I truly believe that everyone marries the wrong person. But even by that standard, my husband’s and my match was particularly fraught. We got married young with no idea what we were getting into or how to decide who — or if — to marry. We both brought plenty of baggage into our relationship. We argued a lot, and didn’t handle conflict well. We had a vague sense that marriage was good and a mistaken idea that it was a necessary passage into adulthood. But even as I walked down the aisle, I harbored doubts about whether we should marry.
My husband is now also an Anglican priest and over the last two decades we’ve both presided over weddings and offered premarital counseling. We both admit that if a couple came to us with the doubts and issues we had when we got engaged we’d probably say, “maybe don’t do this,” which is what our premarital counselor told us at the time. He sensed that our life paths were pulling in different directions, that neither of us had a clear idea of who we were or what we wanted, and that I was romantically hung up on another guy. We didn’t listen to his advice.
Nearly two decades later, I’m glad we didn’t. But I can also say that he was right to warn us of trouble ahead.
The last 17 years have held long stretches where one or both of us was deeply unhappy. There have been times when contempt settled on our relationship, caked and hard as dried mud. We’ve both been unkind. We’ve both yelled curse words and stormed out the door. We both have felt we needed things that the other person simply could not give us. We have been to marriage counseling for long enough now that our favorite counselor feels like part of the family. We should probably include her photo in our annual Christmas card. At times, we stayed married sheerly as a matter of religious obedience and for the sake of our children.
There was a time, not long ago, when getting a divorce in America was prohibitively difficult. That left individuals — usually women — stuck with philandering husbands and in abusive and dangerous marriages. Divorce is at times a tragic necessity. I’m very glad it is available.
But now the pendulum has swung so far that surrendering personal happiness to remain in an unfulfilling marriage seems somehow shameful or cowardly, perhaps even wrong.
We hear stories of people leaving a marriage as an act of self-love, to embark on a personal, spiritual or sexual journey of self-discovery. There’s even a new trend of divorce celebration parties. In contrast, the story of someone staying in a disappointing marriage for the kids or because of a religious commitment or for some other similarly pedestrian reason is, at best, boring. Worse, it seems inauthentic and uncreative, lacking in boldness and a zest for life.
This represents a shift in our societal understanding of what marriage is and what it should be like. In a 2010 piece for The Times, Tara Parker-Pope wrote: “Plenty of miserable couples have stayed together for children, religion or other practical reasons. But for many couples, it’s just not enough to stay together. They want a relationship that is meaningful and satisfying.” Today, she continued, people “want partners who make their lives more interesting.”
If we as a culture view seeking personal fulfillment as a sacred duty, staying in an unhappy marriage is then seen as an act of self-betrayal.
I don’t know if I truly loved my husband when we got married or if I even knew what love was. But I know that we are learning to love each other with each passing day and that there is profound joy in that messy process. There are nights when he sits quietly reading, and I look at his face and recall what a steep hill we’ve climbed and will keep climbing, and I am overwhelmed with gratitude that he has stuck with me, that we get to live this life together, with all the sorrow, betrayal, glory, loveliness, surprise and mystery that entails. So much beauty has grown from what at times seemed like impossibly stony ground.
Of course we all want relationships that are meaningful and satisfying. I don’t want to return to the days when we expect marriage to be nothing but a slog — the days when the famous 18th-century pastor John Wesley (somewhat hilariously) said of his marriage, “I did not seek happiness thereby, and I did not find it.” But perhaps part of forming the meaningful relationships we long for involves enduring prolonged periods of dissatisfaction and disappointment.
The last thing that I am is some kind of relationship guru. And I know my husband’s and my situation isn’t translatable to other marriages. I know we’re lucky. We have two people in a relationship willing to work at it, which isn’t the case for everyone, and we’ve been spared substance abuse or severe untreated mental illness, things that often wreck relationships. I don’t give a lot of marriage advice. But I want to simply offer that choosing to stay in a marriage for all kinds of unromantic reasons is a good and even a brave choice. And, even if it would never make a great book or movie, that choice offers its own kind of quiet path of discovery, growth, love and flourishing.
Statistics bear this out. A 2002 longitudinal study by a University of Chicago sociologist, Linda J. Waite, found that “two out of three unhappily married adults who avoided divorce or separation ended up happily married five years later.” It also showed that for those who were unhappy, divorce didn’t increase happiness over time: “Unhappily married adults who divorced or separated were no happier, on average, than unhappily married adults who stayed married.” Nor did divorce decrease rates of depression or lead to improvement in self-esteem.
I fully understand that sometimes divorce is unavoidable, and I certainly don’t want anyone to stay for a minute in a violent relationship. But for people in nonviolent but difficult marriages, Waite concludes that divorce often fails to deliver its promised benefits, and that “both people and marriages are likely to be happier in communities with a strong commitment to marital permanence.”
In an essay for The Times, Alain De Botton wrote, “Choosing whom to commit ourselves to is merely a case of identifying which particular variety of suffering we would most like to sacrifice ourselves for.”
I want to normalize significant periods of confusion, exhaustion, grief and unfulfillment in marriage. There’s an older couple I know who are in their fifth decade of marriage. They are funny and kind and, by almost any standard, the picture of #relationshipgoals. Early on in our marriage they told us, “There are times in marriage when the Bible’s call to love your enemies and the call to love your spouse are the same call.”
I’ve held on to this in moments of deep frustration, when my husband and I sank to the kitchen floor in tears, bone-weary after going round and round, not knowing what else to do but pray, have friends pray and keep putting one foot in front of the other. These kitchen floor moments were awful, yet I think they are when the growth in our marriage really began.
The day we got married, people wrote us kind notes of blessing. Some said, “May you always feel about each other how you feel today.” Even then, that felt slightly more like a curse, a way of wishing for stagnation. I don’t feel about my spouse how I did when we got married. We are both so much more aware of the obnoxious imperfections and real pathologies each of us brings to the table, but I also feel far more loyalty, respect, love, delight and care for him than I was capable of back then. I have discovered how difficult I am to live with and how difficult my spouse is to live with. But we have also learned the tragic, comedic, stumbling and deeply joyful dance of living together anyway.
Have feedback? Send me note to HarrisonWarrenemail@example.com.
Tish Harrison Warren (@Tish_H_Warren) is a priest in the Anglican Church in North America and author of “Prayer in the Night: For Those Who Work or Watch or Weep.”