Like the old locomotives responsible for most long-distance travel and supply shipments from the early 1800s through the middle of the 20th century.
Our marriage is a steam engine-powered train requiring that coal be shoveled into the firebox to keep the fire burning, the pistons pumping, the wheels churning, and the train in motion.
Even before we were married, our relationships were steam trains. But then, keeping the locomotives moving was easy.
Then, the engine is only pulling a few cars. Your fuel source, filled right to the brim and easily accessible. The only other weight comes from whatever train cars are needed to hold all of our baggage.
We’re often in our twenties; sometimes just teenagers. We are youthful, full of energy, strong, and dragging very little baggage behind us.
The steam engine doesn’t require much coal, because it needn’t work hard to pull the lightweight and low-baggage train down the track.
Sometimes, he shovels in a little coal to keep the fire burning. Sometimes, she does.
Everything feels easy.
This train will never stop, we think.
We Get Married Which Adds More Train Cars
Marriage isn’t like having a Forever-Girlfriend or Forever-Boyfriend. It’s something else. Something harder. Something requiring more work and sacrifice.
He shovels more often. Larger piles to help pull the extra weight. New relationships thrust upon him. Her family. Her friends. Her job. Her needs. Her wants. Her dreams. The train is heavier. So he shovels more.
She shovels more often too, for all of the same reasons. The train is heavier now. So she shovels more.
They’re working together. In tandem. And the train chugs on.
We Have Children Which Adds More Train Cars
Children join the train. Many more cars are added to accommodate them and their needs. Life mistakes are made. Guilt and shame. Fear and anxiety. More train cars.
Children consume our hearts and sometimes we give less of them to our steam engine partners as a result. More train cars.
Children consume our time and sometimes we give less of it to our partners. More train cars.
Children consume more of our money, and financial stresses add more weight. More train cars.
The train is now very heavy, but there’s plenty of momentum.
The Shoveling Schedule and Efforts Seal Our Fate
When both partners shovel, the train hums along.
Sometimes, one partner sets down their shovel. There are many reasons why.
Maybe one of us is going back to school to advance our education and career, so one partner says “You go ahead and tend to that. I’ll keep the train moving.”
Maybe one of us switched jobs, and it takes us away from the shoveling.
Maybe we get sick. “You go ahead and heal. I know you’ll help me shovel again once you’ve recovered. I’ve got this.”
Maybe we suffer a death in the family, and collapse emotionally. One must tend to the fire while the other regains their strength.
But with each new life event, new train cars are added, and the locomotive gets heavier and heavier. As the weight of marriage increases, the relationship requires even more effort to keep it moving forward.
More communication. More empathy. More sacrifice.
So long as that fire keeps burning, the train moves forward. Sometimes trudging along slowly. Sometimes at a comfortable pace. And when we’re fortunate to come to downhill track grade, things seem to flow very smoothly.
Until it’s time to move uphill again.
The train will keep moving so long as there’s someone manning the engine and willing to shovel coal.
When both partners are shoveling, things run smoothly, though much effort is involved.
When both partners communicate and coordinate a strategy for a mutually beneficial shoveling schedule where one person is willing to shovel while the other tends to another important life need, or is in some kind of recovery period, things still run.
When one partner stops shoveling, but the other is willing to press on, shoveling and sacrificing for everyone on board, the train presses onward, though unsustainably. Because the next uphill climb eventually gets here, and one exhausted shoveler inevitably collapses trying to keep the now quite heavy locomotive moving forward on her or his own.
It’s simple enough.
It’s just very difficult.
A steam engine requires shoveling to keep the fire burning, and all of those heavy parts in motion. Certain sections of track require more power, and more power requires more sacrificial work. Shoveling coal is hard.
Which is why it’s a two-person job.
When we both shovel, we move forward.
When we both cannot shovel, we communicate and work cooperatively to keep moving forward.
When one of us stops shoveling out of necessity, the other must work harder and give more to keep moving forward.
When one of us quits shoveling due to exhaustion or selfishness, the other must work harder and give more to keep moving forward.
When both of us quit, the fire burns out, the train grinds to a halt, and everyone has to find a new way to carry all of that baggage to wherever we’re going next. We’re no longer part of the same passenger list.
When both of us quit shoveling, the ride is over.
Our marriage is a steam train.