The most important rule for a happy marriage is to lose control, says Heather Havrilesky. She discovered that if you want a happy marriage, you have to let the little stuff slide.
Let's face it, wedding planning is all encompassing, and at some point, between picking out a dress and choosing a caterer, you may lose sight of the fact that this is just the opening ceremony of a much more rigorous lifelong event: the actual marriage itself. And that requires an entirely different set of skills than hosting a wedding does. Instead of focusing on every little detail in order to get it right, you have to do the exact opposite. You have to let go.
This concept was lost on me as a newlywed. My approach to marriage was identical to my approach to planning the wedding: be 'the boss', maintain focus and control, get everyone up to speed and strive for excellence in all things.
Even though I'd worked hard to be accommodating and even cheerful when my ﬁancé and stepson moved in months before the wedding, something changed once we said 'I do'. We were officially a family now, so the stakes were much higher. It felt like everything we did would set the tone for the rest of our lives together. If the windows were smudgy, if the rug was covered in dog hair, if anyone argued or grew silent and sullen, then that's how it would be forever.
Although I'd never been afraid of commitment before, this was how my commitment phobia manifested itself (after the wedding, ironically): in my certainty that every failure, every grumble, every strained silence meant that we'd be chained together, failing and grumbling and sulking, until the end of time.
The perfect boss
I was maybe just a tiny bit oversensitive in those early months of marriage. I was also - not coincidentally - more than a tiny bit pregnant. I'd gone off the pill the minute we got engaged, figuring it would take a while for a 35-year-old to get pregnant. Wrong. So now I was newly married and hormonal, and every challenge felt like a matter of life or death. I had a garden that needed planting, walls that needed painting and a full-time job. My husband had to be taught how to clean up and shop to my exacting specifications. My stepson had to be schooled on how to put his clothes into his drawers and put down the toilet seat. Everything had to be perfect or it would be imperfect for the rest of our lives.
I wouldn't have admitted this at the time, but I definitely saw myself as the CEO, in charge of the smooth functioning of the household. It was up to me to give everyone the on-the-job training required to perform their duties in a timely fashion. Sadly, this meant I hovered and nagged around the clock because, it turned out, my husband was far less detail orientated than I was. 'This milk wasn't on my list. It isn't even organic,' I told him one day upon his return from the shops, disbelief in my voice.
'I read somewhere that most so-called organic milk isn't even organic,' he replied. 'Yes, but the brand I specified is one of the truly organic dairy companies!' I snapped. How could he imagine I hadn't done my research? Did he even know me at all? 'Why does this matter so much to you?' he asked.
That was a good question. But to a pregnant woman, these words = red rag + bull. Of course the milk mattered. The milk mattered because everything mattered. Every oversight or mistake meant just one thing: I would be surrounded by filth and hapless, unruly animals forever. And once the baby came, we'd be sleep deprived and everything would be a million times worse. My stepson would decide to live with his mother, and we'd never see him again, and our marriage would fall apart.
Taking care of business
My attempts to micromanage us away from our dystopian future only made things worse. My husband - who'd always seemed so relaxed and capable before the wedding - started to forget everything I told him seconds after I said it. He was probably in shock over how he'd landed such a critical, temperamental wife. The washing-up piled high in the sink, the laundry accumulated in dirty heaps and the toilet seat was left up so often that this CEO had to ask herself: 'Is this merely an employee oversight or an act of direct deﬁance?'
'Haven't we talked about this a million times?!' I yelled at my stepson and husband one day. My husband rolled his eyes at me. My stepson sulked off to his room. They'll be looking for new career opportunities pretty soon, I thought ruefully, maybe at a company without a growling, red-faced boss lady in charge. I wish I could say this thought spurred my immediate reform. But I wouldn't actually resign as boss of the household until our second Christmas together, when my stepson gave me a piece of wood as a present. It had a blue felt hat glued on top of it and an angry face drawn on to it with black pen. 'It's a grumpy elf,' he explained. I knew it was me. I was the grumpy elf.
So I gave myself a demotion and joined the team - I realised that I needed to step back and watch things unfold from the sidelines for a change. I needed to live in the moment and enjoy my messy life. This took some work; I had to force myself to allow things to remain broken, flawed and out of place. Occasionally I had to ignore the laundry or pour the wrong milk into my cereal or shrug off the toilet seat. I had to breathe deeply and love the imperfect world around me. I realised that this was the only way I'd be happy.
There's nothing wrong with aiming for the perfect wedding. Remember: it won't actually be perfect, but you might just pull off an unforgettable event. Aiming for the perfect marriage, however, is simply a terrible idea. All people are flawed, so all marriages are flawed too. Always.
Now, maybe you're thinking: 'I'm not crazy like you!' I accept the way he tosses his dirty clothes in the corner and uses every single pot when he makes dinner and doesn't clean up as he goes. Maybe you're laidback and mellow - well, until he leaves the sink full of dishes for the third time this week. And then you'll want to start an HR file and possibly commence disciplinary action, no matter how delicious his beef bourguignon is.
If you find yourself slipping into the role of family CEO - which is forgivable in a strong, capable woman who has high standards for her life - just remember that the best bosses let their employees figure things out for themselves. They nudge you gently. And sometimes they sit back and pour a glass of wine and say to themselves: 'This is all going to turn out fine.'
These days, I'm just another member of the family, who's trying to maximise fun, savour every moment, and minimise grumpy outbursts. I'm not always patient, and I'm never perfect, but I'm open-hearted enough to recognise when everyone is doing their best.
And that's the thing to remember: as long as you and your husband are being generous with each other and each of you is doing your best most days, then your marriage is as close to perfect as it gets.
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