Marriage as a Mountain

Originally published at VERILY MAGAZINE.

There is a myth about marriage that the first year is the hardest. The real data about marriage doesn’t really back this up. The first year (or two) are an adjustment for sure, but research suggests that the real difficulty tends to begin around year three, once real life sets in. Rather than looking at the beginning of marriage as the hardest part of the journey, it makes more sense to visualize a newlywed couple at the base of a mountain just beginning their long trek to the summit.

Marriage is, ultimately, a series of phases. Some of them have names, like the Honeymoon Phase, or the Empty Nest Phase. Others are more ambiguous, without clear beginnings or endings. But one phase that is known to be especially vulnerable is the second 4 years. For today, let’s call it the Divorce Phase.

Simply put, any worthy endeavor is going to be difficult. Marriage is, I believe, among the worthiest. Which makes it among the most difficult. It turns out the most difficult period in a marriage is between the fourth and eighth year. In nearly every developed country on the planet, the divorce rate spikes in this window. Most divorces are taking place at year four, right when the going gets really tough. At that point, you have a choice to either persevere, or quit.

Many years ago, I decided to climb Mount Rainier, Washington state’s largest peak at 14,411 feet. I had an aggressive training schedule, a great group of friends to climb with, and fancy new gear including expensive boots and very warm socks.

There was however a pretty big kink in my plan. It turns out that I’m pretty bad at mountaineering. And I don’t like it. I’ve always been an athlete, but I’m more of a sprinter than a “walk slowly up a mountain for a really long time” kind of guy. Also, I hate being cold. Also, I like being able to breathe.

Mountaineering is hard on the body, but it also messes with your mind. Our first training climb was at a smaller mountain we hoped to summit over the course of an eight-hour day. I was okay for the first little bit, and then increasingly exhausted, then ecstatic when I saw the peak.

But then as we approached the peak, I noticed another peak just behind it. Turns out that’s a thing in mountaineering…false peaks. You think you’re there, but you’re not. I faced a false peak three times that day. I gave up on my plan to climb Mt. Rainier shortly thereafter.

You can describe the process of a marriage in mountain climbing terms. The wedding is basecamp. You stock up on good vibes and lofty aspirations. You get a lot of new gear. You have all your friends and family there to send you off and wish you well. You gaze longingly at the promise of the peak. You celebrate the mutual trust and commitment you share with your climbing partner.

Then you begin the climb. The first few years are the lower slopes. The grade isn’t terribly steep, but it is an adjustment. You learn your partner’s strengths and weaknesses. You grapple a bit with the first experiences of difficulty, but you’re fueled by the adrenaline and novelty of the climb.

Then comes year three of marriage. Now you’re on the mountain. Oxygen deprivation. Bad weather. Aching muscles. They all set in.

The memory of your basecamp celebration has faded, and now it’s the grind. This is the period where couples tend to argue the most over the course of the entire marriage. You’re conflict patterns tend to become entrenched. Couples begin to articulate, “this is harder than I thought.” Because…it is harder than you thought.

This is probably the equivalent of where I gave up my mountain climbing career. In the same way that I couldn’t handle the false peaks, many couples get frustrated by the dashed hopes, unmet expectations, and the overwhelming sense that the slog is just not worth it. They stop moving and end up stuck, frozen on a false peak. They abandon their once shared effort for the vista from the top.

This is where your intentionality matters more than ever. Because here’s the good news: If you weather the slog, those difficult years between four and eight, you often end up happier than you were even at your wedding.

In her book, The Good News About Marriage, social researcher Shaunti Feldman speaks to this in a profound way. She researched relationships for more than 15 years and found that couples who at one point rated their relationship as “unhappy”, two out of three (66 percent) who avoided divorce or separation ended up happily married five years later. Among those who rated their marriages as very unhappy, almost eight out of ten (80 percent) who avoided divorce were happily married five years later.

There’s a secret in there about intentionality and perseverance. Among those whose marriages had been in enough trouble to consider divorce, the vast majority said they were glad they had stuck it out and were still together. They were glad they made it through the slog.

It seems to me that what allows couples to get and stay stuck is simply not being able to see when the pain will end. It’s easy–even for me—to fall into a pattern of saying “marriage is hard.” But what seems more relevant and accurate is that we have to work hard in our marriages.

There are three apocryphal rules of mountaineering.

It’s always further than it looks.
It’s always taller than it looks.
It’s always harder than it looks.

The same can be said about a marriage. The dream we define on our wedding day is further and taller and harder than we think. But there’s always a reason, perhaps even a mandate, to keep moving. Once you reach the peak the view is spectacular.