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What No One Tells the Bride
Surviving the Wedding, Sex After the Honeymoon, Second Thoughts, Wedding Cake Freezer Burn ...
By Marg Stark
HyperionCopyright © 1998 Marg Stark
All rights reserved.
LOVE'S IDENTITY CRISIS: THE MODERN BRIDE'S INNER TURMOIL
It's normal for brides to feel wildly disoriented. It's normal for your priorities to shift. But don't try to align your star with a fixed point in the sky. Let the things you cherish be a constellation, one more prominent in the sky one night, another brighter the next.
Unless you got married on the San Andreas fault, your wedding was technically not a seismic event. No matter how it felt to you, or to your mother, when the man in your life proposed, no Geiger counter leapt in a flourish of ink. And when your sister or your best friend stood in the back of the church and pulled a blusher down over your face, it's safe bet that the ground did not actually rumble or split open.
But as a bride, you have undoubtedly experienced a kind of inner quake. While relatively little time has passed, the whole landscape of your life has changed. And though you invited this change and do not want to return to your former life, and though you have known the man you are marrying for a long time, it's likely that very little about engagement or early marriage feels truly safe or familiar to you.
As rare as it is that anyone talks about it, this is the way many brides feel. Instead, we talk about the external chaos that surrounds brides—about families who turn into the Hatfields and McCoys over the simple matter of a guest list, and bridesmaids who go on strike demanding better dresses and an open bar after dinner.
Women on the cusp of marriage rarely snatch moments between bridal showers and gown fittings to consider their inner turmoil. This chapter is about precisely that. It is about the zillions of feelings you have about crossing a threshold—from what has defined your life since you left home to what will define your life in the future. These feelings sneak up on brides who think they are already fully formed adults, who haven't felt growing pains like this since adolescence or since they were first out on their own. But, as Dalma Heyn, the author of Marriage Shock, suggests, "Becoming a wife is, after all, one of the three critical life changes for a woman. It commands as profound an adjustment psychologically and emotionally as her earlier transition into puberty did and as motherhood will."
In the following pages, my friends and I will share how we fared in this disorienting time. Not so much how we overcame disagreements between our mothers and future mothers-in-law over the wedding. Nor about how we packed up our "single girl" apartments, the rooms hollow and echoing when we left. But how we felt about ourselves amid the arguments over the wedding, and amid the hollow, echoing walls of our former apartments.
The growing pains my friends and I experienced fell into the following categories:
You Have to Adjust to Your Own Happiness
Having someone love you and want to devote the rest of his life to you is life- changing in and of itself. It is especially so for women who are accustomed to having dating relationships crash and burn, and for those of us who, deep down, didn't believe that someone would love us this way. Frequently, it takes time for the reality to sink in—that this man is here for the long haul, that this man loves you for you.
I was very happy being single. I hit my stride with it, as most of my friends did, four or five years out of college. I placed a book on my coffee table called Solitude and touted the advantages of a solitary life, especially for a writer.
But then along came Duke, who loved it when I drank beer straight out of a pitcher, who wanted to get up and go to church with me the next morning even though he hadn't spent much time in church before, and who knew that the phone company turned off my phone because I paid for a plane ticket to Portugal before I paid my utilities. He knew all my foibles, the ones I hid behind my "composed career woman" exterior, and yet he was still crazy about me.
Having someone love me this much shook me up. Until he proposed, I'm not sure I really believed him. The night we got engaged, and all the nights thereafter, I slept like a dog in the sun. Something important had been settled, although I had denied, or ignored, for many years that "that something" was important to me.
Happiness is a tricky thing. Sometimes friends don't want to hear about it. Happiness feels frivolous, as opposed to angst, which is more substantial and inspires artists and heartfelt talks. Happiness also makes you paranoid. Many brides I know became fatalistic before their weddings, sure that an illness or a car or plane crash would prevent them from walking down the aisle.
I read this excerpt from Laurie Colwin's short story "The Lone Pilgrim" to the assembled at our rehearsal dinner the night before our wedding. Some of the guests were undoubtedly bewildered by it, but I know you will appreciate how alienated the narrator feels from her own fairy tale:
You long for someone to love. You find him. You pine for him. Suddenly, you discover that you are loved in return. You marry. Before you do, you count up the days you spent in other people's children to bed. You have basked in a sense of domesticity you have not created but enjoy. The Lone Pilgrim sits at the dinner parties of others, partakes, savors, and goes home in a taxi alone.
Those days were spent in quest—the quest to settle your own life, and now the search has ended. Your imagined happiness is yours. Therefore, you lose your old bearings. On the one side is your happiness, and on the other is your past—the self you were used to, going through life alone, heir to your own experience. Once you commit yourself, everything changes and the rest of your life seems to you like a dark forest on the property you have recently acquired. It is yours, but still you are afraid to enter it, wondering what you might find: a little chapel, a stand of birches, wolves, snakes, the worst you can imagine, or the best. You take one timid step forward, but then you realize that you are not alone. You take someone's hand—[your fiancé's]—and strain through the darkness to see ahead.
That which you and your fiancé will strain through the darkness to see ahead is change, a virtual tsunami of change, which brings me to the second growing pain brides experience.
You Will Be Bombarded with Change
If you have dated or lived with your husband-to-be for a while, marriage may feel like a natural and logical step for you. But for most of the women I interviewed, marriage was not just a technicality. It often prompted a makeover of their lives.
Natasha, a twenty-six-year-old bride from Portland, Oregon, met her future husband, Israel, at a New Year's Eve dance at church and married him five-and-a- half months later. Natasha is white and Israel is African-American but these differences didn't intimidate them, having been raised to love all people and having the support of a broad-minded church community. And yet they couldn't have been prepared for the scrutiny they'd endure as a biracial couple with the onset of the O. J. Simpson media frenzy.
At her job as a corporate receptionist, Natasha was appalled to have colleagues ask her "Does your husband beat you?", or say things like "I don't do dark meat, not even on Thanksgiving." Then, one time when they were driving on the highway, they were followed into a rest stop and chastised by a group of teenagers who appeared to be "skinheads." Fortunately, Natasha and Israel have been happily married for four years now, and their relationship has been bolstered by the difficulties they have had to overcome. Nevertheless, the culture shock they experienced with marriage was immense.
Another bride I know experienced a vastly different form of culture shock, moving from Pennsylvania to China to join her fiancé, an American starting a business in Shanghai. Thirty-year-old Eliza learned Mandarin, found a job with an American company, lived with her betrothed for the first time, ate all sorts of things she didn't recognize, grew to love China and the people she met, supported her fiancé through the start-up of his business, and planned two weddings, one in China and the other in the States, all in one year. "Who needs a honeymoon?!" she laughs. "The whole engagement has been an adventure!"
I need a honeymoon just thinking about what she went through. And yet, on top of the monumental changes marriage often brings, couples dollop other changes, too. Right before or right after their weddings, many couples leave their jobs, move to new cities, buy houses or cars, get pets or have babies, launch businesses or change religions. I did this, too, leaving my home in Boston to settle on the blond coast, where Duke was stationed in San Diego.
Nearly every bride I interviewed made one or several of these major life changes in the midst of what was already a fundamental life change. In many cases, it seemed that people who stayed single longer felt compelled to "catch up" with peers who had been married for a while. And this is strange, because just months before, many of these brides and grooms were well-adjusted single people. They led busy, vibrant lives. It didn't appear as if their lives had been "on hold" for marriage at all.
Nevertheless, the decision to marry sends many brides and grooms charging out of the gate toward other life goals. During these vulnerable first years of marriage, we introduce even more stress into our lives. After all, planning a wedding is one of the top ten causes of stress, but so is moving to a new home. Having a baby makes the top ten, too.
My friend Morgan, a thirty-three-year-old artist from Portland, Maine, and her husband, Joe, were so worried she'd have trouble conceiving that they started trying to have a baby right away. They had not had a long courtship to begin with, but their desire to start a family was intense. (See Chapter 9 for more about timing any additions to your family.)
Morgan got pregnant two months after they were married, at a time when she and Joe were having agonizing arguments. Morgan was trying to cope with her disappointment that the marriage wasn't as intimate as she thought it should be. She couldn't believe that, such a short time ago, she had been a self-reliant, level-headed single woman. Newly married, pregnant, and unhappy, Morgan was as scared and as vulnerable as she has ever been.
For Morgan and Joe, the prospect of becoming parents forced them to slow down and start building a better foundation. She says, "It was incredible to find that we had a total commitment to finding a solution. The baby's coming really solidified things; there was no bailing out."
They made a difficult first call to a couples' counselor whom they would come to like and respect. Morgan read a lot of books and they had a lot of talks so that now, she says, "the marriage works much better for us. I've learned a lot and Joe met me halfway." Now their arguments are not nearly as bad because, Morgan realizes that, when they are over, "love comes back over and over again."
The marriage still isn't as intimate as Morgan would like, although having a child has brought them closer together. But she realizes that the closeness she desires comes with sharing experiences and overcoming problems together, something that builds over time.
For Morgan, pregnancy brought on jamais vu, the French translation of which is "never seen." This, I learned, is just one aspect of feeling lost in your own life, the third pang that newly married women, and women on the verge of marriage, experience.
You Feel Lost in Your Own Life
The opposite of déjà vu, which we've all experienced before, jamais vu occurs when, for a second or two, everything around you feels alien. Your husband-to-be seems like a stranger, the wedding plans a farce, and the prospect of lifelong commitment with this person the most insane of concepts.
I was very relieved to read there was a name for this phenomenon—and to find in my research that other brides had experienced it, too—because I had four or five incidents of jamais vu, one of which occurred shortly after I moved to California before we were married. Duke and I had flown from San Diego to San Francisco for the weekend to have dinner at the home of Carole Lynn, one of Duke's best friends, whom I was meeting for the first time. We had too much wine at dinner and afterward a rancorous political discussion in which Carole Lynn and I ganged up on Duke. Normally a very gentle and kind man, Duke was tired, fuzzy-headed, and pushed to his limit. So he walked out, presumably leaving me, at one in the morning, at the house of someone I barely knew, without money or the hotel key.
What has been the most disconcerting change in you since you got married?
"I haven't been able to maintain my strict eating habits, so I'm gaining weight."
"I have had trouble with the whole 'settled down' thing, you know: marriage, responsibility, your own home. I felt for a while that I wasn't fun anymore. But then I realized I was happy being settled."
"I used to travel alone for my job. Now that I'm married and living in a new place, I want my husband to go everywhere with me, even to the grocery store. I have become so dependent on him."
"I feel pulled between pleasing my parents, my husband, and myself. It's hard to shift gears—to accept that what may be best for us as a couple may not be popular with my family."
"Loss of freedom."
Of course, Duke didn't really leave me. He was waiting and cooling down outside. But in that instant I realized how utterly vulnerable I was, how much I risked by loving him and casting my fate alongside his. It was a defining moment. Because before the apologies were uttered, we chose one another all over again. We got into a taxi, stormed up to our hotel room, talked well into the night, huddled together in bed, and sheepishly called Carole Lynn the next morning to apologize.
Undoubtedly, you have had your defining moments, too times when nothing loomed bigger than your own vulnerability. As brides, we feel we could easily be subsumed by all the hoopla over the wedding and by the expectations everyone has of the newlywed year. It feels to us as if our very sense of self is threatened.
Author Dalma Heyn believes the Institution of Marriage—three centuries of traditional expectations and role models—closes in on a bride, distracting her with all the fuss over the wedding and exerting pressure on her to put aside her sexuality, her creativity, and her individuality to become an "ideal wife." She found that newly married women believed they had to "clean up" their sexual résumés, cut themselves off from their friends and their own feelings in order to meet this ideal. Brides she spoke to often expressed a fear of "going under."
This was true of the brides I interviewed. But I also saw my husband and other grooms I know do many of the same things, squirming in this adjustment period as if their manhood was threatened. Duke, for example, applied some revisionist history to his womanizing reputation while at the same time he laughed with friends that his marriage was a sign of the apocalypse. He made me go back to Goodwill and repurchase pint glasses of his I donated without asking him, and took great pleasure in telling his friends he had done so.
In the "You Won't Change Me" game we resorted to so often during our first months of matrimony, both of us played to win. And yet I do not believe the stakes in this transition were as high for Duke as they were for me, or that his questions ran as deep. He feared marriage would make him look weak. I feared marriage would consume me.
When I fell in love with Duke, it felt to me as if I had gone back to Sunday school, as if I was suddenly becoming reacquainted with the important virtues in life—honesty, goodness, kindness, and fidelity. Of course, that's how I knew that this was someone I wanted to raise a family with and spend the rest of my life with. But it also made me wonder what kind of heathen I was before. Had I gotten so far away from those values when I was single? Now that I was engaged, did I really need to disavow my entire single life, as it seemed so many married people wanted me to do?
Excerpted from What No One Tells the Bride by Marg Stark. Copyright © 1998 Marg Stark. Excerpted by permission of Hyperion.
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