Edward: A friend of mine was in the sacristy of the church on his wedding day, waiting alone in the final minutes before the ceremony began. His best man came to check on him one last time. The best man, who had been married with children for several years, walked into the sacristy, gave the groom a serious stare for a few moments, and then started laughing at him.

Perplexed, the groom asked, “I’m about to get married … Why are you laughing at me?”

The best man replied, “That’s just it—you don’t know!”

That’s true for all of us. We don’t know what we’re really getting into when we get married. Indeed, nothing can fully prepare us for all the realities we will face in our vocation. We have to be thrown deep into the mystery of the other person, and the mystery of our relationship together, to appreciate what it’s really all about—the joys, the sorrows, the unexpected trials, the unanticipated blessings; how much it will demand of us; how much it will transform us; how we will be stretched like never before; and how much our hearts will expand as we take on the heart of Christ.

In our years of working with young people, Beth and I have heard many devout Catholic couples express how surprised they were when stresses, tensions, and hurts came up in their relationship. This can happen a few months, a few years, or a few kids into their marriage. They were not expecting this level of difficulty, and they think they’re the only ones struggling.

“No one ever told us how hard marriage really is.”

“Before we were married, we thought to ourselves, ‘Our faith is important to us. We pray, we love Jesus, we go to adoration … Our marriage will be great …’ But we were shocked that we could have all that and still have many struggles in our marriage.”

“Two very different people—who think differently, look at the world differently, communicate differently, process things differently—coming together for this relationship? It’s crazy hard!”

“I never realized how selfish I was … until I got married.”

You can go through the best marriage preparation program; pray countless rosaries, novenas, and holy hours for your marriage; study the Church’s teachings on marriage and family; have amazing mentor couples to learn from; and even memorize the Theology of the Body … and you still will not have any idea of what marriage is really all about and what it will do to you until you are deep into it.

This is both the beauty and the challenge of marriage. St. Francis de Sales underscores how marriage is the only vocation in which people take a vow before any kind of novitiate. In religious life, there is a long period of preparation, formation, and much practical experience in living with the community one is entering. A novice gets to try it out for a while, to see if this is what he wants to do for the rest of his life before making final vows. As St. Francis de Sales explains, marriage is vastly different. The couple is immediately thrown into the deep end together—and it is for the rest of their lives. “In marriage, one takes a vow. But it is the only instance where a vow is taken without a novitiate. If it had a year of novitiate, how few would enter into it.”

 The following saying applies most beautifully to marriage: “You build a life, and then it builds you.” This is what happens when man and woman come together in the sacrament of Matrimony. They decide to build a life together in marriage. And that decision—and the daily commitment to be faithful to that decision—is what God uses to form and bless the couple more than anything else in their lives. Indeed, it is precisely through the challenges, difficulties, and trials of ordinary, daily married life that God wants to transform us with his love and make us more like him.

This article is based on Edward and Beth Sri’s book, The Good, the Messy and the Beautiful: The Joys and Struggles of Real Married Life (Ascension Press).