it's complicated

I Got Married Before I Was Ready

Photo: Tolgart/Getty Images/iStockphoto

We met in the middle of July, three weeks after I had moved back to Minneapolis. Tim, the Scandi-hip bassist of a local band my friends and I were into, stood stage right, his blond hair pushed aside above his nerdy, rectangular glasses. Equal parts starstruck and presumptuous, I was determined to make him like me, to use the easy thrill of a summer fling to distract me from the pain of my mom’s death and the recent, sudden end of a serious relationship.

Almost a year to the day later, we were married.

After I went home that night and followed him on just about every social media outlet in a new-crush daze, Tim and I chatted for hours on Facebook Messenger, where he says I captured him with wit and obscure band references (I can’t argue with him). It wasn’t long before we grabbed coffee to share music and book suggestions, which soon escalated to dinners, day-trips, and occasional hand-holding. He asked me to make it official a few weeks after we started dating, but I resisted the label, knowing that the shards of loss I lived in weren’t the ideal habitat for a stable relationship.

“But we’re kind of already acting like we’re in a relationship,” Tim, somehow immune to the emotional gymnastics required by dating me, tried to reason with me in his living room. “I get it,” I replied. “But we’re not in a relationship. At least not yet.”

I brought up my hesitation to a therapist friend, who wasn’t shy about her concerns. “I think it’s a little too soon to jump into this. I mean, you’ve only been single for a month, and you’ve got a lot going on.” She was right. It was definitely too soon — by cultural standards, and my own, I wasn’t “ready” for something serious, let alone something casual.

And I did have a lot going on — too much, I thought, to impose on this sweet, unsuspecting musician. On top of the anxiety pummeling me day to day, I was a 22-year-old working part-time at my local Ann Taylor Loft, cushioning my ballooning credit card debt and student loan payment with a nanny job. Without insurance, I couldn’t afford therapy, so I drank cheap Riesling and maxed out my J.Crew card instead of facing my insecurity head on. I knew I needed to get my shit together before I “settled down.” I needed to find myself in the mess my mom’s loss had left, to overcome the emotions of navigating a motherless life.

At first glance, Tim was the opposite of what I thought I needed. While I’m an extra-extroverted feeler, Tim is quiet, reserved, and a little bit nerdy — the least likely to speak up in a group of people, but the most likely to be thinking something profound and creative. I began to see his depth the fall we started dating, when we made each other mix CDs of our favorite music. Mine was a haphazard blend of indie-pop music I thought would impress him, mostly songs I’d just discovered that summer. But his CD, an eclectic mix of genres and eras, was like a musical museum of his mind. Every song was painstakingly meaningful, like it contained a hidden message of how he felt about me, or how he felt about the world. We’d only been dating for two months, but I felt like Tim understood beauty. And I wanted him to show me more.

From the beginning, Tim had been clear about his intention to marry me. He was a few years older than me, and he hadn’t dated anyone seriously before, and he didn’t want to mess around. He wanted a family, he wanted someone to love, he wanted a partner who would draw him out and inspire him. He wanted me. So I wasn’t as surprised as you’d think when he brought up marriage just a few weeks after I finally agreed to make our relationship Facebook official.

I was, however, surprised by the out-of-proportion level of anxiety it provoked in me. I had just gotten comfortable with the idea of being someone’s girlfriend, a low-level commitment I was beginning to think I could handle (with Ann Taylor, all things are possible). But marriage. That seemed unwise. That seemed like a trap.

I knew Tim was the person I wanted to partner with for life, the person I wanted to raise children with, adventure with, binge on early seasons of Top Chef with. But not yet. Not until I learned to make eye contact with my skeletons. To prioritize my healing journey was the least I could do for him, I assumed, to be the kind of wife I wanted to be. And he was willing to wait as long as it took. He wanted me to be ready. But when would I be? Sure, I could get some control over my mental health, cry a little about my mom. I could pay off my student loans and get a job I actually cared about, then get insurance and find a therapist.

But what if I could do those things with Tim, instead of before him?

We tend to believe in the black-and white-message of “you’re ready” or “you’re not” when it comes to significant life milestones, especially marriage. We see binding commitments as confining, and, therefore limiting — which means we must squeeze as much life, as much self-realization, into our unmarried years as possible. We want to come into our partnerships whole, fulfilled, and ready. It makes sense: Marriage is, at best, is a lifelong decision, and one we should take seriously for ourselves and our partners.

Even so: I knew I wanted to be with Tim, so why wait until I could satisfy standards I might never meet? Why linger in a season of life he could enrich if I would just let him?

In March, Tim and I road-tripped from Minnesota to Texas to visit my best friend, Rachel, who had been next to me when I found out my mom died, when I moved to Oklahoma to be closer to my ex, and after he broke up with me. Something about intersecting these two parts of my life — my new-ish boyfriend and the best friend who had shouldered so many of my burdens — emboldened me, reminding me who I was and what I loved. And I loved Tim.

So, in the heat of an emotionally-charged (and probably tipsy) moment, I told Rachel to tell him to ask me to marry me while we were all together. The last night Rachel was in town, Tim told me he had to pick up a shift at the Greek restaurant where he worked, and invited Rachel and I to have dinner there. When we showed up, he walked out with flowers and asked me to marry him. I still wasn’t ready. But I still said yes.

We got married on a sticky July day, him in a gray linen suit and his rectangular glasses and me in a Grecian gown and too many Anthropologie accessories. It’s been seven years, and I have never regretted saying “yes” before I felt fully prepared. I’ve never wished I would have been “more ready” or “more whole” before I committed to Tim, or that I would have followed a more traditional, practical timeline. I realize Tim isn’t perfect, and marriage hasn’t been a magic cure-all for my problems. What it has been, though — like anything so long-suffering — is an opportunity to see myself differently. The steady, often dull partnership of marriage has provided the backdrop I needed to become who I wanted to be all along: a stronger, more loving version of myself.

Before Tim, I dated guys who were loud and opinionated — carbon copies of myself who, in turn, left no room for me to be who I was. I thought I needed, and deserved, a partner who silenced me, who took the reins on my unkempt personality. But Tim did the opposite. He made room for me to be who I was, encouraging me to feel what I felt and say what I meant. He was stable when I was erratic, logical when I was emotional, grounded when I was anxious. And it turned out to be a gift.

Two years after we got married, shortly after my twenty-fifth birthday, I peed on a pregnancy test in my upstairs bathroom. I thought about all the things I hadn’t done yet. Tim and I had barely made a dent in our debt, and we had no savings. I drank too much to blur the edges of the anxiety I still hadn’t overcome. I had hardly skimmed the surface of my mom’s death, and I was still adjusting to married life. All I felt in that moment was dread: dread about who I wasn’t yet and who I was sure I couldn’t be without somehow buying more time. I knew I wasn’t ready to be a mom — but there I was, standing next to my husband, holding a positive pregnancy test.

“I don’t think I can do this,” I told Tim through sobs. But I had done so much before, when I didn’t think I could, he told me. I didn’t have to have my life together before becoming someone’s wife or mom. Maybe those things were the path toward the person I wanted to be, not a reward for becoming her.

Eight months later, on a Tuesday night in May, I held my red-headed son for the first time. I was a someone’s wife, and now someone’s mother, both long before I was prepared and at just the right time.

It’s Complicated: I Got Married Before I Was Ready