On a crisp, clear Saturday morning in spring, twenty years ago, I spent the better part of the day fighting off multiple attackers.
I was seventeen when I took up Tae Kwon Do. Like almost everyone starting out in the Martial Arts, that elusive black belt was my end goal. “Once I get my black, I’ll know everything there is to know,” I thought.
A few years later, and I had switched from Tae Kwon Do to a street fighting based mixed Martial Arts. The day I tested for my red belt, everything came together for me: My forms, my strength, my flexibility, my ability to learn and employ new techniques. That day stands out in my memory as an excellent day. I was at my prime and knew it. Nothing was going wrong for me. Other students apparently noticed as well .
At one point when my instructor, Mr. Smith, took the other black belts out of the gym in order to discuss everyone’s performance, one of the other students came up to me and said, “I wouldn’t be surprised if they were talking about skipping red and advancing you straight to black.” I was honestly stunned. I felt good about my performance that day, but not to the point where I felt I had earned the rank of black. Moreover, I thought, but I’m not ready. I don’t know everything about the Martial Arts yet.
And that’s also when a prior comment by Mr. Smith came back to me, that when a Martial Arts student attains his or her black belt, that that is when the real learning —the real work — begins. Of course, most forms of Martial Arts have more than one level of black belt, usually ten. And this is when I realized that there’s a reason for this — everything up to that point is basics.
On a damp, slightly overcast Saturday morning one year ago, I pledged myself to the woman I intend to spend the rest of my life with.
And that was the day that, even though we had already been together for more than five years and had lived together for the majority of that time, I knew the real work in our relationship would begin.
Looking back, I realize that dating is really just the training phase for marriage. It’s when you discover your strengths and weaknesses as well as what you look for in a partner, what qualities you like and don’t like. Dating is belt levels white through red. This is the time to make your mistakes, look for guidance, pay attention, learn from your peers, take your hits. And then, when you’re ready to take the next step, that’s when the real work begins.
When you say “I do,” you advance from learning what makes up a relationship to how to sustain one. And that takes care, patience, understanding, and a willingness to continue to learn. After all, you can’t earn your second degree black belt if you stop learning once that first black is around your waist. Nor your third, nor your fourth.
I won’t lie. It’s hard. It takes commitment. It tests you in ways you’ve never been tested before. And, yes, you’ll still take some hits. Harder ones, in some cases, because the difficulty level has been amped up. This isn’t something for amateurs. A lot of marriages fail for a lot of reasons, just like a lot of Martial Arts students drop out before and after attaining their black belts. In many cases, they’re simply not prepared for how difficult it is. Yes, it’s hard. But it’s supposed to be. And you have to commit to it every single day.
As for me, I was happy to receive my red belt that day I tested. I wasn’t ready for black and my instructors and I all knew it. I still had a lot of training to do.
A year ago today, I said “I do,” and entered that next level in my relationship. This time, I was ready. It’s something that still overwhelms me at times (in a good way). I won’t say I have all the answers, that I know everything there is to know about marriage, but simply by knowing this and by treating each day as an opportunity to learn and grow, I’m confident that we’ll both succeed in the many years to come.