On the first evening of our first major road trip together, it hailed.
It hailed for over 30 minutes, howling down from the mountain we had been standing on only minutes ago, but was now cracking into the roof and sides and windshield of our car as we carefully made our way back down to the campsite we had set up only hours earlier, a campsite that was now muddied, wet, and the perfect ignition for what would soon become a really, really ugly fight.
Already on edge about sleeping in a one-man tent with a 6’6” man, the mud that was now in our car, in our shoes, and covering the tent opening was enough to send me searching for something sharp to impale myself with, wishing for death rather than to spend the night with nothing but one thin layer of plastic between me and the soggy earth.
I couldn’t even wash my eyelashes in the shared bathroom sink, mostly because I was embarrassed that any hardened camper may see me doing this and wonder why a woman who had paid $120 for eyelash extensions that needed to be rinsed twice a day was now camping in the mountains of Oregon.
I decided that night that as a woman who wore contacts, was prone to acne, and had committed herself to delicate eyelash extensions, I was not cut out to deal with the extreme lack of cleanliness that camping required. And because everything, including our firewood, was now soaking wet, I couldn’t even eat my hot dog that I had looked forward to for the last six hours.
Unfortunately for Clifford, being the nearest living thing to me who was not a stranger, he quickly found himself on the receiving end of my newfound vendetta against all things camping. And by the morning we were both groggy, upset, and wishing to get the hell out of there as soon as possible.
Prior to marriage, everyone told me that conflict in marriage is perfectly normal. In fact, healthy couples have conflict. You should be having conflict.
This may be true, but is less than comforting for the couple who finds themselves in a casino-diner the morning after they have spent the night in a soaking tent, spitting words at each other and one of us (me) crying over our eggs. This cannot possibly be normal, you think. And what does “normal” conflict mean anyway? Because this feels deep, angry, scary.
Of course, it wasn’t just about the tent, the hail, or the cold wet dirt. It was, of course, about other things, things that were under the surface until weather released them, bubbling up from the ugly corners of our insides like the mud outside our tent door and now caked in our shoes.
It was the part of the trip I didn’t put on Instagram.
The lucky part about experiencing conflict, if you allow it to be so, is that eventually you begin to realize that provoking unnecessary conflict, suffering in conflict, and maintaining conflict is simply not worth it.
It’s not worth sitting silently in a car rife with tension, wondering if you should throw yourself out the passenger door and roll away into the dirt just to escape this person for two seconds.
Conflict, I have already found, is necessary and unavoidable. It will happen, there it is. But it’s depth, longevity, and magnitude may become less of a world-ending catalyst and more of a I-can’t-talk-to-you-for-an-hour feeling, which is much more bearable.
And I believe this was a point Cliff and I reached, driving away from Crater Lake, Oregon, and into the Redwoods of California. That maybe, sometimes, conflict doesn’t have to be quite as bad as this. That maybe conflict can be better. Not nonexistent, no. But different. It was a moment of unspoken, mutual realization that fighting like this was simply not possible if we were going to spend every hour together for the next nine days.
And you know what? The next nine days were damn near perfect. They were what I imagined a marriage and partnership to be: happy, carefree, full of conversation and quiet and joy and affection.
One of the great myths I accidentally believed before falling in love is that people who get married do so because they have discovered they know how to be partners.
Always looking from the outside in, I believed married people had figured out something I hadn’t. Surely if they were confident enough to get married they had the self-assurance that they knew how to give love to their chosen person, that they knew what it took to be married, to talk, to disagree, to dream together, to be a unit.
But the good and bad news is that marriage doesn’t cure relational confusion.
Rather, marriage creates a fence around your green, lovely pasture and forces you not run for the hills at the first sign of trouble. Unable to easily leap the fence or break down the gate, you instead face the fights, the anxieties, the irritations, the doubts. And slowly, hopefully, your relational lost-ness that you will carry into marriage will become a little less of a lost feeling as one more thing, even the tiniest thing, becomes clear. Oh, you will think, this action is better than that one, this thought is better than that and I think I figured out how to love you just a little better than before.
People who get married do not do so because they have become experts on love, and if they believe they are experts on love marriage will (and should) shatter their illusions.
After spending 26 years suffering crushes, reading books on love, falling in love, falling out of love, researching love and sex and marriage, talking about love, and wishing and praying and resenting and then hoping for love, getting married is like starting from scratch all over again.
Prior to meeting Cliff, I thought falling in love, choosing to be in love, deciding to get married, and being married would look a certain way, happen a certain way, feel a certain way, and for the most part it was different on all accounts. Sometimes it was better than I imagined, and sometimes it was just weird.
And this is both the challenge and relief of marriage: that you can only be so prepared, you can only know so much, and you will learn to do this thing as you go. I can either choose to be teachable or choose to resist learning that I do not know everything about how to love this man, or receive love, or be generous, or communicate, or have conflict.
I hope I choose to be teachable.