There are few things in society we’ve imbued with quite as much expectation and meaning as marriage.
We grow up thinking the hardest part will be finding the “right” person, who we assume will be the key to a happy life. The more right a person is for us, we think, the less suffering we will experience.
And, generally, people do pair up with other people they believe they’ll be happiest with (even if, in some cases, that happiness is more about security, status, or tradition than love). But sometimes, people choose who they think they’ll be happiest with only to find out they are incorrect.
This isn’t because they’ve committed to the “wrong” person. It’s because their expectations were ideals, not realities. These unrealistic expectations can wreck you if you let them.
The work of marriage is not about whether you find and keep your most ideal counterpart. Marriage is about what you do when you discover you can be with the most perfect person for you—and still find yourself frustrated, exhausted, dragged down, and at your wit’s end.
We choose romantic partners through unconscious “love maps.” These are cues, ideas, and suggestions we pick up over time to piece together a concept of the right partner. We gather these through experiences: familiarity, family ties, failed relationships, trauma, other people’s beliefs, our own ideas about who we are and what we should do in life. Then, of course, there’s sexual attraction, which people often confuse with compatibility.
We attach ourselves to people who most significantly mirror our strengths and wounds. We do this because there’s comfort in the familiar and because the essential purpose of a long-term partnership is to assist us in growth. If our lives are about becoming ourselves, then our closest partners can be our greatest teachers.
Marriage won’t do the work for you.
The magic of marriage is that it’s not meant to make you feel happy in that dopamine-laced, movie-ending kind of way. It’s meant to make you aware of yourself, and the more deeply you can grow, the more joy you will experience.
It’s counterintuitive, but the less you expect marriage to make you happy, the more it will.
We often say our failed relationships teach us more than anything else. But it’s our ongoing relationships that can really teach us the most. Our interactions with others show us who we are, how we behave, and what we are doing. They can be the most enlightening medium for self-awareness. There is absolutely no relationship that does this more than a person with whom you commit to build your life, home, and share a sexual and intimate relationship for the rest of your existence.
Your life partner is an asset to you in the evolution of your becoming, but that partnership is not the whole of your becoming. You can choose to see marriage as a gift, as an incredible privilege. Marriage gives us our walking partners, not our paths. When you view your partner less as your savior and more as the person you get to hang out with until you die, you’re more likely to forgive their shortcomings and accept that they’re not, and never will be, perfect.
Our partners don’t exist to satiate our every emotional need. They exist to be companions — separate, but equal — at once our responsibility, and yet very much out of our control. Learning to love them better is essential. It gives so much more than it takes. When we can strip away the assumption they should be different from who they are, we find something beautiful underneath: harmony. Which is what we’ve been hungry for all along.
Marriage will not always make you happy, but it will do something even better. It will give you an opportunity to find happiness in peace, in letting go, in learning what’s worth fighting for, in figuring out how to love an imperfect person, in seeing what commitment is and what compromise feels like.
Marriage won’t do the work for you. That work is yours—always and forevermore. The real work is not about finding the right person. It’s about becoming the right person.