Now some of you may be inclined to roll your eyes or gag. Some of you may think I'm exaggerating, lying or suffering from some delusion. Some of you may feel like I'm bragging or insensitively flaunting my happiness in total disregard of all of those folks who don't have a partner or unconditional love in their lives.
In the past, I would have succumbed to the pressure, and believe me, it IS pressure, to keep my big mouth shut when I would hear folks talk about marriage, or the opposite sex. Regardless of whether I was sitting in the therapist chair talking to clients, on the phone coaching someone or sitting across from a friend at lunch, whenever the topic of marriage came up it I'd hear the litany, "We fight like everyone else." "It's never perfect." and the half-statements delivered with an eye roll and knowing glance, "You know...men...", "You know...women..."
Let's face it. No marriage is perfect!
When I was younger, if I voiced my objection to these sweeping statements, "Well, actually we don't fight." "My husband isn't like that at all." I would be met with, "How long have you been married?" "Five years." Then the smirk, "Oh, you're still babies...just you wait." Or if they would concede that we did have a good marriage it was always disregarded with comments like, "Well, you're LUCKY." And, many times I would be told outright, "I don't want to hear about your happy marriage. I'm married to a jerk."
So, you hear this enough and you learn to keep your trap shut.
Then, in a group last year, in the midst of a huge discussion about the perils and pitfalls of marriage one of the group members said,
"I think good marriages are an urban myth."
I just couldn't let that go.
The FACT is, 13 years in, our marriage is getting better every year. It isn't blind luck and it certainly wasn't beginner's luck, this being a second marriage for both of us. It breaks my heart to see so many bad marriages out there. It really does. A true marriage is an amazing and beautiful bond. (I do include same sex relationships here, despite my earlier reference to the "opposite sex".) Because we have so very few models of healthy marriages out there, I'd like to share what I have come to appreciate and understand about what makes a marriage work in the hope that some nugget will help you establish, create or strengthen your own bond.
1. 'Til death do us part. WOW. Do people even promise that anymore? You can't promise this AND get a pre-nup. I'm sorry if I'm offending everyone out there, but I think entering into a marriage with an exit clause is destructive and dangerous. Nothing you could say will change my mind on this so hang on to those e-mails. The reality is TRUST is critical in a marriage. You can't trust someone AND ask for a dissolution agreement 'just in case'. If you need that, one or both of you is holding back or is seeing something that you should be paying attention to but are trying to ignore. Yes, many people have been horribly hurt and feel they need to protect themselves from future risk as a result. Exactly. You are entering in to a relationship with someone you fundamentally do not trust. If I'm in a partnership with someone that may well see me through illness and death, I want to know they are up for that. I need to know that they are capable of loving me even when it's painful.
Paul Simon says it this way in "Look at That":
Ask somebody to love you takes a lot of nerve.Ask somebody to love you,you've got a lot of nerve.
I couldn't agree more. Think about what you are agreeing to when you enter in to a marriage. I didn't the first time. I'm older and wiser now. I get it. So does my husband.
2. You are married to/marrying an individual. A finite individual. An evolving individual. An individual put on this earth to do certain things, learn certain things.
The reality is your partner is going to change. This is simply a fact. And it is a fact that each INDIVIDUAL has to figure out for themselves what this life is going to mean to them and how they want to walk their path. You have to get your ego out of the way and love your partner through their evolution. It is NOT your partner's responsibility to stagnate because you fear change. It is NOT your partner's responsibility to stay locked in a life situation (say, a miserable job) to maintain your status quo.
Once again I have to give it up for Paul Simon, in his most excellent CD, "You're The One":
Nature gives up shapeless shapes Clouds and waves and flame But human expectation is that love remains the same And when it doesn't we point our fingers and blame blame blame
This whole evolution thing is one that I have really come to appreciate in thelast 5 years. When I changed my career I put myself on a path that acceleratedmy own personal evolution beyond anything I had ever experienced. And it scared me silly. I was one of those folks who feared growing apart from my husband. I didn't know how he would deal with my changing. In my first marriage my husband was overtly resistant to my growth and change, a predominant factor leading to our divorce. In fact, I have heard MANY stories of similar situations in other marriages...including threats of divorce when one or the other spouse showed signs of becoming too strong or too successful.
The reality for me now is that my husband is incredibly secure and confident and master of his own ship. And he expects me to be master of mine. He didn't marry a deck hand. Not only does he accept, but he nearly insists that I run my ship through all kinds of uncharted waters and assumes my journey will change me in a myriad of ways. We both know where the harbor is but neither of us wants the other to spend life docked in stagnant water.
3. Your partner is capable of experiencing an entire array of emotions, many of which will have nothing to do with you. Not every emotion is a reflection of you or is something you have to fix. This is a biggie for women especially, but I see it in men as well. Your spouse is angry about work, you have to make them happy. Your partner is sad, you feel inadequate because you were sure you were the source of eternal happiness for them. You're partner doesn't like their career, you stay in one that you hate, too, until they get settled in something they enjoy.
One of the things I appreciate the most about my husband, and myself within this marriage, is that we really do understand that we have our own paths. We have both spent many years in the medical field and we are, by nature, participants in life, so we have seen many heartbreaking things. My husband works with disabled children, I worked with adults. When you agree to be present to life, fully present, you expose yourself to great pain and grief as well as joy. Seeing many people die over the years and being with people through dark days in their lives has brought home to each of us that, in the end, it is your own story you are writing. Love each other all you want, but all you really KNOW is that you will be there when you die. And maybe that's all. So, there is a fundamental loneliness to life, existentially speaking. Everyone you know today can be gone tomorrow. Look, we've all seen that happen in recent years in this country.
So, recognizing the truth of this enables Scott and I to have conversations, as fellow humans, about what the journey looks like from our respective paths. We can admit to each other that we are lonely sometimes without feeling like we are making a derogatory comment about our marriage. We can be frightened, or sad or grieving and allow each other that without feeling we have failed by not protecting each other from that experience. Being married doesn't mean that you can protect each other from life on its most rawly human level.
4. Respect each other's process. Not everyone copes with everything the same way you do. We all are impacted by life in different ways. What your partner does is not a reflection of you or on you. Here are a couple examples: I used to work in the same hospital with my husband though we never saw each other during the day. When work was over, I'd meet him at his office and we'd walk to the car together. Sort of. While I was wanting to walk with him and hear about his day, he would be racing 10 feet ahead of me. At first I took that personally (let's give it up for Don Miguel Ruiz!), but then I got my own ego out of the way and remembered that this man is running all day long all over the hospital while I was in one small suite. You can't just slam on the brakes! So, I allowed him that space to come down from his day and usually by the time we reached the car I had caught up with him and by the time we got home we were in sync. Had I made his process about ME, I would have been cranky, needy, demanding or some other version of annoying and then he'd have to fix me after a full day of work. That would just be creepy, and totally unnecessary.
On a few RARE occasions, I have seen my supremely kind and charming husband nearly pick a fight with beloved friends. I remember the first time this happened and I was mortified...he was debating on some taboo subject (you know, politics or religion) with a really mild-mannered 75 year old friend of ours. Now, I've been on the opposite side of Debate Boy a time or two myself and I have to say, it's intense! As a spouse, I felt apologetic...and wanted to distance myself from the situation. Again, my ego got in the way and part of me was concerned about the reflection of this on me. But then, I got a grip and realized that this man had been involved in a huge string of school conferences which were extremely contentious and he had to be the peacekeeper. So, of course, he had all this pressure built up that was about to make him explode. He needed a good old fashioned argument to decompress! So, once I got it, I laughed, let him go since our friend actually was keeping pace just fine. Even if our friend WAS offended in some way, which he wasn't in the least, it would have been between the friend and Scott to work it out. It wasn't about me. Narcissism is just never good for a marriage.
And NO, I have never done anything to make my husband wince, so we'll leave it at that.
Being committed to another doesn't mean you become the other. Lives combine but in healthy marriages they don't become absorbed one into the other. Celebrate each other. Embrace change. Encourage evolution. Remember where you end and they begin. In short, love each other as Other.
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