By Marg Stark
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- You don’t feel like a “Mrs.” Sometimes you even dream about old boyfriends.
- You write all the wedding gift thank-you notes. So you are doomed to your mother’s life–60 years of doing more than your share?
- Making love is the last thing on your mind when you have the flu and haven’t showered for days. But he still wants to.
- You tell him you got these incredible bargains and quietly resent having to justify your spending.
- You have shining moments when marriage feels absolutely right, but nevertheless you pine for something more.
A Note to Readers
I have always liked telling secrets. I don't mean that I like breaking confidences but that I like to say things most people are afraid to say, or have trouble saying. So when I got married two and a half years ago, I was struck by how many things go unsaid about the engagement and the first year of marriage. And I was amazed at how much pressure I felt not to talk about the things I felt, even with friends with whom I'd previously shared everything.
As much as I love my husband and wanted to marry him, I assure you that planning my wedding and leaving behind the single life I had enjoyed was not a trail of rose petals. But like most brides I know, I felt I had to characterize my wedding and my new marriage that way. I had to carry out the fairy tale.
Nine months into my newlywed year, I began to talk to one or two recently married friends about the mixed feelings I had, and I was relieved to find other brides felt the same way. We were all happy but, nonetheless, traumatized by how different married life was from single life, or from what we expected it would be. We all liked being married, but we worried that marriage would "swallow us up" and diminish our individuality. We all wanted to make marriage our own—different from our parents' marriages—but we weren't sure how to do that.
If we all felt this way, I was sure there would be books or research studies that made sense of this phenomena. So I started reading everything I could find in libraries and bookstores about a modern bride's experience of the engagement, wedding, and first years of marriage. What I learned was that very little research exists on the transition most of us experience today, having been single and on our own for a few years before we marry. The books and articles I read could also be extraordinarily depressing. They treated marriage clinically, as if it were an encroaching disease. None of them assumed the reassuring role of a country doctor, saying, "This is entirely normal. You're doing a great job. You just need to relax."
So I set out to write a reassuring book—one that tells brides that the vast majority of the anxieties and fears they experience in their journey from singlehood into marriage are normal. Feelings of ambivalence amid bliss are a normal part of the engagement. And arguments are a normal, even healthy, part of early marriage.
Of all the subjects I have written about in my career, none has struck the nerve this one has. I couldn't seem to write this book fast enough for the women with whom I talked about it. Everyone I met seemed to have a friend who had just gotten engaged and desperately needed to know she wasn't the only bride feeling the way she did—happy, crazy, scared, but mostly overwhelmed. Even women like my mom, who has been married for thirty-nine years, welcomed a book that clarified issues with which they still struggle.
My husband and I are, in many ways, your typical bride and groom. We met four years ago, when we were twenty-eight, at an outdoor bar in Newport, Rhode Island. We actually had our first meaningful conversation in the Porta Potti line. Despite these mundane origins, my husband and I talk most about how not to live ordinary lives—how not to become complacent, how not to lose sight of what's important. And how to have a rich, meaningful life. How to have fun and keep our senses of humor.
It is this drive to live differently that shapes What No One Tells the Bride. I have chosen not to include some of the statistics you'll find in other books about how bad marriage can be for women. I fully acknowledge these facts, but I am far more interested in offering ideas and strategies for making marriage better, and for beating stereotypes.
I should remind you that this is a book by and for brides, so it will feel one-sided at times. The advice my friends and I offer, and the stories we tell, are from our points of view, not our husbands'. And while many of the lessons we learned will benefit both husbands and wives, some will mean far more to you because you are a woman.
Some of the ideas my friends, my husband, and I present in this book are endorsed by so-called marriage experts. More important to our way of thinking, these methods worked for us in our new marriages. By "us," I mean the fifty brides I interviewed or surveyed for this book. Some were in the throes of wedding plans but most were women who have been married five years or less. Many are friends, or friends of friends. Others I "met" through the Internet or through people who knew I was writing this book. Although many brides offered to let me use their real names, I tried to foster utmost candor and instead chose to identify them all by pseudonyms.
The brides range in age from twenty-four to forty-five, the majority of them in their early thirties. Most are middle class and college-educated. They come from diverse religious backgrounds and are pursuing wildly different careers or interests, from law to the arts to full-time motherhood. Most are experiencing marriage for the first time.
What they all have in common is that they broke a taboo. They were willing to tell you what no one usually tells the bride. They believed, as I do, that it only harms women to make the engagement into a fairy tale, and to shroud the first year of marriage in silence. We hope this makes What No One Tells the Bride a very human book. And a guide for all of those trying to forge new kinds of marriages—happy ones, for both women and men.
NO ONE HAD THE HEART TO TELL THE BRIDE
Six weeks before my wedding, a seamstress put a Herculean effort into buttoning the back of my silk shantung, Diamond Collection gown. Maria was a sweet Russian lady, brawny armed from carrying four or five heavy, beaded gowns at a time. She would sooner have stuck sewing pins in her tongue than make me cry. But I was already on the verge of tears when Maria let the unbuttoned back of my dress go slack and calmly entreated her manager to come to my dressing room.
The two of them took my measurements, as they had seven months before when I ordered the $1,800 gown, and the truth was inescapable. I had gained a considerable amount of weight. My wedding dress did not fit.
On the drive home, I was hysterical and inconsolable. It didn't matter that Maria was ordering another panel of fabric and would alter the dress in time for the wedding. It didn't matter that my mother trotted out reassurances she hadn't used on me since puberty. Nor that I was marrying a wonderful man, who upon hearing about the disastrous fitting, took me into his arms and told me again and again, "You're beautiful, you're gorgeous."
I was fixated on something a friend had told me earlier about a bride whose wedding dress had to be altered dramatically. "No one had the heart to tell her," my friend said, "but the dress never looked the same."
No one had the heart to tell the bride. No one had the heart to tell the bride. The phrase resounded in my head. I couldn't imagine anything as mortifying as being the bride from whom such an enormous secret was kept, even if it were for good reason. And so it was that in the five weeks that followed, I lost so much weight that Maria had to remove the panel of silk shantung she had added, and a few more inches besides.
Of course I know this was irrational. At thirty-one, I should have been more "grounded." After all, the reason I had gained so much weight during my engagement was that I had mononucleosis. While I was sick, I had been cautioned not to exercise, and Wendy's chocolate frosties were the only thing that soothed my sore throat.
But I couldn't shake my pride. I wanted the wedding I had always dreamed about, and in the end, I had it. But little did I know that aside from what people really think of your dress, there is a great deal that no one tells the bride. For example, of all the things I would look at walking down the aisle—the stained-glass windows, my fidgety flower girl, my college drinking buddy sitting next to my former Sunday school teacher, or the blue hydrangea I spent a fortune to get in February—no one told me the finest sight would be the sweet, broad smile on my groom's face. But that was the one secret I was glad to unveil by myself, taking a step, pause, step, pause, toward a new life.
I could have used some help, however, with the other secrets that bewilder brides during the engagement and the first years of marriage. I didn't know that brides often experience growing pains and feel wildly disoriented in this, the happiest time of their lives. I didn't know that the adjustments to married life could be so hard. I didn't know that, consciously and unconsciously, my husband and I would bring certain expectations to our marriage, or that there were so many different kinds of marriages—all of them different from the one we would fashion for ourselves. I didn't know that we would grow so much closer in the process, or that I could be as happy and fulfilled in marriage as I am now.
I don't think this is a conspiracy. This isn't like childbirth, in which I'm told that if anyone revealed the gory details to you beforehand, you might never go through with it. It's just that very little research has been devoted to the modern-day adjustments of newlyweds. We presume that the honeymoon lasts a while, and that few problems arise before the seven-year itch. But divorce statistics demonstrate that marriages are more vulnerable in the first five years than at any other time. One British study found that couples who went on to divorce were already in serious trouble by the time they reached their first anniversary.
Dirty Little Secrets?
In this vulnerable time, brides and grooms are encouraged to be hush-hush about what is really going on in their new marriages, and about the difficulties of their passage from singleness to marriage. They are immediately isolated. In biblical times, a groom was given a year off from work just to tend to his marriage. Maria and Captain von Trapp enjoyed a whole summer's worth of honeymoon before returning to their musical brood—and the realities of war.
Even with just a week or two to honeymoon, couples today learn that marriage, and particularly the first year, is a private matter. Parents and in-laws give the couple space, not wanting to be nosy or interfering. Friends don't call because they seem to think you are constantly having sex and don't want to interrupt. And for a year or more, people call you "newlyweds," an endearing term but one that creates a kind of aura, a signal that you and your husband are experiencing a bliss that sets you apart from regular life.
So what happens if things are not entirely blissful? What happens if the arguments over the wedding have made you actually dread your nuptials? What happens when you and your groom have trouble finding something interesting to talk about at dinner? What happens when you resent how you suddenly have to justify all your expenses to your fiancé or husband? What happens when you find yourself in the same kind of marriage your mother had, the kind you said you'd never be in?
Several of these things happened to me two and a half years ago when I married Darwin "Duke" Clark. I met Duke in Newport, Rhode Island, where I had a summer house with my girlfriends from Boston and he was in school as a U.S. naval officer.
A year and a half after we met, he faked a cramp in his leg on a ski slope in Taos, New Mexico, fell to his knees, and asked me if I would do him the ultimate honor and marry him. Fearing we were injured, the first people to congratulate us were the ski patrol.
Our relationship did not go downhill from there. It was, instead, a mixture of extreme highs and lows. From talking to other brides, I understand our engagement and first year of marriage were typical. We were in a predicament of bliss—a snare of both unprecedented pleasures and unprecedented confusion. The newlyweds I interviewed for this book told me that the first year of marriage, and the months before the wedding, were wonderful and awful at the same time.
I was lucky they opened up to me, because brides and grooms tend to keep these feelings to themselves. Couples fear that having difficulties in the engagement or early in the marriage means they have chosen the wrong people to marry or that they shouldn't be married at all. Just by articulating these fears, by allowing doubts to come into their heads, they feel they are breaking a faith or calling their vows into question.
Especially after they are married, brides don't feel comfortable turning to friends or family members. Isabelle, a twenty-eight-year-old bride from San Francisco, told me about a newly married friend of hers who broke tradition and told her single friends about the distress she was experiencing. After all, she'd left a great job to join her husband in a small town in New Hampshire where he was in business school. She had taken a considerably less challenging job at the college's admissions office and wasn't thrilled about having to traipse around in a foot of snow. But upon hearing this, the woman's friends began speculating that something was wrong with her marriage. That was when Isabelle came to the rescue, calming these single friends, offering the perspective of someone familiar with the difficult adjustments of newlywed life.
Obviously, there are some good reasons for brides not to talk to other people about their adjustments to marriage and about the panic they experience from time to time. For one thing, they don't want their friends to think badly of their new husbands, or of their marriages, having heard only one side of the story.
The Fairy Tale
However, there is usually a more compelling reason why brides don't talk about the less appealing aspects of their new marriages. Virtually all the brides I interviewed for this book were, to some degree, caught up in the fairy tale that is imposed on newlyweds. They didn't want anyone to think their relationships were less than perfect. They enjoyed the romance of the newlywed ideal at the same time as they loathed how isolated it made them feel.
After all, despite the prevalence of divorce, our society adores the idea of marriage. All kinds of traditions and folklore are heaped upon marriage, and Hollywood and Madison Avenue, in particular, make us feel that every wedding must be elaborate and every marriage flawless. Few of us are immune to fantastic expectations, even though brides today are older and more mature—the U.S. Census Bureau reporting that the average age of Americans marrying for the first time is higher than for any generation since the data was first recorded in 1890.
One bride told me that romantic movies make her uncomfortable because even though she is happily married, her relationship doesn't measure up to those in Sleepless in Seattle or Bridges of Madison County. Another woman said that registering was seductive, because picking out all new things—Waterford and Calphalon, bone china and damask linens—made her feel as though her life had to be impeccable. I remember the week after I got married, Oprah devoted her show to Martha Stewart's advice on weddings. I was transfixed by it, and somewhat disappointed, because despite having written a song for my groom that was sung at the wedding and having created many of the floral arrangements myself, there were still some details of the wedding that I could've paid more attention to (in the free time I had between Slimfast, working out, and recovering from mono).
I pray you are immune from this kind of perfectionism, but even if you haven't spent your engagement in a kind of wedding fog, tulle seemingly permanently attached to your eyeballs, think about the pressure you have been under. How many times during the course of your engagement did someone say to you, "What have you got to worry about? You're getting married!" Excitement over the wedding and the marriage takes precedence over everything else. And after a while, all those gentle admonitions that you're a bride and that you shouldn't have a care in the world build up in your psyche.
Turbulence on Cloud Nine
So when brides experience turbulence on what is supposed to be cloud nine, they feel they have no one to turn to. And of all the things no one tells the bride, this is the most dangerous, because when I finally opened up to my husband, and to other brides, I learned that everything I was thinking and feeling was very normal. Duke and I were having arguments and power struggles almost identical to those our newly married friends were having, and all of us were afraid to talk about them.
If the experiences of women I interviewed are typical, assuming the posture of marriage is no small task. When you've spent a substantial amount of time defending your lifestyle, as single people invariably have to do, it's weird to find yourself on the opposite side of the argument, enumerating all the good things about marriage you once maintained were not essential to your happiness. When you've relied on and enjoyed very close, female friendships during single life, it's disconcerting to feel closed off from your friends and disheartening not to enjoy the same kind of intimacy with your spouse. When you've thought of yourself as a pioneer, as a solitary conqueror of urban life—putting up Christmas trees, negotiating with auto mechanics, and fixing toilets all by yourself—it can be devastating to hear yourself adopt phrases like "My husband wouldn't like that," or "I need to talk to my husband about it first."
You Are Normal!
These feelings are very natural and normal reactions to marriage. It doesn't mean you are going to have a bad marriage or that you are the last person on earth who should've accepted that diamond ring.
It's normal to have trouble adjusting to being someone's "wife." It's normal to chafe a bit the first few months you use a new last name or hyphenated name, and for it to take a year or two to adopt a vocabulary of "we" and "us" rather than "I" and "me." It's normal to resent your husband if he didn't come from a "rinse family" and plunks dirty dishes in the sink without a single thought of how food instantaneously hardens on them. And it's normal for the two of you to feel out of sync with your single friends and yet reluctant to embrace a "married couple" social life.
As a bride, I wish someone had told me that the doubts and fears I was experiencing were confusing and disorienting but not serious enough to doom my marriage, unless I let them get wildly out of control or out of proportion. I also needed practical advice and strategies to keep Duke and me from getting into what my friends and I call "the wheel," in which couples are entrapped in certain arguments and positions that repeat themselves over and over again. There was nothing more frightening to me than the idea that our entire marriage hinged on the habits Duke and I formed in our first years of living together and being married. So when I interviewed brides, I asked for "creative" solutions, the tricks they found to avoid the wheel, to avoid destructive and boringly monotonous behaviors.
Obviously, some marital problems require more than kind reassurances and helpful hints. If you find yourself married to someone who hurts you physically, who seriously manipulates you, or who is addicted to drugs, alcohol, or to a lifestyle that endangers your life and well-being, you need professional help, and you need it right away. You will note that even with less severe problems, some couples in the book benefited from going to see marriage counselors early on, when they felt their enthusiasm for the partnership had been squashed or when they were truly unhappy, not just disoriented in this momentous period of their lives.
Women and Marriage
Why is this book targeted toward brides? Aren't grooms just as clueless about the travails of new marriages? Absolutely. And yet the brides I interviewed were far more rattled by marriage than their new husbands seemed to be. I believe this is because women don't have a lot of confidence they will be happy in marriage, despite the fact that our society worships marriage and deems it the best life course for everyone. Medical research has documented that married men are happier and healthier than bachelors, but the same is not true of married women. And as many movies and books herald the wedding, Jane Austen's among them, few go on to herald the life of a wife.
I think "the movies" are just as afraid as women are to take the plunge. After all, we know what being a wife meant to many of our mothers, who were either unhappy or expected much less from life than we do. That is part of the reason I've chosen to address "brides" rather than "new wives" in this book. Few of us are comfortable with the word wife, probably because we still associate it with the past and with traditional gender roles of the past.
We are confused about how much happiness we can expect to eke out of what we know are going to be complicated, inundated lives. Divorce statistics and rates of depression among married women don't give us much reason to be optimistic, but we rarely consider that some marriages are succeeding as marriages have never succeeded before. In other words, some marriages are challenging convention, shaking up gender roles, and asking the Institution of Marriage to be far more meaningful and fulfilling than it was for men or women of any previous generation.
Keep that goal—a marriage that succeeds like none before it—in mind as you read this book and absorb its three central messages:
1. BELIEVE YOU CAN BE HAPPY IN MARRIAGE.
I'll never forget reading Laurie Colwin's book Happy All the Time shortly after I got engaged. I loved the book because the women in it—and in her other novels, which I soon devoured—were capable of a palpable joy in marriage and family life. And all of them were complicated, entertaining a myriad of emotions and ambitions at all times.
In this passage from Happy All the Time, a character named Misty muses about the night she and her fiancé, Vincent, announced their engagement to his friends Guido and Holly:
"Misty and I have decided to get married," he said. This engendered another spate of handshakes and kisses all around.
They drank a great deal of wine at dinner. Misty felt the candlelight reflecting in her eyes as she looked around the table. Everyone at the table looked beautiful and kind to her. Holly behaved as if she had simply incorporated Misty, but Guido seemed quite moved. There were going to be thousands of dinners like this, thought Misty. This is my place at the dinner table. This is my intended husband's best friend whom I am going to spend the rest of my life getting to know. Across the table, Vincent looked seraphically happy. Everything had a sheen on it. Was that what love did, or was it merely the wine? She decided that it was love.
It was just as she suspected: love turned you into perfect mush.
Until I read Laurie Colwin's books, I didn't realize how much I needed a vision that marriage could be extraordinarily good and happy, and that I could be extraordinarily good at it and happy in it. In her books, women fantasize about their bosses, leave their husbands for the solitude of monasteries upon learning they are pregnant, and wince at things they hear tedious women say at parties. But they always arrive at some kind of peace, a domesticity they can live with, that they hammer out and chip off of life.
Believing you can is the first step, a big step, toward arriving at some kind of peace, or a domesticity you can live with. As experts will attest and as you will see in the examples to come, married people need not stand behind life-size cardboard cutouts of husbands and wives, poking their heads into photographs of someone else's ideal. Happily married couples are too busy for this—busy pursuing partnerships that work for them.
2. CHALLENGE CONVENTIONAL THINKING.
With that said, it's true that the women I interviewed crave individuality almost as much as happiness. Brides today want to challenge conventional thinking, as they did by staying single longer, and as they continue to do by pounding on the glass ceiling, by telecommuting, and by combining motherhood and careers.
As newly married women, we seem to fear becoming clichés more than we fear divorce. (Of course, divorce is a cliché.) We like the feistiness and independence single life forged in us. As much as we want to share our lives with someone, we fear the undertow that marriage is famous for, the undertow that 83 percent of women polled in New Woman magazine in 1994 alluded to, believing that "wives submerge a vital part of themselves when they marry."
This is a very real fear. Even though she had dated her husband-to-be for six years, Elizabeth, a twenty-nine-year-old health care administrator from Boston, says the morning after she got engaged, she did not want to get out of bed. "I didn't want to face anyone," Elizabeth remembers. "I was so afraid I wasn't 'me' anymore."
Similarly, my friend Karla, a thirty-year-old director of a nonprofit organization in Baltimore, kept her maiden name when she got married two years ago because, she said, "I got married, I didn't get subsumed."
Karla's pithy remark says it all. Brides today are recognizing the dangers of going quietly into their marriages, of letting the Institution of Marriage confine or hem us in. We're looking for something in marriage that is more like Lycra, something that stretches as well as it adheres.
In her book Marriage Shock: The Transformation of Women into Wives, Dalma Heyn says there is much about the Institution of Marriage to fear. Heyn argues that institutions in general—churches, academia, and the military—have not been very good to women. And yet, on a day-to-day basis, marriage does not feel like an institution to me, or to most of the women I know. More so it feels like two people slugging out a life and a love we want to last.
Nevertheless, Heyn makes a powerful argument that what has
- On Sale
- Aug 13, 2013
- Page Count
- 320 pages
- Hachette Books