What nobody tells you about marriage

One of my very best friends from high school got engaged a few weeks ago. I cried after she called to tell me about it, just like I did when my older sister Karen got engaged.

Like my older sister, Michelle helped to make me the person I am today. Nearly all the pivotal moments in my life over the past 14 years we've been friends have been influenced by her friendship, fearless refusal to take no for an answer, insatiable desire for a challenge, and sometimes brutally honest advice. She's been my sounding board for the hardest questions I've had in life, the person who has been on the other end of the phone in the middle of the night with me a blubbering mess, gripped with loneliness, fear and self-doubt. There have been countless times when Michelle has helped me navigate those hard times through her strength, perspective and unique brand of girl power that leaves a wake wherever she goes.

There's a saying that hard times reveal true friends. The people who know your character flaws, insecurities, vulnerabilities and stick with you through it all are rare and incredibly valuable. They become like family.

Marriage, at its essence, is finding in a life partner that same feeling you get from your family and closest friends, that in-it-for-the-long-haul-despite-your-obvious-and-plentiful-shortcomings commitment and loyalty, and combining it with attraction, shared values and life goals.

Realizing that I had that rare combination in my now-husband Wes is how I knew I wanted to marry him. Not because he's dizzyingly handsome, driven, confident, thoughtful and hilarious (although he is), but because he sees me for who I am and accepts me, challenges me, pushes me and ultimately makes me a better person. He has fundamentally helped shape who I am today, and I'm not sure what path my life would have taken without him in it. I think that's why they say that the single most important decision you make in life is who you choose to share it with.

All this "making each other into better people" business comes with A LOT of effort, at least for me and Wes. Our first year of marriage was a rollercoaster of learning experiences which we culminated with a half-serious formal year-end performance review based on a 1-5 rating scale, with 5 being an F. (For the record, I gave Wes a 3, and he gave me a 4.) My lowest point of that year was within a month of our honeymoon: I walked into our tiny 2-bedroom rental after a week on the road for work and an extreme flight delay to find pizza boxes and beer cans in the middle of the living room, basketball shoes and dirty gym clothes in the hallway, and my husband with a newfound appreciation of PlayStation. I dropped my bags and started crying. Wes jumped up to comfort me, confused when all I could say was that I felt homeless. I slept in the guest bedroom that night, and we learned to discuss our needs in more concrete detail. Wes has had the house clean on Thursdays ever since.

Getting married to Wes has been the best decision I've made in my life. When I look back on our engagement and first year, my only regret is that I wish someone had given me a head's up that the ups and downs were not only normal, but necessary to continuing to grow in our relationship. I wish someone had told me that the ideal of a picture-perfect movie marriage is not only unrealistic, but would also be incredibly boring. Wes and I have an extremely strong relationship that I measure by the moments where we're suppressing desires to flick each other in the forehead and find ourselves laughing and holding hands minutes later.

Ok, if you've made it through that long prologue to this point, here are the things that I've learned in my marriage that I want to share with Michelle and my other closest friends who've decided to take the plunge:

#1 You will have a minor identity crisis

Mine kicked in the moment I got engaged, but according to my informal research this happens to others at unpredictable intervals. It starts with considering your name change and realizing that the name you've built independently will cease to exist. For some odd reason, I couldn't get over the fact that "Colleen Kelly" on my birth certificate will never be on a tombstone.

There was also this secret vision I had of myself living in a studio apartment in Paris taking art classes that I had to let die a slow death in order for the new vision of myself getting married to take hold.

#2 You will come in with unwritten expectations of marriage based on the only one you know

Subconsciously benchmarking marriage with what you grew up with isn't surprising, but I was surprised at the small assumptions that I had about marriage in general, about Wes in the role of husband, and about the assumptions he had of me in the role of wife. My friends know very well that my engagement story involved Googling "Why am I freaking out about getting engaged?" at 4 a.m. and ordering books titled "A Bride's Guide to the 'Happiest Time of Her Life'." For some reason, I'd always associated marriage with Honda Odysseys, lots of crying children, and a selfless wife with the patience of Mother Theresa. Also known as my mother's life, one that she loved but produced a daughter who hated her van, disliked babysitting and ended up with the patience of her litigator father.

Marriage is something that the two people in it create for themselves, and it takes a conscious effort to identify and discuss the assumptions you have of each other, determine which ones aren't going to hold true, and learn to specialize where it works for you. In our marriage, I'm the haphazard handyman and cook, and Wes meticulously does the laundry and bills.

#3 You will realize that your former standards of cleanliness do not have a place in your home

I've already described my low point in year one above, but I thought my mom had an interesting take on this. She told me that I had to "lower my standards" of cleanliness if I wanted a happy marriage. (WHAT?!?!) After a long internal battle that involved me independently Swiffering and vacuuming on Saturday mornings in a silent rage, I decided that I'd rather have a slightly dirty house and a happy marriage than be sterile and alone. Hiring a cleaning lady to come every other week helped, too.

#4 You will become more accepting of yourself, your flaws and your path

It's strangely paradoxical, but having Wes see all of my bad qualities (like the neuroses that may be evident in #1-2 above…) and love me anyway made me more confident and willing to work on them. Having him as my sounding board has helped me overcome self-doubt and take risks that I don't think I would have done on my own.

#5 You will be humbled daily by having to look at yourself through someone else's perspective

Sentences like, "I guess I can see how my refusal to hang your giant glowing beer signs and framed portrait of Ronald Reagan in our home could be offensive to you and your interests" suddenly became relevant when Wes and I got married. Learning that I had habits that deeply annoyed Wes opened my eyes and I learned to look at myself more objectively. One in particular was my tendency to go radio silent for hours at a time when I was engrossed in an activity (e.g., exploring a flea market, selecting appropriate wattage light bulbs at Home Depot). I'm still a bad texter (as my friends will attest) but have made amazing progress since 2013.

#6 You will strangely feel more comfortable interacting with men

Let me just say that I used to be uncomfortable interacting with men in certain situations because I didn't want to give the wrong impression that I was interested and end up 1. being asked out on a date that I would have to awkwardly turn down or 2. inadvertently becoming known as the Bridget Jones of the office with a hopeless crush and forever be break room cooler gossip.

Somehow, being publicly and clearly off the market eliminates the need to overthink what you are saying to some random guy on the subway so he doesn't somehow get the impression that you are available and interested. Again, I'm neurotic and recognize that this sentiment may not be widely shared, but it was mildly problematic for me and for my close girlfriends that I surveyed at length about the topic. (I've met a few women who tell me they don't have many girlfriends and have closer relationships with men, and I always ask them how they prevent said men from falling in love with them. I am probably a closed-minded product of my strict Catholic upbringing…)

#7 You and your husband will challenge each other to become better versions of yourselves

In my opinion, marriage is progressive: it's a relationship that is constantly changing, growing and evolving. To keep it progressing means you have to be all in, commit to it fully while continuing to invest in your independent interests, to stay focused on your shared values yet not take yourselves too seriously, to hold each other to the high standards you went in with and keep each other accountable when you're falling short, and to make time for shutting out the world to enjoy each other's company while simultaneously remembering to confirm that your anxious dog has been fed and walked.

For all the joy in our relationship, I'm convinced we'd be stagnant and boring if we never disagreed, got angry, or wanted to flick each other in the forehead out of sheer annoyance. This might be unique to my marriage, but I'm convinced that the challenges we've faced have made us closer and our relationship stronger.

I could write this list for hours, but taking a break here to let my married readers weigh in on this topic. I know many of you have been married for years and years, and am curious what you've learned along the way that surprised you! Please let me (and my newly engaged friend Michelle) know in the comments.