On this day, James and I have been married for 8 years and together for almost 12 years. I shared in one of my most popular posts, Two Marriage Hacks That Can Make All the Difference, our relationship has never been easy.
But I have to ask, was marriage ever supposed to be easy? It’s supposed to be fun and beautiful and it’s also supposed to break you down and guide you to the holy path of dying to your ego and being reborn.
The following essay was written in honor of our anniversary and shares a bit of that breaking down and rebuilding process.
It goes down as one of the most humiliating moments of my life. Here I was, a graduate student at Yale University, the school I had dreamt of attending since childhood. But instead of making my way through the charming coffee shops of downtown New Haven or reading Thomas Aquinas in a musty library with stained glass windows, I found myself weeping in my professor’s office. I needed an extension because, I admitted with teary eyes veered away, my boyfriend and I were arguing too much. It also goes down as one of the most merciful and grace-filled moments of my life. The professor responded with sympathy, “one needn’t know the two of you very well to know how opposite you are.” I did get that extension. But he provided something even more relieving—recognition and compassion. My deep shame of having continuous and intense conflicts lifted because even this person who barely knew us, saw how different we were and how we were trying to make it work.
Our differences are marked, if stereotypically gendered ones. I’m sensitive, introspective and emotive whereas James focuses on his external surroundings instead of his internal world. He’s more oriented towards reason rather than feeling. There would be many incidents when I would crave an emotionally significant conversation where we could connect at a deep, heart-to-heart level and he would suddenly interrupt to tell me about something going on in the background or laugh because something I said reminded him of a movie he saw fifteen years ago. I’m an early bird; he’s a night owl. I’m a first-generation Korean American from the west coast; he’s a white guy from the east coast and we don’t even know how many generations his family has been in this country. I tend to always say yes to people, which has gotten me into trouble; he tends to always say no to people, which has gotten him into trouble. Our deep differences led to many conflicts, misunderstandings and disappointments but we were never able to dull this magnetic pull towards one another. By the end of our time in graduate school, we believed that the solution to our conflicts was to get married.
I once heard Krista Tippet relay to Alain de Botton on her podcast, On Being, an old Jewish saying that women and men get married because women expect their husbands to change while their husbands expect their wives to remain the same. Unfortunately, disappointment ensues on both ends. Tippet is much too intelligent to believe such a sweeping generalization but she took the words right out of my mouth when she said, “but it sure feels true.” That was certainly the case for me. I assumed that once James and I got married, all of our problems and differences would disappear. Or to put it more accurately, I assumed James would, sooner or later, transform and behave exactly the way I wanted him to behave. I thought he would magically become a morning person and would walk with me to the local bakery at dawn, holding my hand and wondering how he got so lucky.
Married people stressed to me prior to my engagement that marriage doesn’t work like this, it doesn’t suddenly resolve your discontentment. The problem with this very good piece of advice is that single people don’t believe it or at least, there’s a cognitive dissonance between what we accept intellectually and what we expect. We can’t seem to rid ourselves of this deeply embedded notion that marriage makes all things well, with a rosy tint to boot.
For years, James and I managed. I wouldn’t say we were unhappy but I wouldn’t say we were happy either. We certainly had many doses of both. We celebrated holidays, anniversaries and birthdays, visited our respective families together, went on dates and had a baby. But there was always a specter of disappointment lurking behind our interactions because he didn’t act the way my fantasy husband would.
There’s one single narrative that would arise whenever I was dissatisfied with James. That narrative was that I was cheated, tricked, sold a bill of goods. The very premise of this narrative was faulty though. James never promised me anything other than who he truly was. He didn’t become a sweeter person after marriage but he didn’t become a more difficult person either. He just remained exactly who I knew him to be all those years before our wedding day. Even still, I felt tricked and would comfort myself with the reminder that I could leave at any time and pursue somebody who actually deserved me.
There was only this one glaring block that kept me from taking actual steps towards divorce whenever I toyed with the idea. That block was this: most of the divorced people I knew weren’t happier after divorce. There’s a lot of divorced people around me—family members, close friends, acquaintances. And by virtue of being a minister, I am privy to the entire separation process of some. Contrary to what these people hoped, they were either dealing with the same set of struggles or struggles nonetheless after their highly anticipated liberation and remarriage. In the few cases of those who were actually happier, a small portion of them were happier because they did indeed find somebody who made them happier. The other portion were happier because they awakened to the sobering reality that their happiness is not found in finding a right partner but in creating a right marriage.
During an especially rough season of our marriage, I prayed often to God to help me find relief or wisdom. Should I leave him? Just tell me what to do. Oftentimes, there was silence on the other end. During a few contemplative times though, when I journaled, sat in silence or went on a walk, I heard one word repeated over and over again: Gift.
James was my gift? How in the world could that be? This person who couldn’t even tell me I looked pretty when I dolled up for a night out? This person who left his dirty clothes all over the house and had three toothbrushes in our crammed toothbrush holder because he kept losing and finding ones he lost? I am, ostensibly, a spiritual person though. So I tried to take this message from above seriously. I entertained the possibility that he was in fact, a gift instead a bill of goods.
His actions and traits slowly began to take on a different shape and color under this new light. Where I usually found his straightforward communication style abrasive, I now found it refreshing and helpful that he didn’t beat around the bushes. Where I usually resented his inability to affirm or complement me, I realized I had been growing into a stronger person throughout the entirety of our relationship because I no longer relied on external affirmation to confirm my worthiness. I also started to notice the millions of subtle non-verbal ways he did affirm me.
Since this simple change of perspective, I started to notice another pattern within marriages around me. People in the happiest marriages always express gratitude for their spouses whereas people in unhappy marriages constantly complain about their spouses. In the former, they characterize themselves as recipients while the latter characterize themselves as victims. The recipients say things like “I’m so lucky” and they mention how their partners surprise them with an exciting anniversary getaway or even more mundane than that, sear a steak perfectly. They express these kinds of sentiments all the time. The worst part is that they don’t even share obnoxiously, to illicit jealousy, because it’s all so normal for them. They share these pieces of information the same way I share what I ate for breakfast or an article I read.
This could invite a chicken-or-egg question: are these marriages happy because people see their spouses as a gift or because the spouses themselves are objectively wonderful to begin with? As an outside observer of these marriages, it is not obvious to me which is true but based on my own marriage, James and I have a combination of both wonderful and repugnant qualities. He has, however, always viewed me as a gift, the best gift in his life and I have only recently turned on the issue. And that, in the words of Robert Frost, “has made all the difference.”
My mom gave me an invaluable piece of advice almost twenty years ago when she and my dad dropped me off at college. I arrived later than my two other roommates so I had slim pickings when I arrived. The last bed available was a top bunk and my desk was obviously the most worn and scruffy. I didn’t say anything as my two other roommates were in the room upon my arrival but my mom saw my crestfallen face and said to me quietly in Korean, “you can transform anything into gold.” I took her words to heart and did indeed turn that situation into gold. I got myself the cutest bed set and decorated my desk in a way that looked more shabby-chic instead of just shabby. And it turned out, having the top bunk was to my advantage because it meant less people sat on it, messed it up and soiled it with their dirty shoes when they hung out in our room (I’m Korean so I have a thing about dirty shoes not being worn in the house and especially not on the bed! My husband is slowly learning.).
From that point onward, I employed this sage wisdom whenever I encountered less than ideal situations and transformed them to my liking. I never thought it could work in my own marriage though. My marriage seemed too rigid and unmalleable. He was who he was, I was who I was, neither of those were bound to change. That one simple word “gift,” clued me into how off I might be. My limiting beliefs dissolved and my powers reignited, powers of an alchemist who transforms base metal into gold.
We create beautiful marriages, they do not come to us through another person. Contrary to what we think, a certain type of person will not give us a happy and beautiful marriage because it was never in their power to begin with. That power only lies with us. We have the power to create a beautiful marriage with anybody we choose. It’s similar to the power we have in creating an exquisite meal. Certain ingredients, recipes and tools may not be available but that doesn’t need to stop us from creating a delectable spread. It just requires some creativity and resourcefulness.
This doesn’t mean I discourage people from divorcing or look down upon their decision to do so. Undoubtedly, divorce can make people incredibly happier. What I do try to do with those who confide in me when they are considering divorce is to ask them gentle yet prodding questions to help them figure out if the relationship itself needs to come to an end or if their marital struggles are an invitation for inner growth to experience an even more fulfilling marriage. I don’t usually begin with tactical questions such as whether they’re seeing a therapist or trying this or that method to resolve conflicts. I begin with broader and imagination-based exercises to invoke their true heart’s desires about the long arc of their lives. I invite them to have a conversation with a much older version of themselves, or ask them to paint a picture of their lives for me when they’re in their 90’s. That’s another way I knew I wanted to stay with James—he was always next to me when I imagined my life at 92.
Our conflicts have by no means entirely gone away but the nature of our arguments has altered. I used to see conflicts as red-flags where I would engage in them with one foot out the door. Now, I see conflicts as opportunities for growth. My whole self is present, committed and willing to be changed by this marriage. Philosophers like Eric Fromm have described loving as an art because it is a craft we never truly master but only get better at with practice, failure and learning on repeat over and over again. It is both marvelous and daunting that loving is a limitless capacity that can never be perfected or complete. We can always love more and better no matter how old or enlightened we become. I have tried to let go of everything I thought he needed to be for me and in the meantime, discovered who he truly is. What a wonderful discovery. He really is quite different from me but this time, this realization no longer awakens my narrative of being sold a bill of goods. It makes me fascinated by this priceless treasure I’ve been bestowed with.