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For advice columnist Heather Havrilesky, wedding planning was easy compared to the actual marriage. She learned that when it comes to sharing a life, a home, and a family, there's no such thing as perfect.
Wedding planning can be all encompassing, and at some point between picking out a dress and choosing a caterer, you may lose sight of the fact that this is just the opening ceremony of a much more rigorous lifelong event: marriage. And that actually requires an entirely different set of skills than hosting a wedding does. Instead of focusing on every little detail in order to get it right, you have to do the exact opposite. You have to let go.
This concept was lost on me as a newlywed. My approach to marriage was identical to my approach to planning the wedding: maintain focus and total control, get everyone up to speed, and strive for excellence in all things. Even though I'd worked hard to be cheerful and accommodating when my fiancé and stepson moved in months before the wedding — I wanted my stepson to like me, and I didn't want my fiancé to be stressed out — something changed once we said "I do." We were officially a family now, so the stakes were much higher. It felt like everything we did would set the tone for the rest of our lives together. If the windows were smudgy, if the rug was covered in dog hair, if anyone argued or grew silent and sullen, then that's how it would be forever. Although I'd never been afraid of commitment before, I think this was how my commitment phobia manifested (after the wedding, ironically): in my certainty that every failure, every flaw, every grumble, every strained silence meant that we'd be chained together, failing and falling short and grumbling and sulking, until the end of time.
I was maybe just a tiny bit oversensitive in those early months of marriage. I was also, not coincidentally, more than a tiny bit pregnant. I'd gone off the pill the minute we got engaged, figuring it would take a while for a 35-year-old to get pregnant. Wrong. So now I was newly married and hormonal, and every single challenge felt like a matter of life or death. I had a yard that needed planting, walls that needed painting, and a full-time job. My husband had to be schooled on how to clean up and buy groceries to my specifications. My stepson had to be schooled on how to put his clean clothes into his drawers and put down the toilet seat. Everything had to be perfect or it would be imperfect for the rest of our lives.
I wouldn't have admitted this at the time, but I definitely saw myself as the CEO, in charge of the smooth functioning of the household. It was up to me to give everyone the on-the-job training required to perform his duties in a timely fashion. Sadly, this meant that I hovered and nagged around the clock because, it turned out, my husband was far less detail oriented than I was. "This milk wasn't on my list. It isn't even organic," I told him one day upon his return from the grocery store, disbelief in my voice. "I read somewhere that most so-called organic milk isn't even organic, not really," he replied.
"Yes, but the brand I specified is one of the truly organic dairy companies!" I snapped. How could he imagine that I hadn't done my research? Did he even know me at all? "Why does this matter so much to you?" he asked.
That was a good question. But to a pregnant woman, them's fightin' words. Of course the milk mattered. The milk mattered because everything mattered. Every oversight or mistake meant one thing: I would be surrounded by filth and hapless, unruly animals forever. And once the baby came, we'd be sleep deprived and everything would be a million times worse. My stepson would decide to live with his mother, and we'd never see him again, and our marriage would fall apart.
My attempts to micromanage us away from our dystopian future only made things worse. My husband — who'd always seemed so relaxed and capable before the wedding — started to forget everything I told him seconds after I said it. He was probably in shock over how he'd landed such a critical, temperamental wife. The dishes piled up in the sink, the laundry accumulated in dirty heaps, and the toilet seat was left up so often that this CEO had to ask herself, Is this merely an employee oversight or an act of direct defiance? "Haven't we talked about this a million times?!" I yelled at my stepson and husband one day. My husband rolled his eyes at me. My stepson sulked off to his room. They'll be looking for new career opportunities soon, I thought ruefully, maybe at a company without a growling, red-faced boss lady in charge.
I wish I could say this thought spurred my immediate reform. But I wouldn't resign as boss of the household until our second Christmas together, when my stepson gave me a piece of wood as a present. It had a blue felt hat glued on top of it and a very angry face drawn onto it with black ballpoint pen. "It's a grumpy elf," he explained. I knew it was me. I was the grumpy elf. So I gave myself a demotion and joined the team. I needed to step back and watch things unfold from the sidelines for a change. I needed to live in the moment and enjoy my messy life. This took some work; I had to force myself to allow things to remain broken, flawed, and out of place. Occasionally I had to ignore the laundry or pour the wrong milk into my cereal (and realize it tasted just as good) or shrug off the toilet seat. I had to breathe deeply and love the imperfect world around me. I realized that this was the only way I'd be happy.
There's nothing wrong with aiming for the perfect wedding. It won't actually be perfect, but you might just pull off an unforgettable event. Aiming for the perfect marriage, however, is a terrible idea. All people are flawed, so all marriages are flawed too. Always.
Now, maybe you're thinking, I'm not crazy like you! I accept the way he tosses his dirty clothes in the corner and uses every single pot when he makes dinner and doesn't clean up as he goes. Maybe you're laid-back and mellow — until he leaves the sink full of dishes for the third time this week. And then you'll want to start an HR file and possibly commence disciplinary action, no matter how delicious his boeuf bourguignon is. If you find yourself slipping into the role of family CEO — which is forgivable in a strong, capable woman who has high standards for her life — just remember that the best bosses let their employees figure things out for themselves. They nudge gently. And sometimes they sit back and pour a martini and say to themselves, This is all going to turn out fine.
These days, I'm just another member of the family, trying to maximize fun, savor every moment, and minimize grumpy outbursts. I'm not always patient, and I'm never perfect, but I'm openhearted enough to recognize when everyone is doing their best. And that's the thing to remember: As long as you and your husband are being generous with each other and each of you is doing your best most days, then your marriage is as close to perfect as it gets.
Heather Havrilesky writes New York magazine's Ask Polly advice column and is the author of How to Be a Person in the World.
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