Friday, November 8, 2013

What Marriage Actually Is

In the world of the internet, topics run in cycles. One week, everyone and their brother is writing about bullying, the next week it's gun control, then it's breastfeeding or yoga pant controversies. Right now, it seems that there are more stories about marriage being posted and spread around like wildfire.

I read most of them and shake my head.

I have actually laughed out loud at a few of them, particularly the ones written by newly married people who claim to have it all figured out.

I've been married over fifteen years now,  and have been with my husband for six additional ones before then. Even with all of that, I would never attempt to tell you that I have it figured out.


Here's what I have learned about marriage, most of it the hard way.

- You have to be flexible. Marriage is like any kind of relationship between two people in many ways. To be sustainable, you have to be flexible. Sometimes you need more, sometimes you give more, sometimes you take more, sometimes you are forced to do more. It's hardly ever equal in terms of the amount of effort expended or needed because life is never predictable. Get used to it. Over the long term, it should roughly balance out so that one person isn't always the giver, the other the taker. There has to be some balance, but it's really only possible in the long term. On any given day, the scale is probably going to be tipped one direction or the other. This is part of life. Get used to it.

- You can't keep score. If you've been giving more lately, it's probably because your partner needs more, not because they are just a selfish asshole. (unless, of course, they are a selfish asshole, which I will address later in this post) If you're worried about tallying up what you give, if you're keeping a mental tab open and waiting to cash it in, if you're building resentment against your partner, it's fairly safe to say that you aren't ever going to feel validated. Are you doing things for your spouse because you want cosmic credit for it, or are you doing them because you are supporting your partner? Ask yourself that question before you get pissed off at them.

- Be clear about your expectations. No one is a mind reader, and passive aggression is a tool for manipulating people, not a component of a healthy marriage. Whatever it is that you want or need, say it. Deliberately. Don't hint at it. Don't silently hope they'll figure it out. Don't beat around the bush. If you don't tell someone what you want or need, you don't get to be frustrated when they fail. It's not fair.

- Marriage isn't about you or them. It's about both of you AND this thing you have between you. It isn't about what you want or need all the time, just like it can't always be about the other person, and it can never just be about the marriage because that ignores the truth that a marriage is a legal construct between two people. Once you have kids, it's about them too. There is give and take in any relationship, there are compromises and sacrifices that need to be made for the benefit of the marriage or family unit. Everyone has to be willing to make those sacrifices. If there is a breakdown in communication, if one person suppresses issues, it will eventually effect everyone. For a marriage to survive, you have to be willing to think about the consequences of your choices, not just for you, but for them, and you must be willing to alter your behavior accordingly. You are different people with different philosophies, different approaches, different goals...they will not match up all the time.

- Fight fair. That not keeping score thing comes in here too. You will have disagreements. There will be conflicts. If you drag every shitty thing they have ever done from out of the closet, you're not fighting fair. If you drag other people (usually their immediate family) into it, you're not fighting fair. If you aren't being honest about what is really bothering you, you aren't fighting fair.

- Listen. I cannot stress this one enough. Put the phone down. Get off the computer. Turn off the television. Remove all the other distractions from your life and just listen to your spouse.  Hearing what someone is saying is not always the same as listening.

- Respect your individuality. If he likes to fish and you can't stomach the thought, tell him to go with a buddy or a brother. If you want to spend all day in the park taking pictures, but he wants to do something else, go without him. No couple shares all the same interests, and there is nothing wrong with having interests totally different than your partner. Do not give up the things you love. Don't force them to do it either. Do what you love, even if you need to do it alone. Stay passionate about your hobbies. Do not sacrifice who you are to be part of a couple. Likewise, don't sacrifice it to be a parent either. You may need to trim back or alter the way you engage in the things you love, but don't give it up. Stay true to yourself.

- Marriage is work. Hard, ugly, awful work. Sometimes it just plain sucks. There will be times, for sure, that divorce will seem like a better option. I've filled out those papers more than once, myself. When you first get married, most people do it for love and hope and the future and all things optimistic. It's idealistic, it's the stuff of dreams. If you're lucky, you can ride that high for a while. But know this truth - the high always ends. Always.

- When marriage gets hard is when it matters the most. I cannot stress this enough. Everyone can do the better, richer, in health times pretty easily. The worse, poorer, sicker times, not so much. Life is filled with worse, poorer, sicker, and how you weather those times will be far more indicative of whether your marriage will last. Crises have a way of bringing people together or pushing them apart. Remember that you didn't just sign on for the good stuff, you agreed to be there for each other even and especially when it's bad. I can tell you from experience, the sicker is probably the hardest, particularly if you are dealing with any kind of mental illness. Living though cancer was a piece of cake compared to dealing with depression, PTSD and anxiety in a marriage. You will find that what started out about love will evolve and that there will be many times in your marriage where love is wholly irrelevant. Marriage isn't about love...not in the long run. Love won't keep you together. There has to be more.

- Own your shit. Both of you. Everyone makes mistakes. Everyone makes bad decisions. Everyone does things that hurt their partner, sometimes as an unintended consequence, sometimes on purpose. Everyone. You are not immune to this, nor is your spouse. This will happen, of that I will give you a 100% guarantee, no matter how totally blissfully happy and in love you may be right in this moment. It will happen. What you do afterwards matters more. Don't lie, don't cover things up, don't minimize it, don't deflect blame. Don't. Own your shit. Admit it when you screw up and hurt them. Apologize and mean it. Learn from your mistakes and don't do it again.

- Counseling won't work unless you do the work. Being habitual, showing up for appointments and going through the motions isn't enough. Unless you are committed to working on improving your marriage, nothing will change no matter how long you are in counseling. In fact, it'll probably get worse. I know from experience. Far more important than marriage counseling is individual therapy. The vast majority of problems within a marriage come from unresolved issues that one person has going on. Or that they both have. Fix yourself first. Until and unless you do that, marriage counseling is a complete waste of your time. We tried marriage counseling for a while. It was an abysmal failure. We both had other things to deal with individually, and are still working on that.

- Don't be a selfish asshole. We are all selfish at times, we are all assholes at times. It's part of life. If it becomes more than occasional, you need to take a step back and re-evaluate what you're doing. Take a long, hard look in the mirror. Strip it down and get ugly with it. If you are even for a moment contemplating an affair, ask yourself why and be totally honest about it. If you're blaming your partner, I can promise that you are wrong. It is never the proper way to deal with unhappiness in a marriage. You will, unequivocally and without doubt, make everything worse. If you are an alcoholic or drug user, you are kidding yourself if you think it doesn't hurt anyone else. If you have depression or other mental health issues going on and don't seek help for them, you aren't just damaging yourself, you are hurting others. If you are rationalizing any of this stuff right now, stop it. This isn't just about you anymore. It's no one else's job to fix you, and even if they wanted to, they can't. Fix yourself...you're the only one who can.

- Things change, people change. Whoever you are married to now isn't the person you married all those years ago. People evolve. They change. You change. Relationships must as well as a direct consequence.

- Remember why you married them. Sure, it's hell being married sometimes, but you did this for a reason, right? Woo your spouse, even when you can't stand them. Tell them you love them, even when you hate them - those two emotions are most definitely not mutually exclusive. Kiss each other goodnight, even when you've been screaming at one another for hours. At the end of the day, you chose this person for a reason. Try and remember that.

I leave you with this. I've seen things, you guys. My marriage is far from perfect, but it's closer now than it has been in a very long time.

My husband likes to steal my cell phone and change my ringtones when I'm not looking. When this song came out, he set this as his ringtone on my phone.

Because he knows just how perfectly this describes us.

He's not wrong.


10 comments:

  1. Excellent post! You've captured so many things that people never consider (or don't want to). I wish every engaged/married couple could read this. Thanks girl! :)

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  2. One day you're going to have to write a crappy post just to make me feel better about my own blog please.

    Until then - thanks for this! So many other writers have been all sunshine and roses or all doom and gloom lately. We aren't married, but do have a child together and are trying to build a family (which marriage will certainly be a part of soon) and this is great advice!

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  3. Well done!! Most honest and truthful advice I've read.

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  4. A marriage counselor could not have said this better. You are spot on.

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  5. What is the song??

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  6. Thank you for writing this. I am sharing this with everyone on my Facebook account. I agree with a comment above, a marriage therapist can't say this better.

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