My husband and I have known each other for most of our lives: through the weirdness of elementary school, the awkwardness of middle school, and the horrible decisions of high school (seriously…what were we thinking?). We started dating in college and made it official seven years later. And those seven years? They were bliss. Seriously. Everyone has always said that long-term relationships are “hard work”, but I could never understand that phrase.
To me, hard work was staying up all night researching a twelve-page essay on the historical implications of Lord Byron’s poetry, or organizing the next issue of the literary magazine I interned at. But saying that my relationship was hard work? I just couldn’t see it.
He was who I turned to when no one else was there for me. He was who I thought of telling first when I got good news. He was who I wanted to sit next to for hours on end on a cross-country roadtrip. How could that be hard work?
But then, we were young. We had basically zero responsibilities (except for keeping our two cats alive). We had the freedom and space and privilege to make each other our first priority. When we got engaged, everyone told us it was about to get real. I waited and waited and waited for that shoe to drop…and then, nothing. We signed that piece of paper and had a big party and waited for the work to start. Still nothing. We went about our lives the same as always, laughing off forgotten dates, making joint decisions with raised eyebrows and a shrug, and feeling our way through.
Soon we added a baby girl to our lives, and the cautionary tales kept coming, this time tinged with the quiet whispers of impending catastrophe. This will test your marriage, they said. This is the hardest thing your marriage will go through, they warned. Again I heard, Marriage is hard work. Hard work, hard work, hard work.
I still didn’t get it; I didn’t see it. Hard work to me was waking up early with the baby to keep her from waking up my husband who had just gotten home from work two hours before, seeing his favorite coffee thermos in the sink and washing it so he can take it to work, taking on more responsibilities at home so that he could go back to school, and…oh. Wait.
This is it. This is the hard work, it just isn’t as glaring as I thought it would be. It comes wrapped up in the choice to be a thoughtful partner and a compromising person. It means being the first to apologize sometimes. It means twisting your brain into a pretzel to see another side to things and being OK with not getting your way sometimes. It means letting him show you how to “properly” load the dishwasher and patiently showing him how to braid toddler hair. It means accepting that you both are human—faults, bad attitudes, morning breath and all.
What they really mean when they say marriage is hard work has less to do with how you interact with each other, and more with the choices you make for the benefit of your partner or your family. It is hard work to put someone ahead of yourself. It is hard work to choose them and their feelings when you spent all morning arguing over whose fault it was that you went over your monthly budget. Sometimes, though we hate to admit we even do this, it is hard work to hold back that cutting comeback, to bite your tongue against a targeted disparagement, when you are an hour deep into a disagreement. We found it. We found the hard work. It is sprinkled in each and every action we make every single day, not flashing in lights above our heads.
I guess we have both been lucky so far. We haven’t had many trials yet in our marriage, but of course they could lie in our journey ahead like land mines just waiting for a misstep as we navigate the road hand in hand. However, I like to think that we are preparing ourselves for that every single day. After all, we have been doing the hard work for years.