The night my husband and I got married, 10 years ago this summer on a balmy night in upstate New York, my mother offered us a piece of marital advice: “Don’t be surprised when you’re surprised.”
At the time, my parents had been happily married for 45 years, so their words of wisdom were welcome. I smiled and clinked glasses (sure to lock eyes with my husband), but reader: I had no idea what she was talking about.
Don’t be surprised when you’re surprised? By what?
I had just married My Person. He was everything I wanted: kind, loving, bookish, sexy. We’d had a whirlwind romance that began with months of emails sent between Munich and Brooklyn, followed by months of phone calls; then a first date in, I kid you not, a hurricane. Within the first 24 hours of meeting face to face, we were stuck alone in a rented house in the woods with no power, running water or flushing toilets – and we’d still fallen in love.
Didn’t I know everything about this person? Or at least all the important parts, like how steady and sweet and funny he was?
One of our marriage vows that July night went something like this: I vow to honor who you are and who you are becoming. We uttered the lines with tears in our eyes, believing, I think, that we’d never really change, or if we did, it would be in exactly the ways we both hoped (he’d start making the bed properly; she ‘ d stop leaving her bras strewn about).
I did not know – I do not think anyone who enters into these banana experiments called “marriage” knows – how much people change in the most surprising ways. How challenging honoring the “becoming” part can actually be.
Flash forward almost eight years. We are six months into the pandemic. My husband decides, overnight, to become a vegan.
This might seem, in the grand scheme of marital life, to be a small thing, and on some level, that is true. But let me first explain that I am the cook in our house. Let me also explain that since I’ve known him, my darling husband has eaten… a lot. In our early months together, he’d pre-game a bowl of pasta before heading to a restaurant. So, cooking became my love language. Month after month and year after year, I learned to roast chickens and meatballs, grill burgers and salmon, stew ragù and bolognese. For a girl who had never turned on her Brooklyn stove, I was shocked and thrilled by my new skills. And I loved watching his eyes light up when he took a bite. This is the best thing you’ve ever done.
But then, trapped in a pandemic and more cognizant of his health, he took a 180.
I was one hundred percent onboard for how good it was for his health, our family’s health, the planet’s health. But did I admit that I felt a little betrayed by his choice to become vegan? That, as the cook, I felt it as a personal affront? That I suddenly felt like Sisyphus, rolling a gigantic kabocha squash up the hill? A squash I wouldn’t know how to cook when / if it ever reached the top?
It was not easy.
I had to rearrange my entire understanding of what a satisfying meal could be. But since this is not a story about veganism, but about marriage, I think at the heart of it, what bothered me was that he was changing in a way I hadn’t seen coming. That he was no longer the guy who’d eat schnitzel with me in Vienna, or frankfürter in Munich, or, most importantly, almost any of the meals I’d been cooking for a decade.
To be fair, he insisted that I continue cooking as I had been and said he’d supplement. But I loved our family dinners. And the idea of me and our daughter eating a bolognese while he ate plain noodles depressed me.
So, after I grouched around for many, many weeks, rolling my eyes every time I had to try another new recipe, I started to cook in a new way. I, too, began to change. He had managed, somehow, to carry me along to this new (healthier?) World. (I will admit that I do still occasionally cook meat and dairy for me and our kid.) But along with how to cook tofu and beans, I also learned a lesson about marriage: he is allowed to change, and so am I.
Now, 10 years into our partnership, what I appreciate about my mother’s advice is that it has a tinge of whimsy. Don’t be surprised when you’re surprised. She emphasized that even in long, successful marriages, the individual members are forever in a kind of flux. Your father still surprises me, she often laughs, 55 years in. In their case, after 40 years of barely stepping foot in the kitchen, my father became the sole cook, and an extremely good one at that.
If you stay married long enough, it turns out there are many different phases. There are surprises around every corner, thrilling and awful and just plain ridiculous. Perhaps what is wisest about my mother’s advice is that it’s essentially a Buddhist adage: everything is impermanent. Stop being shocked by it. And once in a while, you can even laugh.
Abigail Rasminsky is a writer, editor and teacher based in Los Angeles. She teaches creative writing at the Keck School of Medicine of USC and writes the weekly newsletter, People + Bodies. She has also written for Cup of Jo about marriage, only children and befriending neighbors.
PS The very first emails Alex and Joanna sent to each other, and how do you know your partner is the one?
(Photo by Lumina / Stocksly.)