I married my high school sweetheart almost nine years ago. At the ripe ages of twenty and twenty one we said “I do” beneath a garden trellis under the California sun. We saw nothing foolhardy in making such a lifetime decision at a young age, telling others, “But we’ve known each other so much longer than most couples—since the 8th grade.” Another favorite response was, “We’re so much alike, and we come from similar families.”
That first year of marriage I know we both thought our decision may have been made too quickly, though we weren’t openly admitting that to others or even each other. Knowing what my husband looked like as a ninth grader with a bowl hair cut didn’t help me with the true vulnerability needed for a good marriage. And though our families may have seemed superficially similar (we were both raised as the children of missionaries in South America), it didn’t mean the ways we were taught to relate to others had anything in common.
When asked, my husband and I can regale you with stories of dumb fights from those early days (and sometimes one from last night depending on the day!) We can tell you the bad, because we can laugh about it now. We struggled through to a much better marriage now.
Being flexible and open to growth was key to our marriage. We were still in college when we married. Nate and I might have thought we had a clue who we were and what we wanted to do with our lives, but we didn’t. And if we hadn’t given each other the flexibility and grace to grow into different people, we would have simply grown apart.
During our third year of marriage, I can vividly remember a conversation that drove home the difference between who we thought we were when we married and who we were now. As we drove through the intersection at North & Kedzie in Chicago, Nate said, “You know, in high school my personality tests always said I was extroverted.”
We started laughing together, because while my husband is not shy, he is definitely an introvert. He has a small circle of friends to whom he is completely loyal, and he has no need to make more friends, to spend time at parties or to run a conversation. I laughed because I had completely forgotten that even I thought he was an extrovert back then.
This simple moment marked an important landmark for me. It doesn’t matter whether my husband is an introvert or an extrovert. It matters that I accept who he is and value him for it.
Nate has had to give me this same space to grow. As a fiancée I told him, “Just because I’m a wife doesn’t mean I’m going to do any more cooking than you do. It’s fifty-fifty.” Within six months I discovered that I love cooking and moved from meals with titles like “Skillet Supper” to tonight’s menu of “Brie-Stuffed Chicken Breasts with Pear and Cider Sauce.”
While this is largely quite an advantageous development in our marriage, it’s not without difficulties. It means I turn up my nose at plain pizza, which Nate loves, and top mine with shaved asparagus and lemon. It means that when I find out we are having dinner guests three hours before they arrive, I go into a frenzy that involves a trip to the grocery store and madly creating a meal that is better than the soup and salad I had originally planned.
This can be frustrating for Nate, but because he values what I love, he has learned to respond to this stress by saying, “What do you need from me?” He rolls up his sleeves and washes the dishes or butterflies some pork chops. If it was up to him, he’d spend the afternoon watching a football game and then feed his guests the perfectly adequate soup and salad.
I’ve heard it said that marriages between couples in their 30s have a higher success rate. It’s easier because each partner is more established in his or her identity. I don’t doubt this is true. Now that we’ve made it to 30, we still don’t know what our next 30 years will entail, but we have a much better understanding of who we are, what we value and what we plan to do with our lives.
Even though we married young and had our challenges, I think we arrived at 30 with an extra tool in our belt. We already know what it means to adapt to changes in someone else; we’ve learned to dance in the give-and-take marriage requires. We know what it means to grow together instead of apart. And that is knowledge I know we’ll use again and again, because the truth is that our marriage could start at 50 and there would still be no guarantee that we would remain who we are today.
Kelley is married to Nate and mother of Canaan and Eden. She has her Master’s in Clinical Psychology from Wheaton College. Kelley works as a counselor and Nate as a coach at an international school in Quito, Ecuador