There is just no sugarcoating it: Our first two years of marriage were downright difficult.
I don't know about other couples but we certainly did not have a honeymoon period. It was just downhill from the wedding. In those two years, I felt every shade of loneliness, depression, and rejection. I felt invalidated so often that I lost whatever self-confidence I had back in my home country. I blamed the stress of moving. I blamed myself for having too much time to brood. I blamed the pregnancy, then the birth. But deep down I knew those were only partly true. I knew that my marriage was floundering. We went to see a counselor several times and in one of the sessions the counselor asked us whether we thought getting married was a mistake. Without hesitating long enough, my husband said yes. I cannot count the number of times I wanted to just pack my bags and leave, to hell with my pride -- I was ready to face anyone who cared to say "I told you so."
And then came the March of our third year. On the one year anniversary of the earthquake and tsunami that devastated Tohoku, despite my objections, my husband ran 227 kilometers in the freezing cold, in snow and rain, in daylight and dark through Tohoku. That was a lot of time to think, he said. I was in Manila for two months at that time and when we met up in Hong Kong soon after his run, I saw a very different person. Gone were the layers of resentment that used to be ensconced like a brick wall between us. In the quiet intimacy of the night, I couldn't help but ask him, "Who are you?"
Since then, our marriage has been vastly different, and there were three things that we have been choosing to do differently.
My husband has been used to living by himself for the longest time. When we got married and I moved into his house, his solitude was abruptly disrupted. Someone has invaded his private space and he wasn't sure whether he liked it. Some changes were welcome: dinner already waiting by the time he got home from work; someone to bounce off ideas with and laugh at his jokes. Others weren't so welcome: dinner isn't exactly his usual fare and sometimes smells too fishy (sorry bagoong); that same someone is still there even when he wants to be alone. For a long time, I felt like an overstaying guest, intruding upon his life. I didn't dare rearrange things, much less get rid of them (we actually fought about this one time). I was walking on eggshells, careful about what I said or did, and I was miserable.
What my husband decided to do differently was to make space for me. I came back to Tokyo on our third anniversary after several weeks in Manila. When I stepped into the house, I couldn't believe my eyes. My husband cleared out an entire shelf full of his books and neatly placed my books. He also made Ruby a reading corner. Where photos of his family once were, he put in photos of mine. He framed an acrylic painting I made. "Happy anniversary," he said, "Sorry it took so long but this is your house too."
Later on he wrote me an email, "I still admit I feel like a fool for not saying sooner, 'This is your place. This is our place. Do what you want.' It's not a giving up, but a letting go and letting you in. I am sorry it took me this long." The changes in the physical space paralleled changes in the emotional space and so I was not surprised (but was still moved to tears anyway) when my husband told me one night, "I want to let you in my heart."
Space also refers to letting each other be who they are, outside of expectations. Back when things weren't so good between us, we would look at the big smiles on our wedding photos and joke, "Who are these people? They seem so happy." But if we were really honest, a large portion of our unhappiness in the first two years was because we were disappointed to find out that the other person did not conform to our expectations. When we were dating, we filled in a lot of the gaps, only to be surprised after marriage to discover that they're only our constructions. I was moved when Husband said recently, "You are the partner that I didn't know I've always wanted."
Finding Comfort in the Ordinary and Predictable
My husband arranged to have our two-year old cared for on a Wednesday night and asked me out for our first date in months. We were both giddy to have time to ourselves, albeit with a breastfeeding baby, but at least we can have an uninterrupted conversation. When we met up that evening, he said, "I was thinking of getting you flowers, but I know you'd rather we save the money." It was true. It was actually enough for me to know he thought of getting me flowers - that was as tangible to me as the most expensive bouquet. Whenever he goes on a business trip, his omiyage or pasalubong (gifts) for me are almost always food and kitchen items. When he went to Switzerland, he proudly brought back packets of gravy mix, and believe it or not, I was absolutely delighted. This most recent trip to the Philippines, he presented me with a big pack of charcoal briquets. "We can now have barbecues!" he enthused, "They're smokeless and eco-friendly!"
It is ironic the dating scene is typically about the excitement of surprises and the unexpected. But now that we are married, my husband and I reflected that what we love about each other are the everyday, the ordinary, and the predictable. There is comfort in knowing what to expect from each other. My husband knows that I don't get jealous when he talks about the women in his past (who may still be in his present) or appreciate the good-looking women we meet. I can tell when something is bothering my husband and know how best to approach him. We share many of the same values and find the same things hilarious.
For the past few Saturdays, I have been making lasagna as I was experimenting with various ways of doing it -- I tried skipping boiling the noodles. I tried meat lasagna. I tried spinach and mushroom. I tried a white sauce of cottage cheese and egg. I tried a bechamel sauce. "So is Saturday lasagna night?," my husband asked. "We could make it lasagna night. Why do you ask?" "It would be nice..." he said, "Then I know that I have something to look forward to every Saturday." The simple pleasure of anticipating good things.
The Power of "We"
Perhaps the biggest shift in our relationship is the transition from "I" and "Me" to "We" and "Us". There's a good article by psychotherapist M. Gary Neuman about "We" couples. During the most trying moments in our first two years, our fights were peppered with lines such as these:
"You were the one who wanted this..."
"I had to give up my dreams..."
"You don't understand the sacrifices I had to make..."
"Why didn't you think this through?"
There was blame. There were power struggles. It felt like we were trying to one-up each other, even in terms of who was suffering more in the relationship. The dramatic difference two years later is that we think and behave more like a team. These are our kids, our resources, our problems, our triumphs. This is our future. Taking walks together helped our relationship. It's relaxing. It feels easier to talk about things when you don't have to face each other. And the very action of moving together in the same direction is symbolic.
One of the things I love about my husband is his keenness to do "projects" (even corny ones) together. He suggested that we start a restaurant review notebook. We stick a brochure or a calling card with the restaurant's name or logo and write what we thought of our dining experience (kind of like He Says She Says). Last fall, he thought of gathering some beautiful maple leaves and sticking them onto postcards that we sent to family and friends. Whenever we go on a picnic or long trips, he would bring a pack of cards with questions we could ask each other. Doing these little things together helps us feel more connected to each other.