10/03/2011 01:05 am ET | Updated Dec 02, 2011

What Married Couples Aren't Telling You About Marriage

Even as a little girl, I would have rolled my eyes at "reality" shows like Say Yes to the Dress and Four Weddings, which idealize marriage and create wildly unrealistic expectations. I never dreamed of my wedding day, never sketched my fantasy wedding gown or played with the bride doll my grandmother gave me. When my stepsister roped me into playing "future house," I couldn't draw (or even visualize) the floor plan of my dream home.

Virtually everyone in my family had been divorced: grandparents, aunts and uncles. And, most memorably, my parents, when I was four and my sister was two. I'd seen divorce up close and had no illusions that getting married meant "happily ever after."

Besides, there was no way I could get married. Whenever I mentioned my mom, my dad pressed his lips together and changed the subject. He never allowed my mom and stepmother to be in the same place at the same time.

Still, I was looking for a man with long-term potential. When I got together with Greg my senior year of college, I was pretty sure I'd found him. Centered, friendly -- and utterly sure of himself -- he'd lived an exciting life as a pro freestyle skier, traveling from contest to contest. Greg was smart, cute and nice -- and never wanted to get married or have kids. Perfect.

Fast forward nearly ten years, during which time I'd buoyed him through the deaths of his beloved mother and cousin. He'd taken splendid care of me after I was hit by a car. We'd shared an apartment where the pipes froze in the winter, and still managed to be happy. It was clear we were in it for the long haul.

Still, everything wedding-related made me anxious. Marriage represented a major loss of control. So when Greg slipped the lovely solitaire, created with his grandmother's diamond, on my finger and asked me to marry him, I replied "I don't know" in a wavering voice.

In spite of my ambivalence, I stepped sideways into marriage. The responsibility for making sure our nuptials came off without a hitch fell to me, and it gave me nightmares. In one, I couldn't manage to get dressed. When I lifted my perfect gown from the cleaner's box, it came out stiff and wrinkled, sticking out at all angles. When I tried to apply lipstick, my hand trembled so much that I kept drawing outside the lip line.

Worried, I lost my appetite. My weight plummeted. Somehow, I managed to choose a wedding dress and arrange for two cakes and two receptions, a small one in Los Angeles (where we lived) and another in Seattle (our home town).

With Greg's agreement, I rewrote the standard Presbyterian vows, removing all references to a higher power. As far as I was concerned, this was about us -- our friendship and our devotion to each other -- and it would be up to us to make this foray into uncharted territory work. At the park in Laurel Canyon, we promised to love each other for better and for worse, for richer and poorer, in sickness and in health. It would be years before I really understood what those vows meant.

After our two sons were born, I was determined to give them more stability than I'd had growing up. For years, Greg and I worked opposite schedules so one of us could be home with the boys. He worked six days a week; I worked three. In my "spare" time I was a den mother and organized PTA walkathons and Mother's Day plant sales. In Greg's "spare" time, he taught our boys to bike and ski.

We were partners, doing a job we were both invested in. Most of the time, I treasured my marriage like gold in my pocket. But there was an interval when I felt so underappreciated that I had to fight the urge to run away shrieking. I'm sure Greg felt that way, too, at times -- though shrieking isn't his style.

Now that our boys have grown into resourceful young men, I can look back on those hectic years fondly. But I haven't forgotten how often romance got lost in the daily grind.

Occasionally, after a long day, I find myself sucked into the parallel universe of Say Yes to the Dress. I enjoy the gowns -- artful confections that flatter different sizes and shapes. But I'm appalled by the program's shameless evangelism of extravagant weddings (I haven't seen a dress under $2,500) and the dated idea that a girl's wedding day is the most important of her life. I call it "girl porn."

Sometimes, I'm tempted to yell "Get real!" at a bride through the television. I wish I could warn her that there's no relationship between how fancy a woman's wedding is and the success of her marriage. That it's not about the size of the diamond, the cut of the dress, or how much a hard-working relative shells out for the reception.

I'd say, "When you say I do, you're getting on the ride of your life. There'll be times when it's thrilling, times when you're scared to death, and times you wish you'd never gotten on this ride."

I'd share what I've learned: that she's taking her husband as-is, his strengths and his weaknesses, his charms and his bad habits, not just the fun and romantic part. That the real love comes after the wedding, not before.