Letting some of it trickle out while trying to soak it all in

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Seven years and 21 days

Today marks the seventh anniversary of 21 days after Rachel and I were married.

We met at Utah State in 2003 when I was 17. During my Mormon mission from 2004 to 2006 we wrote a letter to each other every week. For the first year it was generic boyfriend-girlfriend stuff but during the second year we started to get specific about our plans to build a life together. I remember one exchange in particular.

"Do you think that we will ever say an unkind thing to each other"?
"I don't want to be unrealistic, but we love each other so much I just can't imagine that happening."

At that point of my life the longest relationship I'd been in was the nine months I spent with my mission companion Elder Palmer (love you Brandon). The depth of my understanding of intimate relationships was less than or equal to this children's song:  "The Family". After my mission we (Rachel and I) dated for a few months and then I broke off our relationship due to what I saw as irreconcilable differences.

Eight months later, after a miraculous crossing of paths in the high desert of San-Pete county, I realised that I wanted to be with Rachel. I spent the next three months at the Toolik Field Station sending emails and making phone calls trying to convince her to take me back. When Rachel finally caved, my boss Cody worked things out for her to come up for a couple weeks at the end of the season.

Matchmaker Cody giving me some advice before giving us his blessing: "Remember Ben, don't go anywhere without a spork and tampons."

We made plans right away to get married and did so on January 8th in the Manti temple in San-Pete.

I originally put together seven life lessons from seven years but when I tried to post it, a Blogger window popped up and said that marriage advice was now against Google's user agreement. Instead of seven answers, here are two observations.

Observation 1. Rachel and I are very different people. Yes we like different kinds of movies, but we also have divergent ideas on the meaning of life, treatment of strangers, raising children, and whether or not to close the toothpaste cap between uses. The irreconcilable differences that made us part ways before we got married have not grown smaller. Just months after our marriage I wrote this song about how the closer you get, the more aggravating personal differences can seem.

Our contrarieties were particularly troubling to me because I went into marriage expecting a complete union of interests, vision, and habits. I thought that we would become one--that from the moment we wed, I was responsible for Rachel's decisions and she was for mine. That perspective led to a lot of pressure and efforts to "improve" one another. After a few years we realised that the "you are me" paradigm was not rich in vitamin-happy. But by then our coercive attempts to model the other in our own image had left bruises that neither of us were ready to forget. So we spent (and still spend) our energy punishing one another for things we have done wrong or might think about doing.

Lately, a new idea has started to tingle at the back of my mind: Rachel and I are individuals. This is revolutionary to me because during both the "we are one" and the "I won't if you don't" phases, I was delegating my responsibility to Rachel or our relationship. Since Rachel is and forever will be out of my control (in wonderful and frustrating ways), feeling responsible for her choices brings tension and resentment. Learning how to consistently respect my spouse's individuality is a work in progress (I haven't mastered Rachel Woodward Hansen's secret for the best marriage ever let alone these 36 points by some random therapist) but at least I feel like I am working towards a sustainable model of married life.

Observation 2. I sometimes interview myself in my head (thanks David Byrne). Here is one interview that I recorded with my brain a few weeks ago.

"Hi Ben, thanks for coming on the program."
"Thanks for having me on Ben."
"If you knew then what you know now about your spouse and your relationship, would you think twice about getting married?"
"Now that you are married, are you glad you have stuck with it?"

I didn't used to feel comfortable admitting this. I thought it would be embarrassing for me and demeaning for Rachel. Love is like baptism, and doubt after commitment means you're on your way to apostasy or divorce. Right? I don't think so. The trials that make us question our choice of spouse are sometimes substantial and persistent. In my experience, however, it is easy to underestimate the value of shared experience and the richness of life together. Marriage is not just a cost-benefit analysis for me, it is also a question of responsibility, but it is nice to remember all the wonderful things that do come from staying.

My wise friend Lafe put it differently once on a bike ride (all the best lines in my interviews of myself are stolen). He said, "If I had known about several things before we got married they might have made a difference. But now they are just differences."

"Did we actually just get married"?
"Don't worry, love is an open door."

Seven years and 21 days after walking out of the temple together I am grateful for Rachel's staying. We are not perfect for each other (whatever that means). But in between (and maybe even during) not liking each other I love her. Here's an old song I wrote about that tension and a fancy cover by the handsome Tanner Lex Jones.


  1. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. You both are beautiful individuals with an amazing sense of commitment ❤️

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  3. "Love is like baptism, and doubt after commitment means you're on your way to apostasy or divorce. Right? I don't think so"
    Well said, and I tend to agree.

  4. Wow, Ben. There is so much raw truth here. This will be playing in MY mind-interview for awhile, I think. You and Rachel have something really strong and beautiful. I am grateful for your unabashed honesty.