Marriage is a loaded word. You’d think that after thousands of years of marriages, we would have figured it out. If you were able to step outside of time and look in at humanity, you would think that marriage is something brand new that we are still trying to work out the details about. We have been pairing up for thousands of years but it can still seem like marriage is a crap shoot – like we’re amateurs still trying to figure this out.

And that might be a good place for us to start.

Marriage is not like the wheel. It’s not something that we discovered and it changed our lives. It’s something that evolved – that is still evolving. Every rom-com, prenuptial, and romantic dinner are, in a way, efforts to help us all figure it out a little more.

Surely, over the course of all this time, we’ve learned something though right? As it turns out, every single person has a different definition about what marriage should be, how it should look, and what it should do for us. Still, I do think there are a few assumptions we can make about marriage but that we don’t typically hear when we pursuing the one that we want to be with. They’re not the most romantic things you’ve ever heard, I’ll admit. But they’re real. They’re tested and tried. They emerge from the experiences of people riding the continuum from friends to roommates to lovers to parents.

If you’re thinking about getting married or you’ve been stuck in a matrimonial rut for years, they’re a good place to start with building a realistic marriage that can actually thrive outside of the unrealistic expectations that we often set up for ourselves.

1. This is Going to Be Hard Work
Think about all the complications that come up in life as an adult. You’ve got bills that need to be paid. You get a weird vibe from your boss that you’re not staying late enough at the office, even though you’re getting all of your work done. Your parents are asking about how things are going and wanting you to come home for the holidays while you really want to take that ski trip. Your car just broke down. You’re thinking about going back to school because you’re just not happy with what you’re doing and trying to figure out how you’re going to pay for it, because all those other bills are still due.

Life can be complicated.

Now multiply it by two.

Even that’s not realistic accounting since adding a person introduces an inordinate number of other things to think about, a new set of interpersonal considerations. It’s important to move up the ladder at work, but it’s also important to spend time with your partner. If you’re like most people, now you’ve got two histories of debt to contend with, probably without doubling your salary. Personal beliefs and thoughts are all still very much your own but they somehow have to be compatible and it’s not like these things come with user manuals or cheat sheets. There are two sets of parents, two preferred vacation destinations, two competing ideas for what you should do and every single decision has to be filtered though all sorts of new lenses.

We’ve been told a fairly tale about marriage. It’s turns out it’s not necessarily about princesses or knights in shining armor. It’s about workers. It’s about people that are willing to make an effort and that understand that there are times when it’s going to feel pretty sucky. It takes effort to understand each other’s points of views It takes effort to chose your words in a way that clearly communicates your perspective. Collaboration and compromise are active pursuits. And practice – much practice – doesn’t always make perfect.

The work is hard. It requires dedication to each other. A decision to spend your lives with each other can’t mark the end of some pursuit. The pursuit transforms and, if anything, intensifies. When the novelty wears off, partners still need to know that they’re loved and cared for, that they’re physically attractive, that they’re worth the effort. Your partner is not a trophy to be won after the competition of dating.

Dating is merely the qualifying round. Now the real race is about to start.

2. You Don’t Complete Me
My wife and I call this the Jerry McGuire syndrome. If you’re into faith, you might also think about it as the “Two become one flesh” problem. Either way, it’s helpful when you enter marriage intent on keeping your individuality. You are completely unique in the combination of genetics and experiences that have made you who you are. You are a beautiful person, completely able to stand alone, completely free to choose to partner up or fly solo.

Your perfect partner is not someone who is everything that you are not. There are lots of reasons as to why it’s helpful – seemingly providential – when you find someone who has strengths in areas in which you are weak. But the idea that there is a perfect someone out there that can make you whole is, at best, unhealthy. At worst, it’s damaging.

The issue is not unlike your happiness after winning a lottery. With the recent $1.5 billion jackpot, there was a lot of conversation among my friends about what they would do with all that money and if it would make us happy. The consensus seemed to be that, if you weren’t happy before the money, you probably had a poor shot at being happy afterwards. If you were content with you life before, then unlimited wealth would probably only heighten that contentment. It’s much the same in relationships. No matter how great your partner is, if you’re not happy with yourself beforehand, there is little chance of being completely happy after. It’s very unlikely that any one person can turn things around for you.

Your partner can absolutely help. When you feel confident that you can tell them anything without risking the relationship, when you understand that they’re trying to do their best just like you, the relationship often grows. You become attuned to one another’s needs because you realize that both sets of needs are important. It’s here that two individuals join and a third entity – the couple – emerges. The couple doesn’t take the place of either of you. All of you dreams and hopes and aspirations are still perfectly valid, but now they’re filtered through a lens of companionship and partnership. We choose to approach as a single unit – the individuals often sacrificing for the sake of the whole.

Maybe, you augment me.

Maybe, you inspire me.

Maybe, you enlarge my perspective.

But you don’t complete me.

If the feeling you’re fighting is that you just need someone to be with, that finding a lover will help with the feelings of anxiety or depression that you experience, that another person might help you find meaning, I’d encourage you to do some internal work. Maybe do some meditation. Find a therapist to help walk through some of the messages you’ve received that might not be so helpful anymore.

When you’re as confident as you can be in yourself before marriage, you’ll be happier after marriage.

3. You are Not the Person I Married
People change. There might not be anything more universally true than this. Think of who you were just a few years ago. Are you the same person today? Do you believe exactly the same things that you believed then? Has you thinking changed even slightly? Most likely not.

We know now that the brain changes throughout the entire lifespan. We used to think that by the time you hit your mid-twenties or so, that was it. All the circuitry was laid down and whoever you were is who you were always going to be. As it turns out, we now understand that there is this concept of neuroplasticity: your brain is constantly changing. Every time your brain circuits fire, it alters and refines something about that neural pathway. You can teach an old dog new tricks, even if they’re stubborn, because there are always new circuits being formed. Our personalities are relatively stable, but our potential for change is astounding.

We’re nothing if not potential.

The flip side to the endless possibility of change is that we are always changing. Every experience impacts us in some way. I once heard a professor in my master’s program talk about how he could talk to his brother for hours. Even though they were close and spoke at least once a week, my professor would talk about how he was always curious about what was new with his bother between phone calls. My professor recognized that his brother, in some small way, wasn’t exactly the same person as he was before. With every phone call, his brother was different than who he was the week before. Every experience changes us.

People are multilayered ad multifaceted. We are complex systems in which small inputs can have dramatic impact. Our genetics, our moods, our past experiences, the food we choose to eat, the amount of sleep we got the night before, our regular exercise routine all impact our personalities and how we see the world. If we believe this, then it will probably follow that we and our partners are constantly changing. Couples that live from this assumption also tend to take a stance of being endlessly curious about the other.

Ask questions even if you think you know the answer.

Be aware enough to notice differences in the way that your partner reacts or tells a story.

Celebrate their growth.

Each of us are on our own trajectories. Each of us have our own lives to live. Since we remain individuals when we commit to each other, we cannot assume that our perspectives, desires, experiences, frustrations, or dreams are the same. Our partners are not the people that we married. All of us grow and are different than we were. When we take it as given that our spouse is going to change, when we track with them on a daily basis and remain wildly interested in who they are becoming, we won’t find ourselves having drifted slowly apart and no longer knowing who the other person has become.

4. This Might Not Work
Happily ever after is a phrase that gets bandied about from the time we are old enough to hear the fairy tales and continues through the the beginning of the end credits in every romantic comedy ever. The religious thread that runs through our collective history has helped reinforce the notion that marriage is to be forever. To underscore the permanence of marriage, church communities use words like covenant and sacrament. Many of us – regardless of religious affiliation – would say that there is something about divorce that feels wrong, even if we can’t fully identify what that feeling is about. We might come to the conclusion that divorce is the right decision and still feel like we’ve done something wrong; that we’re damned if we do and damned if we don’t.

On one level, marriage is simply a part of our culture, our shared history. There is a framework for what we understand marriage to be from a cultural perspective that has been based on years and years of history and tradition and experience. I’m not saying that this understanding is correct or healthy. It’s pleasant to think of marriage as being the pinnacle that we are all striving for. It is nice to believe that there is something magical or mystical about marriage.

Unfortunately, it’s not true.

There are multiple domains within the idea of marriage. From a language stand point, marriage is merely a label. It’s a word. Marriage is nothing but a container for meaning that is empty until we put something in it. There is opportunity for us to define what we believe about marriage and relationship and switch out what is in the container. Many of us have taken out the idea that marriage is reserved for a man and woman and have replaced it with the idea that any two people who love each other should be able to get married. Some people have chosen not to switch out what was in their containers previously. There are complexities here that involve our past experience of caring relationships and cultural understandings. How much did my caregivers care for myself and for each other? What movies and books and politics and religions have formed my conceptualization or marriage? Everyone’s idea of marriage is different because everyone’s experience of life is different.

On another level, we find a domain of marriage that feels like a business partnership. All relationships have this domain. We engage in relationships with needs that we need fulfilled and obligations to help meet the needs of someone else. Success in this domain is determined by how satisfied both people are with the terms of this agreement – how much does each party has to give and take? Does it feel fair? Of course, it’s rare that any of these negotiations are made conscious, but out brains are constantly processing and evaluating. If our brain feels as though we are giving too much and not getting enough in return, we feel uncomfortable. Sometimes we start to feel the need to end the relationship and move on.

This brings us to our biological domain. Our brains mediate our attraction. Attraction is a fundamental part of what it means to be animal, let alone human. I don’t mean to flush the romance out of the room but it’s important to acknowledge. Part of what it means to be committed to another person for the long term is a physical component. There are lots of hormones and interpersonal energy that swirls into this mix that we call love. I’m not necessarily in the camp that would say biological forces are undeniable but they definitely are very powerful and hard to override. It’s about sex, but it is not just about sex. Each flirty look, each caring touch, and each passionate encounter have underlying chemical reactions that contribute to the quality of our relationship.

Marriages cannot thrive in the realm of biology or business propositions, however. Marriage is about connection and layered above these more fundamental domains is emotional connection. This is the substance of our closest, most important relationships that is kicked into overdrive when we talk about our intimate, long-term partners. Emotional connection is, I would argue, the most fundamental part of what it means to be human. What makes it so powerful is that we know, now, that emotional connection is more than just good feelings and swooning hearts. There are neurological consequences of building relationships. Your closest relationships are capable of changing the way you think and feel. You can see the world from a different perspective. We literally shape our brains by engaging wth the people that we love.

The closest relationships are those that allow each other to know and experience the other person. Words and stories have limited fidelity to share what it means to be you. When partners become attuned to each other’s emotional channels – their tone of voice, their facial expressions, their tears and laughter – it raises the resolution. It adds pixels and vibrance. The whole picture because clearer and richer. Marriages thrive in this realm of empathy. When partners fully engage with one another, taking parts of each other into themselves and integrating with each other, there is a greater sense of love and happiness.

If nothing else, I’m trying to make the point that marriage is complex. When I say that it might not work, what I really mean is that is difficult to keep all of the various channels open. If any of these channels close or become blocked, we start to lose what it means to understand the others situation. If we close these channels thinking that there’s nothing left to learn about our partner, we lose the fidelity of their experience. If we don’t acknowledge that each person brings their own definition and set of experiences to the relationship, we start from a handicapped position, with a compromised field of vision. If we shut down physically, we are tampering with a drive that is fundamental to what it means to be alive.

Marriages fail all of the time.

And while it’s not always true, marriages often fail because we don’t enter them realizing how hard this work is. It is essential to put effort towards monitoring and keeping open the various channels that share yourself with the other. Sometimes we take this for granted. And you never want to take your spouse for granted.

This is why my wife and I hold to the idea that divorce has to always be an option. For us, if divorce were to be held as forbidden, it would actually demotivate us to work on our relationship. It would hold us back from giving everything to make sure that our marriage will survive and thrive. It’s not that we keep our divorce cards in our back pockets waiting to pull them out during every little quibble. Instead, we have a sense that the only way that we can avoid our relationship ending is to see every day as a pursuit of the other. It’s not all about ourselves (though learning to express our own concerns has been an important part of this process) but rather it’s about being present and engaged. It’s about giving. It’s about the endless balance of me, you, and we.

There are lots of fairy tales that talk about living happily ever after in beautiful kingdoms with no cares to weigh us down. Real relationships are not this way. Real relationships require work and attention and dedication. Relationships that thrive are those where partners are interested in knowing about the other’s experience.

Marriages may not be happily ever after. They’re always needing attention. They’re going to need some effort. They’re sometimes in need of help. They’re never set in stone. It can be frustrating to hear that these relationships that seem to hold so much promise aren’t everything that we’ve always understood them to be.

But they can be.

They can be life-giving and fulfilling. They can be the source of some of the greatest joy you can experience. They can help you see the world in a different way. They help you understand that you’re never alone.

In other words, they’re totally worth it.