We’re ALL struggling: How I realized “the picture perfect relationship” is a lie

Guest post by Sarah Clifton

Everybody preaches that the first years of marriage are the best of your lives. But, what if it's not? It sure as hell wasn't all sunshine and rainbows for us.

It was a beautiful summer day in Southern California, and our wedding was beautiful. My new husband and I floated on the cloud of the joyous event for about two weeks. Then, life took over…

I was in a deep depression after losing my job a few months before the wedding, and he started doing and saying things he's never done before… hurtful things. For months, I had no idea what was happening, but then during one fight, I said it: “divorce.”

We were married three months and already talking about divorce, seriously?!

There were times when I just wanted to give up and walk away, broken. I felt like I was failing this imaginary test.

I couldn't help but feel relieved that I wasn't the only one; it wasn't just me being horrible at married life.

We got married on our fifth anniversary, and had plenty of family drama surrounding the wedding. We've had our share of our ups and downs over the years, and always made it through. But somehow this was different, and we couldn't get past it. Divorce was mentioned three times in that first year, and each time, it held a little more weight than the last.

After finally opening up to a friend who also recently got married, I found out they had similar problems as soon as they got married. He pulled away, she got more and more upset, and the wedge between them grew wider. I couldn't help but feel relieved that I wasn't the only one; it wasn't just me being horrible at married life.

I read hundreds of blogs, articles, basically anything having to do with marriage or married life, yet I was still feeling lost. I felt like we were both unsure of what to do, so instead, we turned against each other.

What happened, what changed?

It seems as though there's a weird phenomenon that happens to some of us after marriage. We act out, and hurt the one we love most because we don't know what else to do. It happened to me, my friend, and I know it's happening to many other people out there. That's why I wanted to write this. I wanted to let you know, if you are going through a rough patch after your wedding, you're not alone.

You aren't just “bad at marriage,” it's an adjustment period, for both of you

Take the time to dig deeper and try to figure out the WHY behind your problems.

DO NOT hash it out while you're angry, crying, or pissed beyond reason. Trust me, that just makes it worse and nothing ever gets solved.

Sometimes, you just have to let arguments go and hope for the best. Through tears (lots and lots of tears), heartache, and some real soul searching, we made it through, barely.

Just hold on

The pressure of this “idyllic marriage,” that's what happened. Trying to live up to the picture perfect, “this is how you do it” marriage nearly killed us.

There were many nights when we couldn't even look at each other and I'd sleep on the couch. But after time went by, we were able to calmly try to figure things out, and really get into what was going on.

The pressure of this “idyllic marriage,” that's what happened. Trying to live up to the picture perfect, “this is how you do it” marriage nearly killed us. We are far from perfect, but we're getting better and figuring out how we want to do this marriage thing as we go.

Do whatever you both need to do to get through it. Look at your partner and remember why you chose to marry them, why you're with them. Marriage is not a one way highway, and there is definitely no right or wrong way to do it. So, do what is right for you, nothing else matters.

I can tell you this though, marriage has one hell of a curve ball.

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Comments on We’re ALL struggling: How I realized “the picture perfect relationship” is a lie

  1. Thank you for posting this. I’m coming up on my 5th anniversary and have to say that many times in those five years I wished people talked about the difficult side of marriage, not just the romance. On balance, my husband and my marriage are value added to my life and I’m glad to have them. I just wish it was socially acceptable to talk about the moments where I didn’t feel that way. My mom has even advised me not to, she says that people will think less of my marriage if I share the hard parts. I think she’s wrong. I think the fact that I make an active choice every day to stay with my husband is what makes our marriage grand. It isn’t all great sex and dancing around the living room (though we have that too). It is moments of pain and sadness. It is life with one other person, and life is messy.

    • Thanks for being honest as well! I’m still unsure about sharing my own article, because society is so “taboo” about airing out marriage problems. I know everybody who’s married knows, it’s hard work and it’s not always great. I just wish it was talked about more so it doesn’t hit us so hard when you DO start having those rough patches. Thanks for reading!

  2. This is probably a very naïve question but I’m not married so I can’t relate without asking:

    What’s different about arguments once you’re married? Is it that all of a sudden you’re aware you’re very tightly (i.e. legally) paired? Is it that there’s nothing to plan anymore so there’s no distraction from the little things?

    I’d love it if someone could help me on this. I can’t see what changes so drastically between the morning of the day you get married in all that blissful daze to arguments and divorce threats. It’s a change in legal status and a signed bit of paper at it’s core. Why is it so difficult/hard/different?

    • The paper isn’t what changed our relationship. It really is this indivisible pressure of , “you’re newlyweds, you must now act like this, or that, or immediately start a family.” type feeling that just comes without any notice. Each of us as an individual didn’t change, but getting married just shifted something. It’s really hard to explain, but those who’ve recently gotten married can agree, there is something about being “officially tethered together” that sends some over the edge. Doesn’t really matter how long you’re together before hand, things do feel a little different.

      • I think it is the “it’s not the socks on the floor that is a problem, it is the socks on the floor FOR THE REST OF MY LIFE.” As someone who got married older, and is very independent, the commitment of marriage is both one I made willingly and one that at times feels stifling. It can be both.

        The idea of “happily ever after” is a myth. And it would be great if we would talk about that more.

      • I wanted to add that sometimes people go into a marriage expecting things will change and then they don’t. they think “oh, he’ll be more romantic when we’re married” or think it will fix all of the issues in the relationship. when that doesn’t happen they realize they aren’t happy and get divorced.

        Not saying everyone does this, its just something I’ve seen with a few couples I know.

      • This is interesting because my husband and I both remarked on how LITTLE we felt changed. We were already living together, and we didn’t have any intention of having kids ever, so that may have been part of it- no pressure to start the next phase, because basically, the next phase looked the same, but with rings 😛 For us the tough part came years later- both of us have changed a lot, and not always in the same direction.

  3. I wish more people would talk about the hard times, and why you stick with it when you’re ready to say fuck this shit and walk, how to keep loving and figuring out how to make it work. I’ve never been married, and I’d love to read about that, not just the extremes of “happily ever after” and “I’m miserable and leaving you.”

  4. I cannot agree enough with this. my husband and I were together for 11 years prior to tying the knot. We never lived together one-on-one (we had roommates). we got our own place after getting married and then the fights started. Like a previous poster said, it was the socks on the floor FOR THE REST OF YOUR LIFE. That feeling of “this is it- we have to stick through this” is wonderful but equally terrifying when you’re faced with adversity. We went to marriage counseling (HIGHLY recommend) and realized we had to look at life as a team. My husband and I were so busy analyzing the other person that we forgot that we’re on the same side. Getting that balance and understanding the part of marriage of “you and me become we” while maintaining your individual identity is something that is rarely talked about and should be. I am so happy that we stuck through it because marriage is not a fairy-tale, it’s also hard work, but amazing all wrapped in a complicated ball of a marriage

  5. The husband and I were only together for a year before marriage. 5.5 years, a big move, and two babies later, I’m still trying to puzzle out what a “happy marriage” looks like. As a writer, I’m trying to write a novel about it as part of the process.

    Our first year was tough because we’ve moved halfway up the east coast a month before our wedding, and we didn’t have any friends yet. We don’t yell, neither of us. It’s not our style. We do more the cold silences and the somewhat snarky reply when we’re irritated. And knowing that we agree on so many things, the few things on which we don’t agree are always startling and scary and “this isn’t going to blow up on us in ten years, is it?” A lot of marriage has been learning not just how to communicate but when. And learning to figure out what compromise means.

    I think a lot about people saying marriage is tough. And it is tough. But having been in awful relationships and just not-right relationships before, marriage is tough in the way that learning a language or an instrument or any other skill is tough – it’s a constant learning process, and sometimes you make mistakes, and sometimes it feels like you’re going to keep screwing up forever, but you deep down you know how proud you are of what you’re doing.

    • We don’t live up to the norms of a perfect marriage, but we have a great relationship and I’m married to a great (not perfect) person. That thought comes into my brain and out my mouth fairly regularly and I think just believing that makes my relationship better. It’s a perspective thing- problems look like blips in this bigger, better thing rather than the meat of it.

      We don’t yell either, and I think that makes a big difference. We dated for 7 years and have been married for 5 – no kids yet. We also talk out problems when we’re frustrated or angry very quickly, which makes it easier. We both get really unhappy when the other person is unhappy, so resolving faster makes it better. I also am personally working on more getting upset by little things- like differences in cleanliness when it can be fixed easily. Usually when I’m mad at “small” things, I’m really stressed or worried about something bigger. Going for a run alone, getting more sleep, or setting close friends can also totally change my perspectives for the better.

  6. Thank you so much for writing this! I’ve been married almost 3 years and we hit a rough patch a few months ago, thanks to an impending move and career change. He’s already moved and I’ll be following in 6 months, when the school year ends.
    Things came to a head just a few nights before he left. We had a long conversation, with a lot of tears and feelings on both sides. I think we came to a mutual understanding that our communication skills need work and that there are many unspoken expectations on both sides. It was one of the most eye-opening and intense conversations I’ve ever had, and I’m still processing what we discussed.
    One of the biggest emotions I’ve been struggling with is shame. I’ve looked at the other (seemingly) blissfully happy couples around me and wondered, what am I doing so wrong that we got to this point? What do they have that I/we don’t? Reading this, I’ve learned that I don’t need to feel ashamed – this is a common experience, and it won’t necessarily end in disaster (divorce), as I fear so much. I hope this experience helps us figure out what we really want from each other and strengthen our communication skills, so we can grow together.

  7. This is so true! I’m lucky that we’ve come no where near the “D” word, but I am surprised at the amount of fights we’ve had (we’re right in the middle of the first year). My husband lost his job before the wedding as well, and there are days that I have a hard time not resenting him for all of his free time, the lack of financial flexibility, ect. Using lots of “I” statements, trying to understand where the other one was coming from, and asking for help has helped pull us through the rough patch. Now it feels way more like a team facing down the economic downturn, way way better. Finding your feet as a couple takes time, and I’ve also heard that the first year of marriage is the hardest, so there we go.

    Another thing that really helped me was realizing that ALL couples have rough patches, all have fights (or one person is bottling up their feelings, which is really unhealthy). There is no perfect couple. People may have perfect years, but no one is perfect.

    • This recent article from Captain Awkward regarding when one partner is unemployed, and the other isn’t might be relevant to your situation. (http://captainawkward.com/2015/12/29/813-labor-leisure/) I certainly think there were times I needed this advice, when my husband and I first got together 5 years ago it was always one of us being unemployed or underemployed back and forth for a few years. I think this is something lots of couples struggle with, and just like with touch marriage situations I wish we felt more comfortable talking about it openly.

  8. I admit my husband and I have had very few fights, and I’ve initiated all of them because frankly my brain sucks. By the time we’d gotten married, though, we’d already been through super stressful situations that could have dissolved into fighting (such as having a long distance relationship for the first three years, a situation made even more complicated by the fact that I got caught up in three hurricanes during two of those years). Strangely, this made even more people in my family think we were the ultimate married couple. I responded to this by basically posting no pictures of my husband and me together on social media. It has helped me not feel the pressure as much and allow my husband and myself to operate a bit more autonomously. (It’s also prompted me to quote Nelly Furtado whenever I see pictures of other couples on Facebook. I say, “Not everything in this magical world is quite what it seems.”) For us, there is this notion that we are a team, but after a year and a half of being married we decided to allow for team expansion. Needless to say, there will be even more restrictions on what’s shared on social media in order to make multiple romantic relationships work.

  9. If you ask someone what the problems in their marriage are and their (honest) response is “Nothing, everything is great!” then the problem is that they aren’t paying enough attention to their partner and their relationship. Sometimes the problems are too petty to argue or bitch about, but every relationship has SOMETHING that one partner wishes the other would stop doing or start doing or do better. Not always worth fighting about, not always worth changing for, not always solvable, but if you don’t even know they exist … Then chances are when your partner is asked “What’s wrong?” their answer will be something about you not paying attention to their needs, being emotionally tuned out, or more focussed on all the other things in your life than your marriage.

    Being able to identify the problems is the first step towards being able to either work on them or dismiss them. Thinking there aren’t any should be a big red flag.

  10. I’ve been married 4 1/2 years, but things feel particularly tough right now. I definitely needed to see this today.

  11. I guess the thing that sticks with me is that my parents have always modeled and displayed the imperfections of their marriage. I can remember a few very rough years for them, but they always managed to communicate with each other and work things out. They have been married for 30+ years, mostly happily. (I think it would be great to hear more stories from couples married for decades that have gone though rough patches.)

    That being said, having been married myself for just over 1 year, and going into it knowing that we’ll eventually be fighting over differences that seem impossible to reconcile, it’s DEFINITELY different when you’re in the middle of it. I suppose when you weigh the potential for YEARS of your life being miserable, you really have to do a lot of soul searching. Part of me thinks that the arguments, disappointments, and strong feelings make life a little more interesting. Who else, but your spouse, will you ever feel this way about? And you learn a little more about yourself with each fight.

    If you ask me about my marriage in 10 years, I may have changed my tune. My husband and I have agreed that divorce will never be completely out of the picture, but I’d like to think I’m capable of surviving and wholeheartedly enjoying my marriage.

  12. My partner and I got married in September 2015, and have had some ongoing rough patches, which started 9-ish months after we started dating. For us, what happened in a lot of ways was that we let our guard down on our behavior because of how comfortable we felt with each other. In addition to that, most of the time we are VERY in-tune with each other, so when one of us says/does something hurtful, it really rocks our relationship boat. Add to that the usual insecurities we all have, and we had a recipe for big fights. Even though we argued vehemently sometimes, we still wanted to get married because we felt right together. We agreed that we should attend couple’s therapy, and though we probably should have gotten to it before the wedding, things were so busy that we kept putting it off. Well, we finally started going and it is pretty much the greatest. We are learning to communicate better and to understand each other better, and how to help each other handle our insecurities. Even people who don’t have rather unpleasant arguments with their partners should see a couple’s therapist. It’s worth every penny.

  13. The taboo against talking about the problems in your marriage is problematic, but there is a reason for it. I think it’s important to be very mindful of how you talk about your marriage with others.

    Constantly complaining about the troubles you are having can a) get you focused on what’s wrong with your partner instead of appreciating what’s right, and b) have your friends and family thinking that your partner is pure evil and you should divorce them at once, when that isn’t really where you are at all.

    If you are really struggling and need to talk about it, you absolutely should not suffer alone and in silence. The right kind of support can be really helpful, even just knowing you aren’t alone. I don’t know where the balance is there, and I suspect everyone has to find it for themselves.

    But I have seen situations with my friends and family where obsessively talking about marital problems actually eroded community support for the marriage, and added to the couple’s struggles. I’ve been in situations where, having been candid about the problems in my marriage with a friend, the friend then expressed a really bitter and hateful attitude toward my partner, making me feel like the friend was more of an enemy to my relationship than supportive of me.

    Like I said, I don’t really know what the answer is here. Except to be mindful, and try to balance the negative talk with positive, when possible.

    • The trick here is to make sure you ALSO talk about all the things that are great about the relationship. It’s easy to vent. For whatever reason, we are all less prone to gushing – especially about a long term relationship where we’ve started to take those little niceties as default. I remember realizing that I had one friend who I only went to when I needed to bitch about my relationship. Is it any wonder he didn’t understand why I was with the guy? So I made a point of stopping by his work one day just to tell him about the wonderful lunch date I’d been surprised with “When I’m not sitting here bitching at you, it’s because things are good!” If you’re gonna mention how your partner always leaves his wet bath towels in the kitchen, be sure to also mention how he will always stop what he’s doing to make silly faces at you until you smile when you’re having a bad day. It both helps your friends and family have a better understanding of the actual balance of your relationship AND is a good mental exersice to keep you from getting lost in the negativity and remember why you’re still together.

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