“What I hope for you both is that you feel fulfilled and respected and loved as parents and as spouses. That you can make mistakes and be angry and do stupid things and know that you are still loved, because that is not necessarily easy.” Brook’s parents when asked for marital advice.
The Marriage Test is a non-fiction book in which the two authors subject themselves to a year’s worth of tests which they hope will help them determine if they should marry one another. I first heard about this book while listening to a podcast I regularly follow (The Labor of Love), and I was intrigued by the way this couple approached preparing for marriage. Coincidentally, I saw them on the Today show just a few days later, and again intrigued, I put their book on hold.
I am very fortunate to be in a wonderful, loving marriage that marks its 15th year this summer, so I began the book not looking for pointers on marriage but rather to see if I could learn something from the authors’ journey towards marriage. Overwhelmingly, it was the differences between their story and the journey my husband and I have been on together that made the book so thought-provoking. Reading it, I learned a lot, but not about my marriage, I learned that what was an easy and instinctive choice for me — marrying my lovely husband — is a beleaguered and terrifying decision for others. This book represents one very unique way that two uncertain people worked toward marriage.
Before I go on, I must write a disclaimer: I liked this book but I did not love this book — not because it was poorly written or that I disagreed with what the authors had to say — but rather because my experience with my husband was both so dramatically different than that of Jill and Brook. We met in college when we were both twenty-one, we eloped at twenty-three, and we became parents — intentionally– at twenty-five. Despite the fact that we did not date long (we spent nearly a year and a half in a long-distance relationship before we married) or spend an overly long time trying to decide if we should marry, we have thrived, and I attribute that to the fact that we both were committed to honesty and maturity at the onset of our relationship. From our first date, we chose to be open, respectful, kind, and honest — without exceptions, even when it was harsh — and the result is a close partnership that has given us both fifteen solid years of love, companionship, and happiness…not to mention the lovely pleasure of raising three wonderful children together.
I digress: what I mean to say is that I cannot help but read this book — as good and helpful as it may be — with a critical eye.
Before getting engaged, the authors Jill and Brook canvas friends, family, and even therapists about some of the most challenging experiences married couples face and then set about to re-create them to give themselves a preview of how they will handle crises. The live on a restricted budget, babysit an infant for a weekend, go to therapy, work on the way they fight, spend time with their in-laws, and so on. Inventive? Yes, it is. But it is also something more. It somehow also takes the decision of whether to marry — one of the most profoundly emotional a person will ever make — and makes it transactional, which is to say not emotional but cold and businesslike, looking to convert feelings into something more like data.
The “testing” of their relationship seems less about strengthening their relationship before marriage than it does about trying to find a guarantee they are making the perfect choice. But that is an impossible task! Marriage is called a “leap of faith” precisely because those who choose to take part understand that they are placing their love in someone else’s hands and asking them to please take care of it well. Perhaps it is a mark of the millennial generation — so many of whom grew up with divorced parents — that even after seven years, most of those spent cohabitating, the authors still feel that they need concrete assurance they are meant to be together. (Although we may be chronologically close in age to Millennials, my husband and I often feel a generation away from them in life choices and points of view.)
In many ways The Marriage Test is a book about deliberately setting hurdles to be cleared more than it is about creating a relationship where love can thrive. With an such an extreme overemphasis on the negatives in their relationship, these “dates” at times seemed like torture tactics that they were subjecting themselves to: as if they were preparing to face a firing squad rather than walking down the aisle. It seems counter-intuitive that two people who greatly fear failing would choose to spend a year focusing so heavily on things that are bad between them — I would have to think that would be a prescription for failure for all but the most dogged couples.
But the book was not all bad, not by a long shot! Jill and Brook delve very deeply into many important issues such as mental health, good communication, happiness, and a healthy sex life. I absolutely think those are all worthwhile things to examine with your partner before marriage. I know several couples who spent more time planning their wedding or looking for their first house than they did talking about ways to support each other in maintaining good mental health or discovering the most effective way to communicate with one another…often to their detriment. Some of the topics the book presents are important for couples to think about, but seven years of dating and one year of “marriage tests” are not necessarily required. Also wonderful about the book is the direct way the two describe, over and over, why and how they love the other person. In a world so focused on the superficial or overly dramatic, it is wildly romantic to read — in simple, clear terms — what two people have to say about their love.
My final thoughts are these: there are bad moments in ANY marriage but the overwhelming amount of time you and your spouse spend together will be happy. Will you fight about chores? Yes, sometimes. Will you laugh and joke and smile and surprise each other everyday with your generosity and kindness? Yes, you will do that even more.