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’d 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, I admitted through downturned teary eyes, because my boyfriend and I were arguing too much. It also goes down as one of the most merciful moments of my life. My professor kindly responded, “One needn’t know the two of you very well to know how opposite you are.”
I did manage to get that extension, but my professor provided me with something even more comforting: recognition and compassion for my situation. My deep-felt shame for having continual, intense conflicts with my boyfriend suddenly lifted because even this person who barely knew us could see how different we were, yet how hard we were trying to make it work.
Our differences are marked, if somewhat stereotypically gendered. I’m sensitive, introspective, and emotive, whereas James focuses on his external surroundings instead of his internal world. He’s more oriented toward reason than feelings. There were multiple incidents when I would initiate an emotionally significant conversation to connect with him on a deeper, 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 15 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 who doesn’t even know how many generations of his family have been in the United States. 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 inherent differences led to many conflicts, misunderstandings, and disappointments, but our magnetic pull toward one another never dulled.
By the end of our time in graduate school, we believed the solution to our conflicts was to get married.
On her podcast, On Being, I once heard Krista Tippett relay to Alain de Botton an old Jewish saying about how women and men get married because women expect their husbands to change, while men expect their wives to remain the same. Unfortunately, this disappoints both sides. Tippett is far too intelligent to believe such a sweeping generalization, yet she took the words right out of my mouth when she said, “but it sure feels true.”
It was certainly true for me. I mistakenly assumed that once James and I got married, all our problems would magically disappear. Or, to put it more accurately, I assumed James would, sooner or later, behave exactly the way I wanted him to. He’d become a morning person, walking with me to the local bakery at dawn, holding my hand, and wondering how he got so lucky.
Prior to my engagement, married friends told me marriage doesn’t really work like this. It doesn’t suddenly resolve all discontentment. The problem with this very good piece of advice is that most single people don’t believe it, or at least there’s a cognitive dissonance between what they accept intellectually and what they expect realistically. We can’t seem to rid ourselves of this deeply embedded notion that marriage erases displeasure, adding a rosy tint to boot.
For years, James and I managed. I wouldn’t say we were unhappy but we weren't happy, either. Together we celebrated holidays, anniversaries, and birthdays, visited our respective families, went on dates, and had a baby. But, for me, there was always a specter of disappointment lurking behind our interactions. He didn’t act the way I thought my fantasy husband should.
A single narrative would arise whenever I felt dissatisfied with him: I was cheated, tricked, sold a bill of goods. Yet, the very premise of this narrative was faulty because James never promised to be anything other than who he was. He didn't become sweeter or more difficult after marriage. He simply remained exactly who I’d always known him to be. Even so, I would comfort myself with the reminder that I could leave at any time to pursue someone who actually deserved me.
There was only one glaring block that kept me from taking steps toward divorce whenever I toyed with the idea: Most of the divorced people I knew weren’t happier after divorce. There are a lot of divorced people in my life — family members, close friends, acquaintances. And by virtue of being a minister, I'm often privy to the entire separation process. Contrary to what most of them had hoped, they were either still dealing with the same struggles or facing new, unexpected ones after their highly-anticipated liberation.
In the few cases of those who actually were happier, only a small portion of them had, in fact, found somebody who made them feel that way. The others were happier because they’d awakened to the sobering reality that their happiness was less about finding the right partner and more about creating the right marriage.
During an especially rough season of our marriage, I prayed to God to help me find relief or wisdom. Should I leave him? Just tell me what to do. Usually, there was nothing but silence on the other end. But on rare occasions I would hear one word whispered to me over and over again. Whenever I quieted my mental chatter to journal, sit in silence, or go on a long walk, I heard it: gift.
James was my gift? How in the world could that be? This person who didn’t tell me I looked pretty when I dolled up for a night out? This person who left dirty clothes all over the house and had three toothbrushes crammed into our toothbrush holder because he kept losing and finding them? How could this be a gift? 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 of a bill of goods.
Slowly, his actions and traits took on a different shape and color under this newfound light. I’d always found his straightforward communication style abrasive, but now I found it refreshing and helpful that he refused to beat around the bush. I usually resented his inability to affirm or compliment me, but now realized I’d grown into a stronger person because I no longer relied on his validation to confirm my worth. I also started to notice the millions of subtle, nonverbal ways he did affirm me every single day.
Following this simple change of perspective, I began to notice another pattern within marriages all around me. People in the happiest ones always expressed gratitude for their spouses, whereas people in unhappy ones constantly complained about them. The former characterized themselves as recipients, while the latter characterized themselves as victims. The recipients said things like “I’m so lucky” and mentioned how their partners had surprised them with an exciting anniversary getaway, or even something more mundane like a steak seared to perfection. They expressed these kinds of sentiments all the time. They didn’t share these things obnoxiously, or to illicit jealousy. It was normal for them. They shared them the way I might share what I had for breakfast or an article I’d read.
This invites a chicken-or-egg type question: Are these marriages happy because partners see their spouses as gifts, or because the spouses are objectively wonderful to begin with? As an outside observer, it’s not obvious to me which is true. In my own situation, James and I both possess a combination of wonderful and repugnant qualities. He has always viewed me as a gift, the best gift in his life. Yet I have only recently turned on the issue. And that, in the well-cited words of Robert Frost, “has made all the difference.”
Nearly 20 years ago, my mom gave me an invaluable piece of advice when she and my dad dropped me off at college. Since I arrived later than my two roommates, I was left without choices. The last available bed was a top bunk, and the only desk that remained was the most worn and scruffy. My two roommates were in the room when I arrived so I didn’t say anything. But my mom noticed my crestfallen face and said to me quietly in Korean, “You can transform anything into gold.”
I took those words to heart and did turn that situation into gold. I bought the cutest bed set I could find and decorated my worn-out desk in a way that made it look more shabby-chic than simply shabby. And it turned out that having the top bunk was to my advantage. Fewer 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 being worn in the house, and especially not on the bed! James is slowly learning.
From that point forward, I employed my mother’s sage wisdom whenever I encountered a less than ideal situation, transforming it to my liking. But I never thought it could work in my own marriage. It seemed too rigid and unmalleable. He was who he was, I was who I was, and neither of us were likely to change.
We create beautiful marriages; they do not come to us through another person.
That one simple word, “gift,” clued me into just how wrong I might be. My limiting beliefs began to dissolve and my powers reignited — the powers of an alchemist who transforms base metals into gold.
We create beautiful marriages; they do not come to us through another person. Contrary to what we believe, a certain type of person doesn’t guarantee us a happy and beautiful marriage because it’s not in their power. That power lies only within us. We have the power to create a beautiful marriage with whoever we choose. It’s similar to the power of 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 only requires some creativity and resourcefulness.
This doesn’t mean I discourage people from getting a divorce, or look down upon their decision to do so. Undoubtedly, divorce can make some people a lot happier. But what I try to do with those who confide in me when considering divorce is ask them gentle, yet probing questions to help them figure out if the relationship itself really needs to end. Their marital struggles might be an invitation for inner growth, which may lead to an even more fulfilling marriage.
I rarely begin with tactical questions, such as whether they’re seeing a therapist or trying some method designed to resolve conflicts. Instead, I begin with broader, 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 when they’re in their nineties. This was one way I knew I wanted to stay with James — he was always next to me when I imagined my life at 92.
Obviously, this method may not work for everyone. People in genuinely abusive relationships or ones that inhibit the authentic expression of themselves may not be able to magically change their situations through positive thought. But if your situation resembles dissatisfaction, it’s worth taking time to consider whether it’s an invitation for greater intimacy, fulfillment, and self-healing.
As for James and me, our conflicts have by no means vanished. However, the nature of our arguments has altered tremendously. I used to see conflicts as red flags, and engage in them with one foot out the door. I now view them as opportunities. My whole self is present, committed, and willing to be changed by this marriage.
Philosophers like Erich Fromm have described loving as an art because it’s a craft we never truly master. We only get better with practice, failure, and learning on repeat, over and over again. It’s both marvelous and daunting that loving someone is a limitless capacity that can never be truly perfected or completed. We can always love more and better, no matter how old or enlightened we become.
I’ve tried to let go of everything I thought James needed to be for me. In the process, I discovered who he truly is. What a wonderful discovery. He really is very different from me, but this realization no longer awakens my jaded narrative of being sold a bill of goods. Instead, I am fascinated by this priceless gift I’ve somehow been bestowed with.