It wasn’t a specific piece of advice that got me to our first wedding anniversary. It wasn’t the insistence of my closest friends that we’d be able to make it work, no matter what. It was a specific piece of someone else’s story — a story of someone I respected, with a marriage full of love, honesty, and honor.
“Our first year of marriage was hell.”
That’s the phrase I kept returning to, fight after fight after heartbreak after screaming-into-the-void heartbreak.
My first year of marriage was hell, too. Well — to be precise — the beginning of it was.
“Marriage is such a wonderful thing!” I once gushed to an engaged couple a few days ago.
“Bailey lies,” my husband added. “It’s only wonderful after the first seven months.”
And for us, that was true.
I won’t bore you with the details, but they involve selfishness, verbal abuse, cold shoulders, pointless 2 AM arguments about the same exact thing, a lack of trust, complete and utter disrespect for the other’s dignity, and contempt.
It was the most nightmarish thing I’ve ever experienced.
I once sobbed through a wedding out of biting jealousy that the other couple was happy and I wasn’t. I cringed whenever people asked how newlywed life was. (“The worst,” I wanted to say.) I hit rock bottom so many times. I begged for separation, I pined for my single days — anything to end the torture of loving and feeling unloved and the hateful rage that kept spewing out of my mouth because of it.
I am 100% certain, had our pattern of mutual disrespect and contempt and emotional bankruptcy continued, our marriage would have ended.
That is clear.
What isn’t clear is what changed.
Oh, I can tell you what changed, as in, we are now decent people who apologize and say kind words and laugh together and listen to each other and don’t actively seek to make each other’s lives miserable. We’ve got the crucial ratio of five positive comments for every one negative comment down. Our arguments — our rare, contained, occurring-during-daytime-hours arguments — actually end up with mutual understanding instead of despair.
Things have changed, for sure. I’m just not sure how, or why — or why then.
I had imagined me being the one to revive my husband’s affections for me through my mild manners and humility and de-escalation tactics. I was the woman, I was the one with the emotional intuition and maturity to win him back. And I was the one who went to counseling.
Not for the marriage. I went to counseling for me, for my faith deconstruction, for the anxiety I felt over shifting beliefs. I blamed all of that for making me the demon wife from hell.
That was the biggest change I made — taking responsibility for my own emotions, working constructively and independently on tackling my anxiety and fear, and finding a skilled listener other than my husband to hear every paranoid, odd, and overwhelming thing I felt.
But through no mild manners and humility of my own (though I really did, mostly, try or intend to try), my husband started treating me respectfully. He’d say something that would tick me off, I’d raise my voice to the highest decibel, expecting the same old repeat 2 AM argument, and he’d gently, humbly, respectfully, apologize.
And he kept doing it, even though I lost my temper every time, even though he lost his temper sometimes. When he did, he’d stop, take a big breath, apologize, and clarify.
It was like a completely different relationship.
We were communicating. We were conversing. We were healing.
I don’t know why it didn’t work all the other times one of us tried to be the bigger person, or when I poured out my soul to him, or when we researched the key components in a successful marriage. I don’t know what clicked for him, or what clicked for me, or why they clicked at roughly the same time with miraculous results.
Maybe it was a miracle.
At any rate, we acquired these miracle-working communication skills — or he did, or I did, and we rubbed off on each other, or maybe we didn’t, I don’t know — around mid-January. And it’s been heaven ever since.
I want to stress this: the first seven months were literally hell — if hell is the absence of goodness and love and hope. And these past five months have been literally heaven — if heaven is the presence of kindness and laughter and happiness and love and occasional arguments about dishes.
I stress those two things because it was hard for me to believe that anyone with a hell as real as mine could experience anything like the happiness I’m now experiencing — with the same person. Anytime anyone talked about hardship in their marriage, I doubted either the intensity of their hell or the reliability of their happiness.
As far as newlywed encouragement goes, this is all I got: I walked through hell my first year of marriage.
How we did it, I don’t really know. It took two people deciding to change. Any advice or formula I can offer will only affect one of those two people.
Whether you can walk through it too, I don’t really know either. But at least four people have — my husband and me, and the couple whose first-year hell allowed me to keep going.