I grew up in the shadow of expectations: Graduate from high school, go to college. Graduate from college, get a job in your selected profession. Get a job, find a husband. Get married, find a house. Buy a house, fill it with babies.
As the rule-following oldest child, I was every bit on track. Expectation one: check. Expectation two: check, and so on, until suddenly, right around expectation three, the path changed direction. Nowhere were there expectations for things like: file for bankruptcy, get a divorce, and fall in love with a co-worker.
My younger friends will tell you that my relationship advice almost always starts with: "Don't get married before 30." I don't think people are ready for it. I know I wasn't. Instead of understanding the commitment of marriage, I was enamored by the idea of marriage -- the flowing gown, the waterfront reception venue, house-buying and decorating, starting a family that would have 2.5 children, having an automatic date to cookouts and concerts; everything that was "expected" after college graduation and a fulfilling professional career.
So, at 23 when my boyfriend of six months proposed on a cold January night in my tiny apartment living room, I said yes, ignoring the twist in my gut. We walked to a local bar huddled together in our new-found excitement, drank shots and toasted ourselves. Six months later we celebrated what would have been our one-year dating anniversary on our honeymoon cruise. We had hosted the socially acceptable and ridiculously overpriced Long Island wedding, complete with cocktail hour and deejay giveaway with feather boas and inflatable guitars. The only things we skimped on were the photographer (we used a newspaper photographer friend) and videographer (we didn't have one at all). In retrospect, I'm glad we threw a great party, even if there weren't many professional pictures to show for it. Most of them got tossed in the parking lot dumpster behind my first post-marriage apartment anyway.
It wasn't until I started dating my current husband that things came into focus. We talked about real topics like what we expected out of a relationship and a marriage. We discussed how and why our previous nuptials had failed and what we could do to avoid the same mistakes in the future. There were frank conversations about money and cooking, family and religion. I held firm to the fact that I would never again have a joint bank account, and grew to accept that I had played a role in the demise of my earlier relationship.
After two years of dating and cohabitating nearly that long, we made it official, getting hitched by the mayor of a city I covered in my reporter days along a beautiful creek on the side of the road in the heart of a state park. My husband picked the spot. I had never seen it before. Fewer than 15 people and one Cocker Spaniel attended the event. The photographer was my good friend and the reception the following day was a pig roast at our new house, a log cabin with whispery blades of emergent grass in the front yard. I wore a dress that cost $40 and carried a bouquet I made myself with roses I bought at Sam's Club.
Everything was perfect.
And for the most part, the last nine years have been too. Because the truth about marriage has nothing to do with the wedding, and everything to do with what happens next. And sometimes, the truth isn't pretty. Sometimes the truth is throwing a bowl of rice across the backyard or screaming loud enough that you're sure the neighbors have to turn up the television to drown you out. Sometimes the truth is taking the dog, packing a bag and aimlessly driving around for an hour. Yes, sometimes the truth is quite ugly.
But the truth about marriage also comes in your ability to swallow the hurtful words you want to say in the heat of an argument because, even at your maddest, you know it's not fair. It comes in the sheepish apologies that accompany behavior you're not proud of. It comes in the aftermath, when you push the anger aside to really talk or finally listen. It comes in the commitment to doing this thing together. It most certainly comes with the realization that marriage isn't always pretty, but it is always work. And some days you really, really love your job. On the days you don't, you're at least happy to have one.
Fortunately, the other truth is that marriage can and does include all of those things you dreamt up watching sappy chick flicks and shuffling Barbies around the doll house. It exists in across-the-room glances, forehead kisses and hand holding on walks with the dog. It comes in cooking dinner together or working in the yard. It happens in the day-to-day regular stuff of life like stupid jokes or relaxing after work. It comes in the arms of a warm hug or in the electricity of an unexpected brush of skin as you pass in the kitchen.
So to create life's list of expectations and believe that everyone must follow them in order is really unfair. The best thing we can do is be honest about it -- speak the truth: marriage is wonderful, but never perfect and should never be entered into without a clear understanding of what's at stake. Hopefully the good outweighs the bad (luckily, in my case it does). Although it isn't always glitter and unicorns, if you make it important and you tend to it, a marriage can grow to be something great and serve as a strong foundation when life isn't dishing out that scoop of fairy tale ending.
I'm not sorry I got divorced at 28; I think it's made me a better wife at 40.