The Elusive Perfect Life

This year’s 4th of July weekend found me in a secluded Maine ski town for a friend’s wedding. Seated with some old school friends, all of whom are living single, I was the lone representative of the married-with-kids contingent.

“You must be so happy now that you’re not single,” one of my old classmates remarked wistfully, as we sat down to dinner. I paused, not entirely sure how to respond, but I understood exactly where she was coming from.

When I was in my early 20s, I too held on to this notion that if only I could find my soul mate, everything else would sort itself out, and we’d live happily ever after. But after seven years of marriage I no longer think of life in such binary terms.

I will never forget how magical and unbelievably spiritual our wedding ceremony felt; it was transcendent. Despite my hung-over make-up artist’s being three hours late, the band’s starting the father-daughter dance without my father, and the caterer’s secretly adding Styrofoam layers to our cake (complicating the should’ve-been-adorable first-cut picture), our wedding day felt like the beginning of a wonderful, shared life.

Seven years later, I have found that, while I love my husband and our life together, marriage is not some fortress shielding us from the vagaries of life. I still break out. I have bad hair days. And if anything, marriage has meant learning to tackle more complex problems then I could ever have envisioned when I was single. For example, I’ve had to juggle two kids while my husband travels overseas for work. We’ve had to learn how to navigate family obligations for both of our extended families as a team. And we’ve had to work together to support our older daughter, as she’s experienced serious health problems this past year.

It’s easy to slip into believing that if only we could successfully take that next hill, our lives would suddenly be idyllic. But being able to afford that fabulously expensive pair of heels, getting hired for that great job, or even landing that Marriage Material boyfriend has never been the answer to our problems, so why do we think that finally getting married is a panacea?

From an early age, little girls read stories like Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty. We learn about the prince, or white knight, who saves the beautiful girl from her terrible circumstances. Whenever we are unhappy, in big or small ways, with our lives, it becomes natural to wonder where our prince is, and want him to rescue us from our painful, or simply mundane, lives. That impulse is only reinforced by the so-called chick lit we read and romantic comedies we watch. We identify with the message because on some level, by and large, women like being cared for, while men enjoy being protectors.

However, expecting a boyfriend or husband to save us from our lives when we meet them puts a lot of pressure on those men, and that pressure can negatively impact a budding relationship. For all of the advances women have made in recent decades, we can hold ourselves back if we don’t realize it’s our responsibility to save ourselves – whatever that means to each of us – from our own troubles. It’s part of growing up, embracing independence, and learning to stand on our own two feet financially and emotionally.

A woman needs to know who she is, what she wants, and how to take care of herself. With all of that in place, she’s more likely to find a significant other with husband potential, who can both respect and cherish her over the course of a committed, long-lasting relationship. But that woman also needs to be realistic and accept that a wonderful, loving marriage won’t look like what she’s seen on a movie screen; real life can be intoxicating and exhilarating, but it also includes blemishes.

Husbands and wives are imperfect. Sometimes, we misspeak. Or, we do the wrong thing at the wrong time. But if you’ve chosen the right sort of person, you work together to repair and strengthen the relationship. Over time, by being around each other, you make each other better people.

The problems I face today are bigger than those I faced in my early 20s, but at some point I realized, there will always be storms. The one thing marriage truly changes is having someone by your side, so you can weather them together.

Melissa Langsam Braunstein is an independent writer and communications strategist in Washington, DC, as well as a staff writer for the cultural blog Acculturated and a contributing writer for the parenting blog Kveller.

Photo credit: Michael Salvato

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