Growing up, I, as many youths do, had lots of questions about the ways of the world. Where does the wax disappear to when you burn a candle? Can you breathe through your nose and your mouth at the same time? How come Alyssa was allowed to get her ears double pierced but I’m not?? Many of the questions of my youth have cleared up over time (Wax oxidizes. Yes, you can breathe through both at the same time with practice. “Because you’re not Alyssa and you will follow my rules in my house”). But the answers to others have long eluded me into my young adulthood. But one of the questions I found myself wondering more often than others was, “How do you know when to get married?”
Though I never daydreamed about marriage much as a child, I did wonder about the answer to this question. So often in movies and books, main characters would find someone who completed their lives so fully and so instantly that it was as if they’d been waiting to meet each other their whole lives. Love at first sight and soulmates were prevailing themes in the Disney movies of my youth.
And while all of that was fine and dandy, as I got older it became more and more apparent that finding The One wasn’t as straightforward as my tiny brain thought it might one day be. It seemed that, much of the time, people struggled with knowing when they’d found The One. Even when protagonists found someone who made them happy and whom they loved and cared about deeply, it still wasn’t always clear that the relationship should move forward.
As I reached dating age, the “how do you know” question cropped up into my mind more frequently. I wasn’t on the prowl for a life partner quite yet–I couldn’t even legally drive a car by myself. But as I found myself actually caring for the people I dated, I wondered if the way I felt was indicative of finding that special person. Was finding The One like seeing a new color for the first time–you only know it when you experience it? How long do you have to wait before you really know? Even if you think they’re The One, how can you be sure you should get married?
That last question stuck with me the most. How can you be sure? So many of my peers’ parents were divorced. I wondered how many of those parents thought that the time and the person were 100% right at the time they married their now ex-spouse. Is that what happens when you aren’t sure before marriage? Divorce? Every time I thought about myself getting married one day, I mulled over these questions, and the questions just grew. What happens if you fall out of love? Does it just happen, spontaneously? How can you avoid it?
After a few youthful relationships ended and left me feeling totally beaten down, I’d decided that I didn’t want to just date for fun anymore. I was tired of putting endless time and effort into building something with someone just to have it dissipate. So I decided that my next serious relationship would be my last–I would no longer date just for the sake of dating. This would entail talking about the important, and sometimes awkward, stuff right at the beginning of the relationship. I wanted to know if my plans, and morals, and core interests jived with someone before I became too emotionally attached. I wanted to be as transparent as possible. If I didn’t see the relationship going anywhere, I’d call it off. And if I did see if going somewhere, well, I’d cross that bridge when I got there.
When I met my now husband, it was only a few months after settling into my new dating mantra. And I followed my new guidelines well. Right up front, he was game to discuss moral and ethical issues, share his opinions on politics and social justice, and take part in my interests. It became clear that I would not have to call this relationship off due to incompatibility. So we started talking about our future together, hypothetically discussing marriage from time to time. And I was terrified.
Sure, my plan had been to stop dating for fun, but I didn’t realize I’d meet someone I felt so compatible with so quickly. At this point, I didn’t even want to think about marriage. I was 21 and still a kid in my own mind. I didn’t know how to pay my taxes,* let alone know when it was time to marry someone.
Eventually, Jonathan (my then boyfriend/now husband) and I began talking about marriage for real. He would bring it up in a very practical way, and I would fill with this mix of extreme excitement and excruciating nervousness. I thought this man was the right one for me, but how was I supposed to know for sure? I thought I would be able to make a lifelong commitment to this man, but what if I was wrong? And I felt as if I was thinking logically about the whole situation, but I also worried that maybe I was too immature to be making decisions this important.
It took a lot of courage for me to bring up these fears and doubts. I didn’t want anyone to know that I was facing these questions even in the midst of talking about a potential marriage. It didn’t seem right to not have all the answers before committing my life to someone else. I worried that sharing my worries with Jonathan might come off as uncertainty in our relationship with one another. I thought that if I showed my cards, he wouldn’t like what he saw. But when I finally did garner up the courage to tell the truth about what was making me nervous, I was so comforted by what I heard.
Jonathan didn’t know the answers either. He also had no hard and fast piece of evidence that showed I was the perfect fit for him. He also didn’t have any guarantees that we would be together forever. But he was no less sure that we could make this work, even without all the answers.
I talked to a lot of married friends and acquaintances about these questions around this time also. I wasn’t naive enough to think that my unmarried, 23-year old boyfriend would be the utmost authority on marriage. But surprisingly, most of their advice was grounded in what he had said. None of them had a magic moment they knew their spouse was the right one for them. None had any hard facts to point to as the proof that they should get married. The most commonly stated piece of advice was one you’ve probably heard before: marriage takes hard work. Nearly all the words of wisdom I was given surrounded the idea that your partner will never be perfect and the time won’t be either; what needs to be the most certain is your commitment to one another. If marriage was about finding a perfect soulmate and came with a lifelong guarantee, it wouldn’t be referred to as a commitment at all.
My husband and I are fairly new at being married, but if anything has become glaringly obvious in our time together, it’s that there is never a perfect time to get married. All the doubts I had about the time being right and the marriage being guaranteed to last forever didn’t matter nearly as much as my faith in our ability to commit to making this marriage work under any circumstances.