When Alan and I were engaged, we heard a lot of negativity when it came to marriage, the most recurring theme being something along the lines of: "don't romanticize it, it won't live up to your expectations, its painful and difficult." Well, I figured I had better wait at least five years to give this whole thing a good trial run before saying anything, and while I can't pretend to know what trials may or may not lie ahead of us in the next 5, or 15, or hopefully 50 years of marriage, I can now confidently and emphatically declare about the last 5 years: that was fun! I suppose it depends on what your romanticized view of marriage is, but since we we were not expecting to lay in bed eating bon-bons all day or spend the better part of our waking hours staring googly-eyed at each other (if that is your expectation of marriage then I suppose you probably will be disappointed, and honestly that doesn't even sound like fun to me), I recall no moments of shattered expectations or grave disappointment. Of course it is hard work, of course there are arguments, but if a young couple were to ask me how it is to be married, I wouldn't launch into a diatribe of its many difficulties or how its unlikely to match up to their hopes, I would say honestly and without exaggeration: It's so much fun!
All of that is not to say that it is not sometimes painful or difficult; it is painful when your ego is exposed, it is difficult to die to yourself and choose the good of your spouse before your own. The point is that those things are only the stepping stone towards joy! Certainly, marriage is not automatically fun. Of course you have to work for it. My point is only, let's not talk so long about how hard it is to till the soil and plant the seeds while neglecting the point of it all: that is, the fruit! It is true that it is an investment, and you will only reap as much as you put into it, but I declare that (at least five years worth of) a fun and rewarding marriage are attainable. Do not fear or try to avoid hard work (that is important for every aspect of life). At the start of your marriage and every day afterwards, you will be faced with decisions, and you need only choose the right path to find the joy. So I will not even say "marriage is hard work, but it is worth it," because that tastes bitter to me, it makes hard work sound like the enemy, it practically sounds as if its an equation where marriage just squeaks by in the happiness department. Instead, I say, "marriage can be so much fun, welcome the hard work that leads to joy!"
The decisions that you will face are multitudinous, but I have chosen five decisions (other than the very obvious, which is to love and serve God, love and serve each other, which is the foundation for these) that Alan and I have made that have brought us great joy:
1. Live an integrated life. You needn't spend every hour together, but don't act as though you are two people with distinct and disassociated lives who have now chosen to live together. "One flesh" means that your lives have come together to become a new and undivideable entity. Even though we each have our own interests, we don't pursue them separately from each other; we hold them in our hands between the two of us, we are invested in and support each other. Our society puts a lot of emphasis on individuality, and dependence is a dirty word, but if you strive to preserve complete autonomy in your marriage, you will gasp and wrestle against one of its great beauties: that is the sharing of one life together. In our marriage, this looks like choosing to be together whenever we can; running errands together even if it really only requires one person, talking to each other about everything, unturning the stones of our lives together.
2. Don't fear the fight. This one is actually a good extension of the first. In your quest to know and sidle up next to each other, you will reach stones that are hard to turn, and wounds that sting. Don't fear these, don't somehow believe that arguments are always a sign of an unhealthy relationship. They're like a Herxheimer Reaction: feeling a little worse before feeling better. Respect each other, for goodness sake don't yell and don't try to hurt each other, and arguments will be the stepping stone towards better understanding and closeness. If you fear the fight because you believe it is weakness, you will fail to have conversations that need to be had, and end up carrying heavy burdens on your own.
3. Make traditions. I've addressed this before in this post. In short, making traditions can be like raising an Ebenezer which you return to each year to reflect, regroup, and recharge. We started making traditions the first year we were married, and two years in a row was the only qualification needed. We got chinese food on Christmas Eve last year? Awesome, let's do it again. Tradition!
4. Be idealists. Alan and I were often criticized for being idealists, especially during our engagement. The term is often used in a deprecating way, but I would say that deciding on and pursuing our ideals together has been a pathway to growth and accomplishment for us. If the other option is being a realist and accepting that the way things are is just the way they are, then I want nothing to do with that. The only way to change culture and family and yourselves for the better is to think about how things should be (decide on what's ideal) and then pursue those things. You don't have to beat yourself up during the process, but do believe that you can get nearer those things than you are now.
5. Adopt a wholistic view of sex. As Aunt Leila says: "Husband and wife, embrace your mission as the king and queen of your little kingdom, your family — and enjoy, when you want to, what we may quaintly and not without relief from the pressure of modern unconstraint refer to as the marital embrace — simply accepting the children God sends you as the gift that they are." She really elaborates better than I ever could right here, but I will say that deciding together that God made no mistakes in his original design, and perhaps we shouldn't try to frustrate it, and then accepting both intentions of the "marital embrace," that is, connection and creation (counter-cultural, I know!), was probably one of the most vital and best decisions that we have made. By relinquishing that control, we have been rewarded with our greatest blessings: our children of course, but also a great trust in each other and in God.