Notes from a newlywed

Two dancers, one beat, one melody. One movement connecting two people. Heels are clacking, fingers are snapping, and the music is swirling, propelling the couple forward—and toward each other.

It’s no wonder that dancing and romance go hand in hand. Jane Austen wrote that “to be fond of dancing was a certain step towards falling in love”—a truth we see in traditions like a couples’ first dance at their wedding. The activity that lends itself to love’s beginning also appears when love has won out.

My husband and my first dance came long before our wedding. After our first Valentine’s dinner together, we watched YouTube tutorials on how to dance Michael Jackson’s “Thriller.” We pushed the couch in his tiny bachelor apartment to the side and spent hours laughing and trying (and failing) to moonwalk and master Jackson’s subtle head-flick. We were just having fun, but we were also beginning to practice syncing our steps. We were starting to communicate, to move as one.

And this is what was emphasized, over and over, years later, in our marriage prep: that we would be acting as a unit—as one.

I don’t know about you, but this was (and is) a difficult concept for me to grasp. Yes, I understood that our bank accounts would be merging and we’d move into the same home and I would spend months getting used to a new name. But the two of us? Being as one? We’re very different people. We’re still individuals. I was definitely overthinking it, and it didn’t make any sense.

So I decided to think about something else instead. As I’m setting about learning how to be happily married, I’ve begun to approach it as if we are trying to learn another complex art—as if my husband and I were learning to dance.

We have to start with the basics.

We don’t like simple. We like putting things on pedestals. When we think about dancing, we envision the beautiful woman in the full skirt and the man in the tux. When we think about marriage, a rose-tinted, sepia-toned mental image of an attractive giggling couple comes to mind. This ideal makes us happy, because it’s easy and fun to imagine that we can be the perfect couple—at home or on the dance floor. That our relationships will support and uplift both participants flawlessly. That we will foxtrot with finesse and somehow look just like the trained experts from Dancing with the Stars. And while we can make these things happen if we want, the reality of life is that there are lows as well as highs, and perfection isn’t realistic. It’s easy to think that when we experience these imperfect realities, we’re failing.

That’s why it’s important to remember to start with the fundamentals: step by step. If you’ve put on music and take a step in time, you’re doing it—you’re dancing. In marriage, that step could be worrying less about how many children you’ll eventually have and where you’ll be living in ten years and simply loving your spouse and taking life one day at a time.

But it takes effort and persistence.

On the other hand, it’s easy to get caught up in that air of purported simplicity. Shouldn’t it be easier than this? we wonder, as we fall down or step on our partner’s toes while trying to learn a simple two-step dance. Why am I trying and failing so hard?

That’s one of the first paradoxes that comes to mind when watching expert dancers. They’re doing something incredibly difficult, but they’re smiling. They’re laughing. They’re having fun. If done right, dancing looks fun and easy.

However, it takes hard work, numerous setbacks, and significant preparation to make something look so effortless. In order for a couple to come together and dance a flawless tango, both individuals have to put their own effort in. Professional dancers have rigorous regimens of eating well, exercising, toning their muscles, practicing their steps in a mirror at home. Dancing as an art form involves intense studying; learning how to dance is learning a whole new language, as innately and completely as you know the language you speak. Each of the dancers works hard individually to be their very best—which only makes the dancing couple look better together.

So it is with marriage. Saying “I do” doesn't automatically transform us into the best versions of ourselves. Before and throughout marriage, we have to invest in the physical, mental, and spiritual care of ourselves for the good of the other. Similarly, we don't effortlessly know how to read each other's minds and offer desired displays of affection overnight. Over time, we must continue to remain curious, give generously, and aim to stay in harmony with our partner.

This is a lot of work. It’s tempting to skip the effort and dance half-heartedly. But have you ever seen a dancer who’s timid about her movements, or who clearly would rather be doing anything else? The performance falls flat. It’s easy to just go through the motions. This is human, this is inevitable sometimes—but it makes something which could be great considerably less so.

We’ll mess up.

When we put our whole hearts and efforts into something, we risk making mistakes, and big ones. And when we’re learning how to dance, we’ll fall down—over and over.

But when we make mistakes, we also learn how to make things right. And then we begin to dance again. As we learn and grow together, stepping in sync becomes mindless—the moves writ deep in our muscle memory. Our hands learn to know each other’s hands. We begin to anticipate the next steps and how best to support our partner, and we fall less frequently. We learn to know at a glance or a touch what our partners need, and how we can move to make it happen—while at the same time learning to trust that when we fall, someone will be there to help us climb to our feet.

When we’ve learned not to fall—at least for a specific dance—then it becomes clear why we worked so hard. The feeling of whirling around as a team in a dance so practiced that it has become innate is one of the best feelings in the world. After something becomes rote, it becomes part of who you are.

When we’re learning how to dance, we learn the skill of focusing on what’s happening in front of us—on our partners—and we learn to tune out unhelpful things happening outside of the music, outside of the dance. Comparison to others whose dance is different than yours is fruitless. There are a million ways to dance—from the waltz to the samba to the hand-jive and the Electric Slide. Chances are, the couple dancing next to you is dancing to a completely different tune.

When we’re learning how to dance, we need to learn the indescribably difficult skill of trusting our partner—of stepping based only on where they are leading us—as well as having the courage and confidence to lead when it is our turn. We need to have the vulnerability to allow them to carry us when the music plays in a certain way. We need to be able to let our partners know when we are struggling because they might have the strength to carry us through.

But the end result is a work of art.

Be vulnerable, and the world will not be able to look away from the thing of beauty that is your dance. That’s the thing—dancing is an art, and when two people come together and move as one it is, by definition, a beautiful thing.

And so it is also a thing of beauty when two people marry and live as one.

Marrying involves learning a whole new person as well as you know yourself. Marriage involves working hard to be the best version of your individual self so that your marriage can be doubly great. Just as we learn to count out our steps in a waltz, we learn the rhythms of marriage, the tempo of daily life, the familiarity with which unloading the dishwasher can become a subconsciously choreographed event. The ritual of living and being with another becomes a part of who we are. In marriage we learn to trust our partner, we learn that comparison to the family next door is unhelpful, we learn that mistakes happen, and we learn how to recover. And as two “I”s become “we,” two people can become something bigger than the sum of their parts. They become a family—a living work of dynamic art, moving and growing together, as one.

I take comfort in knowing that when I’m trying to understand and live in something as complicated, intimate, and important as my marriage, I can take a step back. I can turn on music, take my husband’s hand, and feel the music move through us. We begin to move in unison. We look at each other and smile. We find that our steps are taking us in the same direction. We feel connected. We move as one. 

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