’Til Career Do Us Part

You’ve said the vows. You’ve got the rings. You’ve signed the license. But when will you actually start to feel married?
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Maybe it hits you when you rip open one of the cards sitting in the pile of wedding gifts and find a check made out to both of you. Maybe it’s when you go to the bank to open up a joint checking account to deposit that check. Maybe it’s when you file your taxes “Married—Filing Jointly” for the first time. Or maybe you finally feel married when you realize that doing your taxes followed by a bottle of wine and a pizza together is what you now consider to be a pretty decent date night.

When I was a newlywed, I cherished each of these little moments. I convinced my new husband to stand in line beside me the day I officially changed my name and treated him to lunch afterward. I kept the letter confirming that I was now listed as a spouse on his employer-provided health insurance plan. The first time I was asked for my husband’s social security number, I couldn’t help but share my exuberance with the unsuspecting customer service representative on the other end of the line who had requested it. “How awesome is it that I am supposed to know his social security number and blood type and bank account information? Before I was married, knowing that kind of stuff would have made me seem like an identity thief or a psycho stalker!” She wasn’t amused, even less so when she found out that I hadn’t memorized his social security number and would have to call back when he got home.

The ability to share a bedroom without making your Baptist grandmother blush or get a mortgage interest rate based on both of your credit scores is an important societal rite of passage—but there is more to being married than a novel change of status. Believe me. I know. How? Because three years into my marriage, I moved seven hours away from the house we had bought with our jointly earned credit score, leaving my husband behind to sleep in our half-empty bed.

The reason for my departure was a new job—not exactly a groundbreaking concept. If the fully booked flights I’ve boarded on Sunday nights from Charlotte-Douglas to Reagan National are any indication, I am just one of many who commute to D.C. for work and fly back to an affordable home in the lush suburbs of south Charlotte on the weekends. Of course, almost all of my fellow passengers on those flights are men. A wife leaving her husband home with the kids (or in our case, the kitties) for weeks at a time to fly off to her job in a towering office building overlooking the Potomac is not nearly as common a tale.

Reactions to the news that I’d taken a dramatic left-hand turn off my career path for a gig in a new city ranged from “I’m so excited for you!” to “Wow! Why the big change? Couldn’t you have found a job here?” to “Why would you want to leave your job? It seemed so cool.” I had well-rehearsed responses to every single one. What I didn’t expect were the comments that weren’t about my career at all. “Are you and Joe having problems?” “Is Joe mad that you are taking the job?” “Do you feel bad about leaving Joe?” And the worst of them all: “Are you sure you understand the consequences your actions will have on your marriage?”

These words cut deep. Not just because they make me sound like a heartless careerist. Not just because they are laden with (I hope) unintentional sexism. And not just because many of those words were said by people I love. They hurt because they insinuate that this is a decision I made by myself.

One of the most fundamental parts of being married is that decisions that used to be your own are now co-owned. Which TV show gets cut from the DVR season pass list? Do our taxes ourselves with online software or pay a little extra for a strip-mall accountant? Is organic cat food really that much better? Should we set the A/C at sixty-five or seventy degrees? Your parents’ house or mine on Christmas morning? Fly or drive? Lavender or unscented?

Making the decision to be apart was the most “married” thing we’ve ever done.

These are the millions of little dilemmas that make up every day of your marriage, and you probably won’t even notice most of them. You’ll get used to having someone around who is always willing to weigh in on life-or-death issues like “Can this be recycled?” and “Where did I put the stamps?” and you’ll begin to take it for granted. Then one day you’ll be faced with a decision so big it makes you feel like you’re imploding, and the relief that you don’t have to make it alone will make you tumble head-over-heels in love all over again.

For my husband and me, that relief came as we dozed off on our couch one night last June—me in the tear-dampened curve of his shoulder, him breathing a warm spot into the hair on the top of my head. It was the end of a long day spent scribbling down math problems that represented our financial life together, weighing our future—jobs, kids, and all—and alternating between which one of us got to emotionally unravel. None of the people who so pointedly second-guessed our decision were there on the couch with us that day. They couldn’t possibly know the words we used to express our fears, our regrets, and our commitment to each other. And they don’t need to.

Making the decision to be apart was the most “married” thing we’ve ever done. Standing by that decision and rededicating ourselves to it every day since has strengthened our trust in each other in a way that nothing else could. Realizing that this is just the first of the many big, scary, life-altering, and unavoidably real decisions that he and I will make together in this lifetime makes me want to get up in front of a large crowd and make my vow to him again and again. There’s just one problem: “’Til death do us part,” doesn’t quite seem to cover it.

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