I have a good marriage.
I had a good marriage before I spent a year improving it, and I have a good marriage now. In fact, my marriage is better, truly better. Although not in the ways I'd expected.
When I set out to improve my marriage, I assumed that better would look like a Photoshopped version of good: essentially unchanged, unsightly elements gone. Dan would no longer butcher headless, skinless pigs and goats on our kitchen island. I would not tidy up, literally and psychologically, by shoving junk in drawers. We would quit outsourcing the production of our children's religious identities to our parents. We'd stop vibingyes, vibing, we used that wordour bank balances, spending more when we felt flush, less when we felt broke. Instead I got a better marriage in the "before enlightenment, chop wood carry water; after enlightenment, chop wood carry water" sense. I feel humbled, grateful, and transformed, and Dan is still leaving single brown socks (how to tell if they're dirty or clean?) strewn about the house.
The first time Dan and I discussed the possibility of a better marriage we were lying in bed, under our white duvet, amid our white walls, in that little sanctuary of peace and purity that Dan had built for us in our flimsy, hundred-year-old earthquake shack of a house. I believed in marriage. I liked being married. But I did not feel expert at it. Shortly after our wedding, nine years prior, we'd started to joke that we needed to take more advantage of being two people, that we really shouldn't do our errands together, write for the same editors, read the same magazines. Back then, Dan had felt alarmed, nearly panicked, that some nights we'd sprawl together on the couch reading our then-still-separate subscriptions to The New Yorker. Weren't lovers supposed to maintain, even exaggerate, differences? Certainly his happily married parents had.
I was an even less likely candidate than Dan for a wholly merged life. One of my more telling memories of myself as a young woman and of how unbending I was in love happened the evening a new boyfriend wanted to make me a cilantro-lime pesto, and instead of walking with him on that warm spring evening to buy limes, I suggested he run the errand alone. By the time I met Dan, at age twenty-eight, I'd shed some of that rigidity. I knew more about who I was, so I felt more comfortable being swayed. But nearly a decade into marriage, and sincerely hoping to remain married to Dan for many decades more, I did not understand how much I should be swayed by my husband. What algorithm should determine how much I tipped over into the warm bath of our union and how much of myself to keep separate, outside?
Since our wedding, Dan and I had been bumbling along, more or less successfully, with two basic ground rules: no cheating and no dying. We spoke these rules out loud to each other. We considered their breakages the only trespasses our marriage could not survive. But that night, under our white duvet, as I lay next to Dan's warm and increasingly muscled body, I started wondering why we were being so cavalier. Why weren't we caring more for our marriage, making it as strong as it could be? Dan is really the very best thing that's happened in my life. He squints like Clint Eastwood. He calls me "darling." He'd cook me three meals a day if I let him (which I don't; again, the question of independence). He's a great conversationalist and he makes me feel like one of the more interesting people on earth. So why were we bumbling? Why weren't we being more deliberate? I've never been one to leave well enough alone, nor have I ever believed that marriage is binarythat one moment you're single and the next you're not, some alchemy happening at the altar. I've always believed that you get married, truly married, slowly, over time, through all the dental plaque you inadvertently flick into each other's faces; through all the sunsets you watch on remote Baja beaches after you've locked your keys in your rental car, again; through all the near-hypothermic panic attacks because you decided it would be a good idea to swim together from Alcatraz to San Francisco; through all the frozen pig skulls your spouse power saws in half (in order to make pork stock); through all the pain, tears, and absurdity; through small and large moments you never expected to happen and certainly didn't plan to endure.
Excerpted from No Cheating, No Dying by Elizabeth Weil. Copyright © 2012 by Elizabeth Weil. Excerpted by permission of Scribner. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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