01/17/2013 01:59 am ET Updated Mar 18, 2013

Marriage is a Work-in-Progress

My clients come to me with a host of erroneous beliefs that inform their anxiety and confusion regarding their upcoming marriages. I've discussed several of these beliefs in recent articles, such as thinking they're supposed to feel more in love during their engagement than ever and wondering if thoughts about an ex mean they're not supposed to get married. But there is one belief that is talked about even less than the others: that at the wedding day, the relationship itself is supposed to be at its height of ease, love, and workability.

Sadly, very few of us carry accurate beliefs about what love and marriage are really about. Instead, we consciously or unconsciously live our lives according to the models propagated by the media. We grow up watching Disney movies and popular television where we see a basic equation for love portrayed: meet, play a game of chase, fall in love, get married. Inherent in this formula is the assumption that by the final stage -- getting married -- every conflict, quirk, annoyance, and issue has been resolved. We may watch a relationship unfold over several years on a television series, but by the time the couple finally gets married, the conflicts are resolved and the show usually ends. And therein lies the false message: your relationship should be "perfect" at the time of the wedding.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Like all courageous endeavors, marriage can and must evolve over time. We enter into it with the greatest of intentions, hope, and commitment. We spend enough time together to determine if the partnership is a good match in terms of shared values, enough connection, some ability to resolve conflict, and no serious red-flags. And then we jump off the wedding cliff together with a leap of faith. For we never know at the onset what the final outcome will be. Marriage, like life, is ultimately a mystery regarding a magic formula for success. And the intricacies of this mystery, the strands of the story that comprise the final tapestry of one's marriage, can never be known on the day you say "I do."

And yet we long to know. We want the answers right at the beginning of the story. Instead of being an unfinished work of art, we expect our partners to know everything about us and fulfill each of our needs. Most people, when they marry, actually know very little about each other, especially compared to how much they'll know in 50 or 60 years! Human beings are complicated creatures, and it takes living with each other day in and day out -- sharing finances, dealing with works stress, having children, handling the conflicts that arise around each other's families -- before we slowly, slowly learn the details of thought, feeling, and spirit that comprise our partners.

What if we viewed the wedding not as an ending -- the final chapter of the story -- but as the beginning that it is? What if we understood that a marriage is a work-in-progress that begins on the wedding day and continues to grow and change for the rest of our lives? What if we let ourselves -- and our partners -- off the hook regarding having to feel and receive the greatest possible love on and around the wedding day? We put so much pressure on ourselves these days, and oftentimes it's that very pressure that dampens our ability to know and be known by our husband or wife. In other words, by not allowing ourselves to ease into the marriage over a period of several years, we place the marriage itself in a vice where it can't breathe organically and evolve according to its own rhythm.

What interferes with most people's capacity to experience the wedding transition free of anxiety are their expectations. The bride-to-be expects to feel happier than she's ever felt in her life during her engagement. The groom-to-be expects to be able to let go of his bachelor identity easily. And nearly everyone expects that they engaged couple should feel solid and certain about their relationship. We view the wedding as the culmination of a relationship instead of as a beginning. Marriage, in the end, is largely a journey of acceptance, and while we may enter into it believing we fully accept our partners, very few of us actually do. And that's okay. It's only the expectation of otherwise that interferes with our ability to accept the inevitable challenges that arise during the early years of marriage.

As with so many aspects of the wedding transition, the practice is about letting go: letting go of pressure, letting go of expectations, letting go of perfection, letting go of the old life, letting go of "shoulds", and letting go of trying to squeeze yourself and your relationship into a preconceived image or model of how you think your relationship is supposed to be.

Sheryl Paul, M.A., has counseled thousands of people worldwide through her private practice, her bestselling books, her e-courses and her website. She has appeared several times on "The Oprah Winfrey Show", as well as on "Good Morning America" and other top media shows and publications around the globe. To sign up for her free 78-page eBook, "Conscious Transitions: The 7 Most Common (and Traumatic) Life Changes", visit her website at And if you're suffering from relationship anxiety - whether single, dating, engaged, or married - give yourself the gift of her popular E-Course.