and use that as proof that their spouse does not know them, does not understand marriage, and therefore, they should not stay married. Many times, we tend to forget our own mistakes. In social psychology, experts talk about the "attribution error."  Essentially, this means that when I do something wrong, I write it off as a mistake. But if you do something wrong, I believe it is a character flaw. I will let myself off the hook, but I will hold you to a high standard.

The process of being married is the process of learning and growing, both as individuals and as a couple. Each step offers the opportunity to learn more skills. At the same time, it challenges each person to mature, emotionally and spiritually. Challenges and opportunities, difficulties and achievements can bring a couple together or push them apart. The difference is in perspective and focus. By focusing on building a relationship and a team, the marriage prospers.

2. Love Won't Keep You Together: In spite of that song (sung by a couple that did not stay together), love won't keep you together. Well, at least the emotion of love won't keep you together. This is for one simple reason: the emotion of love is fleeting. We all want that