What I’ve learned in 5 years of marriage

Yesterday was my fifth-year anniversary with Mike. I feel happy.

It’s hard to picture what five years down the road looks like when you’re 24 and getting married, or 19 and just starting to date each other. That’s right – we’ve been together for over 10 years. When I tell people that they must assume we started dating like in eighth grade, or don’t realize my age (let’s keep in that way!). I met him my first year of college and we married five years later (I guess we like five-year increments) and it’s been a hell of a ride since – in a good way.

I’m proud of this relationship, just like I’m proud of anything I’ve ever worked really hard at.

And I’m proud of myself for realizing the amount of work it takes to be with someone. To want to be better, to want to make someone else better by your presence, to realize when you’re not living up to that. And to do what it takes to change it.

To me, Mike is forever the musician with curly brown hair I first saw on stage in front of, like, a hundred people, playing a show in tribute to his sweet friend who’d died recently. There he stood, emotions exposed.

It felt raw.

I felt uncomfortable.

“How can people do that?” I’d thought to myself (about anyone, really, standing in the spotlight or being vulnerable in some way – let alone both). I was puzzled.

When we met at my friend Kendra’s birthday party, I thought he was cute but not my type. He thought I was pretty but mean, and still tells the story of how I stared daggers at him from across the room. (I didn’t. That’s just how I looked back then – I think it was my ultra-thin eyebrows.)

That night – totally unrelated, mind you – I went out at midnight and leaped from a rope swing into a river, breaking my wrist and incurring a moderately serious concussion. It’s weird, when I think of it – of all days to choose something so deliberately reckless, it was the day I met him. Something major lay ahead. Maybe subconsciously I knew it, and was scared.

For those of you who know Mike, he’s all the things I never used to be: open, warm-hearted, trusting, heart-on-the sleeve. It should have come as no surprise that he became a psychotherapist. With Mike, I learned how to open up, to find safety in a relationship, to forgive others (and myself).

I pushed him to have a thicker skin, to take risks, to find motivation in challenges, and to not care what people think. We were polar opposites in many ways and in the early part of the relationship I genuinely believed that’d be our downfall, if there was to be one.

But it wasn’t. We are opposites in good ways. I’ve learned a helluva a lot about music and movies from him, and he’s been inspired to do nutty things like try a holistic doctor and do yoga.  Obviously, it’s hard to sum up five years (10 years, in total) with someone in a few paragraphs. If there were a montage, there would be tons of live music, romance, and theatrics (we’re both pretty dramatic, so think hang-up phone calls and doors slamming, spliced between trails of roses in my apartment and serenades at my window), beer, food, travel, laughter, thrift stores, joking, picnics with a guitar, photographs.

Kendra later delivered one of my most cherished compliments: she said that even though I was married, I hadn’t changed. I was still me, and I was still fun (this was on a trip to Charleston to see her, or maybe at a yoga festival in Vermont – she says it a lot :)). The truth is that this is a compliment to Mike, not to me. He supports me, encourages me, lets me travel with friends, said hell yes when I tentatively suggested doing a yoga teacher training program. He also confronts me when I need it, and is learning how to do that more often (which I need). He told me I was in an abusive relationship with my last job and gave me the courage to leave. He lets me know when I’m being shitty. But he tells me twice as often, if not more, when I’m being kind, when I’m being good.

And he’s rescued me in a lot of ways – not in the traditional “guy saves girl” gendered sort of way – but in helping me learn how to avoid finding myself at the bottom of a pit in the first place. I still remember some of those lyrics that he wrote, way back when, and how eerily predictive they were of things that hadn’t yet happened: “when the world falls down around you, I will keep you safe from harm…” I  had lots of rock bottoms back then, in what feels like a different lifetime. He was probably the first person to utter the words “it isn’t your fault” when I confronted some ugly shit about my life, and the only person up until that point I’d had the courage to even share that with.

And he’s always made me laugh unbelievably hard. I’m mean rolling on the floor crying and peeing your pants sort of laughing. We do that at least once a month. 🙂

There have been challenges, too – real hurts and pains. Frustrations and annoyances that make you wonder whether marriage is ever worth it. Fissures that feel irreparable. But in that space there’s also been a never-ending amount of change and healing.

I’ve learned that no one, no matter who they are, can be perfect. People will hurt you. I’ve learned to live with that. It’s taken me almost 30 years. I’ve learned how to forgive. And I’ve learned the seemingly impossible lesson that challenges – while never your fault necessarily – come into your life to teach you some key truth. To make you better. To make you more whole. You can’t do that by yourself.

I’m more whole because of Mike. I love myself more because of him. This is the point of relationships, of intimacy, of a long-term companionship, I believe. To make us better. To force us to morph and evolve into versions of ourselves we wouldn’t have dreamed possible. To accomplish more together. When I look back at photos of myself ten years ago, the whole journey feels miraculous at times.

And that’s how it should be. This life is a miracle. When I sometimes overhear him (accidentally) talking to a desperate client on the phone – delivering a message of power and truth: You are worth it; You are loved; You are good – I start to well up. When I see him confront the bad parts of himself, just like I confront mine, I’m learning how to show compassion, tame the rage that used to inhibit nearly every inch of my body. I picture a three-old little Mike, with a head full of curly blonde hair, and know that my role – above that of being a wife or a friend, even – is to mirror back to him that beautiful image of self-worth.  We are good. Worthy. We are kids at heart. We’d do well to remember that more often. And to find ourselves surrounded by others who remind us of it, too.