A friend, whose husband has a diagnosis of multiple sclerosis, jokingly captured the challenges of marriage on the day she looked at me and sighed, “They really get you with that ‘till death do you part stuff, don’t they?” She was making light of the serious, of course, but her words struck a meaningful chord. I began to wonder, what was my definition of marriage and how had it changed since I first took those vows?
When TC and I got married nearly five years ago, I didn’t think too deeply about those precious words. After all, we were 26-years-old, healthy, employed, and about to embark on a promising future together. I knew to expect challenges along the way, but I also trusted we would make smart decisions and problem solve our way through any obstacles. It never occurred to me that life might so harshly intervene.
Marriage is full of uncertainty, yet many of us are all too willing to overlook this reality. We allow ourselves to be seduced by its promised loveliness: the endless stream of bridal television, the soft, dreamy glow of the glossy magazine pages, the Pinterest images, and tender romantic comedies. I’m perhaps one of the guiltiest marriage/wedding-worshippers I know. I was seduced by it all and rarely stopped to examine what aspect of marriage most sincerely compelled me.
I also got lucky. I married a truly compatible partner, one that had stuck the course with me for years before we actually took our vows. I chose someone I thought would make an excellent father and someone who challenged me to be better, stronger, and more confident than I was alone. And upon actually becoming husband and wife, it did not surprise me to find that our marriage very much resembled the one around which I had constructed my early fantasies.
Then, like a fast and furious wrecking ball, came traumatic brain injury. I refused to acknowledge it in those earliest days of TC’s injury, but I no longer felt like my husband’s wife. Overnight, I had become his mother. Any remaining mystery in our relationship was quickly suctioned out as I began the laborious task of dissecting our bank accounts, scouring old e-mails, communicating with his friends, and taking care of his many physical needs. He was now fully transparent to me and I no longer felt like his partner. I felt like his keeper.
Outwardly, I tried to remain cheery and respectful, treating the situation as if he were simply my husband on hiatus. But behind closed doors, it was a different scene. I was painfully lonely, missing the person I used to ask for constant advice. I was overcome with fear, working through the idea that the situation might be permanent and that I might never again experience the joy of being someone’s wife. I wondered how long I could carry on in this new role with a partner who could no longer interact with me, and I often felt as if I were living a “fake” marriage. With only uncertainty ahead of me, I did the only thing that felt right. I decided to wait.
I waited for months, hungrily anticipating the moments TC would put his arm around me or even simply ask how I was doing. Although I had plenty of friends and family who were willing to play the role of pseudo husband, there was no substitute for TC. He was my best friend and — for as long as hope could sustain me — I would wait for him to come back.
Months later, I got lucky again. TC started to return. In small, subtle ways, he began to show he was ready to reciprocate our relationship. He would offer to mail a letter for me on his walk with the dog or bring me a cup of tea as I stayed up late writing. He began to ask me about my day again, pushing his language as far as it could go so as to more deeply engage in conversation with me. However, moments of frustration abounded. The more TC seemed to resemble his old self, the greater my expectations grew. On a bad day, one in which he was exhausted or pushed to the max, I found myself incapable of understanding his limitations or need for quiet rest. I had experienced a taste of my former life and I wanted it all back.
Like all marriages, ours has gone through dramatic transformations. No longer do I harbor secret, guilty thoughts of feeling like TC’s mother or keeper. After a lot of hard work and patience, we have finally resurrected some of the joy, fun, and playfulness that characterized our marriage before. But I know the tough moments are never far away. There will always be times in which I don’t feel quite like the wife I used to be.
I’ve thought a lot about marriage in the nineteen months since TC’s brain injury and what I’ve come to realize is how truly limited I was in my previous views of marriage. Not all marriages look the same way. Not all partners reciprocate their love in the way it’s sold to us in the movies. Happy marriages always require patience and sometimes may even require space. Above all, I’ve learned that marriage is so much deeper and so much richer than I could have conceptualized it before. It reaches to the core of you and changes you from the inside, even when you’re confident there’s nothing left to change. Marriage is terrifying because it’s also the unknown, but when you take those lovely vows, you’re doing more than just promising to power through it. You’re promising to try out new mindsets, to adjust your expectations when needed, and to seek out happiness in revolutionary ways.
At 26, I may have been naïve in understanding the complexities of marriages, but given the chance, I’d do it all again. And if I could unload some wisdom onto my younger self, I would smile and say only this: the wedding was lovely, but the ride is fantastic.