It was January ’89 and I had just completed a tumultuous week of fraternity hell sealed by oath to never reveal what happened. After twelve final hours, aptly named Hell Night, of what I sometimes thought would be my death, the chaos ended in a drunken salutation that my blindfolded, beer soaked, humiliated pledge brothers and I were no longer toilet scum but members fraternally bonded in brotherhood.
The mandatory celebration ensued with beer, sorority sisters, beer, and climaxed with yours truly talking to, dancing with, and getting the number of a girl.
If every boy has a ‘first love’, she would become mine.
That night was the beginning of my first committed relationship. I still recall amazement at having convinced a girl to date me, seriously. I also remember ‘commitment’ wasn’t something I wished to avoid; in fact, it’s exactly what I wanted. It represented another patch on my vest of manhood, and because I’d never had a girlfriend before. I became so completely enamored by her that just months into our relationship I was convinced she was ‘the one’. My imagination set sail contemplating our future life as husband and wife.
But it’s ‘first love’ for a reason and though I was ready for the altar – she saw things differently. Over summer break, while I dreamed rainbow fantasies of our growing old together, she was filling her summer days, and nights, with somebody new.
If every boy has a ‘first heartbreak’, she too would become mine.
Fast-forward a decade, this daydreamer was approaching thirty, questionably wiser, and somewhat less reckless. I was in a relationship for two years, much of it long distance. I loved her, in what I then understood love to be, and believed we had a future, but I was in no hurry to make that future an immediate reality. But as in a scene from Groundhog’s Day, she also saw things differently. She felt I had enough time to figure things out. Ultimatums ensued – get this ball rolling or play the game alone.
Things got tense. Doubts, fears, and worries came out of nowhere. Suddenly “the rest of my life” took an entirely different meeting. At the doorstep of that reality, I suddenly wasn’t sure I had what it took to do “till death to us part”.
I knew my options, marry her or be single again. I bought the ring, but only after convincing myself that our relationship was more like a stock investment. I concluded that after two years together, to sell now would be like buying in a bull market and selling in a bear, meaning I would lose it all. If I had any hope of a reasonable return on my investment, marriage became the only legitimate strategy. I had bought – it was now time to hold. Is it any surprise our marriage didn’t last?
I sometimes wonder what happened in the space between the foggy eyed teenager and the skeptical twenty something. Was it simple immaturity? Had I just been naïve and stupid getting caught up in a world of college fantasy? Did the shrapnel from that first heartbreak leave so deep and lasting a scar? Or, as I suspect, did the older me merely have more to lose?
I had a burgeoning career, respectable paycheck, and a potential entirely lacking the decade prior. She had been a college freshman with youth, beauty, and an endless stream of better alternatives than a sophomore with a weak grasp on an uncertain major. She held a blank check on life and dumping me would let her cash in on it.
But ten years later, things had changed. My future was manifest into a reality with steeper odds. The checkbook was now in my hand and to spend it unwisely would bring stiff penalties. A bad choice would leave much more than a broken heart. All this meant any daydreams of husband and wife had vanished and in the vacuum was a nagging fear at the unknown that comes with, ‘you may now kiss your bride’.
It’s been those experiences, observing others in friends, and my impending marriage to the Queen that makes me believe men and women measure the value of ever after far differently. When I look through the lens of nearly three decades I think the primary distinction comes down to this, a man contemplates commitment and marriage, by first asking this question:
If I do this, what am I losing?
In other words, what might he give up choosing to spend the rest of his life with another? That loss might be financial, lifestyle, freedom, and friendships, even a motorcycle. By my late twenties, I had carved out a great life for myself. I had loyal friends, money in the bank, and a growing career. It was shaping up just like the brochure promised and I couldn’t help question how marrying this person might change any, or all, of that?
But sitting here I also recognize my reaction wasn’t just a guy problem; it’s the default position for all of us. We will desperately protect whatever we measure our self worth against. We become skeptical of anything, or anyone, we think could tarnish the shiny objects we use to reflect the image we want others to see. I measured my value by a career, paycheck, and material possessions. My aversion at risking any of that was my knee jerk to save the status quo.
By comparison, most women contemplate commitment and marriage by asking a far different question:
If I do this, what am I getting?
It’s about advantage. We shouldn’t recoil that this confirms all women are ‘gold diggers’. However, I don’t know one single woman who doesn’t consider career status, and perhaps more importantly career potential, as a way of measuring the quality of the man. Stability and security are deeply rooted needs most women are drawn towards. All else being equal, the man with a flourishing career and financial success is far more attractive than the one living in his parent’s basement. That isn’t greed or materialism – it’s smart. What woman wants to hitch her wagon to someone going nowhere?
I’ve revisited these thoughts while preparing myself for ever after once again, this time at mid life and as a divorced father. I’m amazed by how age and experience can change the way we see things, especially a thing so fundamental as marriage.
Perhaps the greatest differences for me now are the absence of that unhealthy enthusiasm I had at nineteen or the skepticism I held at thirty. This time it’s more a reserved assurance; I’m excited about the future but prudent about getting there. It’s what some might call cautious optimism. This time I know what marriage is – but more importantly what marriage isn’t. I’ve witnessed when marriage is good and when it’s utterly bad – and I’ve learned something from both. I accept that ever after brings sacrifice but it also comes with far better gains. But most importantly, I know that marriage doesn’t happen by way of Disneyland daydreams or working from someone else’s script.
As I stand here on the threshold of ever after I do so with the assurance I won’t be walking into that tomorrow alone. Providence has opened its treasury and poured out a partner, friend, accomplice, teacher, mentor, and lover. Rose-colored notions don’t fog our view of what tomorrow might bring. We see clearly the obstacles before us in the distance and aren’t naïve enough to think love alone will find a way through them.
For me, the value of ever after comes down to this. No amount of beauty, freedom, paycheck, material gain, or a better alternative can make up for the comfort that in the unknown days to come, should my ship be found amid rocky shoals of hard realty – I won’t be sailing those waters alone.