When I got married right out of college, my expectation of marriage was that I was going to spend the rest of my life with my best friend. Would we have hard times and disagreements? Sure. But would we overcome them and stay the same? I thought so.
I was wrong. Turns out, marriage changes you.
Experience Is the Best Teacher
Marriage is hard, y’all. You’re sharing time and space with another human being, who has their own personality traits, preferences, limitations, trauma, internal narratives, feelings, cleanliness threshold, and way they fold the towels. And they have their own perspective about themselves and about you — which may or may not align with your perspectives.
In doing life together, side by side, we often bump into each other, causing tension and conflict. While that conflict is unpleasant (especially for us conflict-avoidant people), it’s also a fruitful opportunity for self-knowledge and self-improvement.
For self-knowledge and growth to flourish, you need the element of permanence that’s inherent in marriage.
Here’s the catch though: For self-knowledge and growth to flourish in a romantic relationship, you need marriage, specifically, you need the element of permanence that’s inherent in marriage.
Dr. Jordan Peterson describes this phenomenon well: "You take someone just as useless and horrible as you are, and then you shackle yourself to them, and then you say, ‘We’re not running away, no matter what happens’...Because without that shackling there are things you will never ever learn because you’ll avoid them. You can always leave, and if you can leave, then you don’t have to tell each other the truth.”
The permanent, 'til-death-do-us-part quality of marriage motivates us to speak the truth — about our thoughts, feelings, priorities, and our spouse. And it’s only when both spouses are speaking the truth — being a partner “to contend with” as Peterson likes to say — that the complications of living with another person can begin to be smoothed away.
Cohabitation Is Likely To Be Insufficient
The ability to just walk away explains why cohabitation doesn’t offer the same benefits that marriage does. If you have an out, you’re more likely to let things slide or to not say things that need to be said (or to not hear things that need to be heard). Sometimes procrastination and “putting up with” seem to be less miserable options in the present moment. We tell ourselves that if we get too miserable, we can just leave the relationship.
If you have an out, you’re more likely to let things slide or to not say things that need to be said.
But if you take a mental step back, you can see how this is a defensive and stressful way to live: “If your whole life is, ‘Well, every time you get out of line, I’m out of here’...first of all, you’re not going to admit to ever doing anything wrong. Second, you’re going to be...like a scared cat the entire relationship because, well, who knows, it could just come to an end at any moment.”
The permanence of marriage is the antidote to these issues in “test run” relationships; the permanence promotes self-knowledge and self-revelation because of the security and certainty of the relationship.
So How Does Marriage Promote Self-Knowledge?
I can think of three ways in which marriage has increased my self-knowledge.
1. The Contrast between Personalities
Maybe it’s because I used to be an English teacher, but those compare-and-contrast methods really work. I’ve learned so much about myself by contrasting my personality with my husband’s very different personality. For example, he’s very open-minded (I’m more rigid and rule-following), he's very empathetic (I’m more emotionally avoidant), and he’s very tactful (I’m very blunt). His different traits — for which I love him — both show me my own character by contrast and complement my weaknesses.
2. Reflecting on the Deeper Meaning of Conflicts
We think what we say and how we act is good and reasonable — or else we wouldn’t do it — but objectively that’s not always true. We need feedback from others to help us see the blindspots in our thoughts and feelings. Marriage, because of it’s intimacy and it’s permanence, offers us this feedback constantly.
We need feedback from others to help us see the blindspots in our thoughts and feelings.
Bumping up against another human being, who loves you and is willing to communicate honestly and charitably, gives you the feedback you need to get to know yourself. Every “Why did you do/say that?” is an opportunity to reflect on what really motivates your thoughts and feelings, actions and reactions. When you broke down crying in the kitchen, were you simply reacting with frustration to the muffins not baking correctly yet again, or were you really acting on your deep-seated (and slightly irrational) fear of being incompetent, because incompetence means you failed, and if you’re a failure, who will love you?
3. Desiring Self-Knowledge
I’m intrigued by this idea that I have to get to know myself. I mean, I am me. It’s my brain thinking and my heart feeling and my will making choices. Yet I often still have to consciously discover why and what I’m thinking, feeling, and choosing. So weird and yet so fascinating.
You have to want to learn about yourself in order to learn about yourself (humans are great at denial). You need the desire to know the truth, plus the humility and courage to face the truth about yourself, no matter how ugly or uncomfortable it is. If you take this desire with you into marriage, you’ll start learning about yourself real quick!
Growth Follows Self-Knowledge
Ok, so now you know all of this stuff about yourself, and some of it’s probably not so great. It’s probably a source of tension or conflict in your marriage. Do you want to suffer the consequences of those not-so-great qualities for the rest of your life (which would be long-term misery), or do you want to put in the work now to grow and change (which is short-term misery)?
Do you want to suffer the consequences of those not-so-great qualities for the rest of your life?
I pick short-term pain for long-term gain.
And this is where the permanence of marriage plays a role in growth. If you know you’re going to be living with your spouse and your problems for decades, it’s much more motivating to change now. As Dr. Peterson says, “People are of the sort that without that degree of seriousness those problems will not be solved.” And I agree with him. Growing is hard and painful and scary. But knowing that my self-improvement will also improve my marriage and my life for years and years makes it worth it.
So am I the same person who got married almost nine years ago? Yes and no. I’m me, but better.