In October 2017, my spouse and I embarked on a lifelong project—building a life together. It’s been fun and difficult and rewarding, so I thought I’d share the lessons I’ve learned thus far.
I know 9 months is nothing, but I like to check in with things I’ve learned.
Just a note: I use the word “marriage” and “spouse” because that’s my context, but I’m really just referring to the rigors of any lifelong partnership.
If I could sum up what I’ve learned, it’s this: being married has taught me how necessary and powerful it is to develop my ability to work with someone.
Lesson #1: I’m not as good of a teammate as I thought
I came into marriage thinking that I was a good team player.
I’d played team sports before, I’d been in a highly-collaborative work environment for a couple years—by the time I wrote my vows, I believed that I was good at being “one” with my partner. Or, more accurately, I didn’t really believe being a collaborator was a skill.
For me, collaboration was a moral decision, not a talent that needed honing. That’s a problem I notice in myself quite a bit—when I need to improve, I always see the issue as a lack of character than a lack of knowledge or experience. It’s the brand of arrogance I deal with.
The problem came when I got married and realized that I lacked both: I didn’t have the character to be a good teammate, and as a result I didn’t have the skill either.
See, good teammates see themselves as part of a whole. Their own agenda ceases to exist outside of the agenda of the unit. A defender doesn’t suddenly decide they want to be a forward in the middle of a game. A quarterback doesn’t decide they’d rather play defense in the middle of a play. Resisting the impulse to do what you want isn’t just a binary choice—it’s a reflex that requires training.
Around the second week we got married, Hayley would notice that I answered questions for both of us before I took the time to speak with her. I assumed I knew what she wanted (or, to be honest, the answer I gave was the answer I wanted to give, and she could adjust).
Not a good husband move.
It wasn’t conscious—I was just used to being the shot-caller for my life. Realizing that the position was shared required more of me than just “knowing” it or saying it. It required me to humble myself, to recognize that making decisions together was more important than making decisions quickly.
Lesson #2: A good marriage makes both parties better individuals
Marriage has a reputation—even among its advocates—for limiting our options. During our prep for marriage life, there was a lot of talk about how getting married would mean giving up the advantages unique to single life: not having to “check in,” having 100% control over your schedule, improvising your day without checking in with anyone else.
While we heard quite a bit about what we were getting in return—companionship, support, other general terms for emotional provisions—we weren’t told about the sort of trade-offs we were getting in return for combining two lives into one. That sort of alchemy is potent, but people talk about it like a warm hug—not nuclear fusion.
Marriage has given Hayley and I the ability to do more than we were able to do, not less.
Sharing the burden of managing a household has given us the ability to spend our time on more than life maintenance. For example, we got two dogs in January—something neither of us would have ever been able to manage living alone. The benefits of those dogs alone is an illustration of how good our marriage has been for both of us.
Combining our lives has given both of us the option of going back to school full-time whenever we want, learning a new trade, or relaxing when we need it. Road trips are less exhausting, planning a move less stressful, running errands less demanding.
That’s not even touching the emotional support we both enjoy—something that was seriously undersold to us. For decades, researchers have begun to understand the link between social ties and physical health. One long-term study found that those with lower social involvement were more likely to have a heart attack. Other studies, as reported by Harvard researchers, suggest that married people were less likely to die from cancer or terminal illness because they were more likely to get an early diagnosis.
Having a partner who fortifies you, who sees your weaknesses and helps you understand them, who provides you with affirmation—these have tangible effects on our quality of life.
Lesson #3: Marriage takes unyielding effort
There’s no day off from being married.
I think when most people talk about being intimidated by a long-term commitment, what we’re thinking of is unyielding commitment. There’s no “pause,” no furlough days or vacations from marriage. You might be apart from your spouse, but your marriage stays with you. Spouses carry their commitments within themselves wherever they go.
As a result, my marriage demands and deserves consistent nurturing, maintenance, thought, and creativity. One thing I’ve learned is that marriage is an act of creation and maintenance. It’s not so much like fixing a car as it is building a garden: some of my time needs to be spent on tending what’s there, and some of my time needs to be spent building so that more can be added to it later.
The two of us have signed on for a lifelong project, and our attention to that project will determine if we benefit from it—or are cursed by it.
Lesson #4: Marriage isn’t for everyone
I’m not saying “not everyone can get married”—if anyone wants to, they can turn themselves into good lifelong partners given enough effort and commitment to being a good partner.
What I mean is that marriage isn’t for everyone at all times. When I was 23 or 24, marriage wasn’t for me—even when I thought it was. I was a different person then, and I had zero understanding of what lifelong partnership really meant. I had nowhere near the emotional health or maturity that having a good relationship would require of me, much less a lifelong commitment.
Perhaps this lesson would be better put this way: not everyone is the right person for marriage. They can be, but few people (including me) correctly estimate the sort of deep, long-suffering character that marriage demands. Thankfully, plenty of people learn as they go (again, including me), but man.
Here’s an important side-lesson too: not everyone has to be “the right person for marriage.” Honestly, singleness comes with its own challenges that demand character and patience.
Lesson #5: I’ve only read the title page
This goes without saying, but I know next to nothing about marriage. I’ve gleaned some good wisdom from the few lessons I’ve learned, but like C.S. Lewis said, I’ve only read the cover and the title page. Thankfully, I’m expecting to learn plenty more over the next however-many years.
One of the best pieces of advice I was ever given while preparing for marriage was this:
Remain an eternal student of your spouse. Continue learning about them as they change and shift, and continue exploring the unique shape of your relationship. Things change and people change—remaining humble and curious ensures that I will continue to adapt to my wife’s changing outlook and personality.