Monday, February 20, 2017

The Longest Post on Marriage You'll Ever Read (probably not, but still)

It's come to my attention that my marriage is being held up as an example to others. A positive example! That's not so bad. It's flattering. It shows that others have noticed we're doing just fine. But it also makes me pretty uncomfortable. Not because I've been lying about my marriage, but because A. I don't want my relationship to be held up under such scrutiny, and B. reality is always multi-faceted and there's no possible way people can see (let alone understand) all that happens in a marital relationship.

I want to explain this all in more detail, but first, here are some ground rules before we move ahead:
1. Abusive marriages won't apply to what I say because I'm not in an abusive marriage.
2. The vast uniqueness of human beings means virtually every marriage will also be unique.
3. Nobody can fix somebody else's marriage. Except Jesus. But it can't be done without agency on the part of the married people.

I honestly have never met a married couple with the exact same marriage dynamics as my own. It doesn't matter if we match up in religion, ethnicity, socio-economic situation, education, job, talents, or shared goals-- our relationship is unique! Even the couples that are closest to us are not the same. Even the couples that are related to us are not the same.

This just makes sense. When a marriage is created, it becomes a new entity. One unique person + one unique person = one unique marriage. When the scriptures say, "and two shall become one," it's not just metaphorical. It can be very, very real (not in a weird sci-fi way, dear reader, you know what I mean). This is why divorce is so difficult. You aren't just separating two people who no longer want to share a life together, you are, in essence, tearing apart an entity. I've spoken to people who have divorced and even though they knew it was the right decision, they still mourned the death of something that was supposed to be lasting and beautiful. Divorce is like death because something really has died.

See, in a marriage, everything is connected. You don't just share a house with your spouse. You don't only share your body with your spouse. If you are parents, you don't just share DNA together and create a new human. You share your trust, your goals, your future, your time, your talents, your effort. Everything affects the other thing. How you work through your finances can translate into your sex life. How you experience your sex life can translate into how you parent. How you parent can affect the way you view housework, job security, religion, and back to the finances and the sex. Everything affects everything else! You can't separate any of it into tidy little boxes. Your lives become, on purpose, knitted together and enmeshed into one beautiful mess. To separate any of it into check lists defeats the point and can, sometimes, make a mockery of marriage.

It's true that sometimes we have to break things down when we're attempting to fix things. For example, when I've discussed my marriage with my therapist, we'll often try to hone in on specific behaviors in myself that might be causing an issue. Sometimes we'll pick apart the behavior of my husband in order to understand it better. But I do not pretend that each behavior is independent and cannot have a profound influence on other aspects of our relationship. I recognize that the workings inside a marriage is like a machine with many moving and important parts. It's like a beautiful symphony. Yeah, a symphony! I like the symphony metaphor better...

Anyway, I think this is important to know. I think most people who have successful marriages understand this, too.

So, what does this have to do with my own marriage? Truthfully, I simply don't want people to think that there is one specific way to have a happy and successful marriage. I don't want people to assume that we've figured it all out and are going to spend the next 60 years in pure bliss. I'm happy to share things that I've learned, and I'm grateful people can see that Brandon and I are sincere in our commitment to one another. That doesn't bother me! I promise. I'm always happy to show the good sides of my marriage because they greatly outweigh the bad.

But I don't believe I'm helping people if they only see the good. Honestly, I can't stand reading about successfully happy couples who do everything right, never disagree, have never had an argument, and are constantly blissfully happy --because it feels so incredibly fake. The married couples I know personally (family, friends, church friends, etc.) do not have perfect marriages. I hear about the conflict, I see the struggles. I know it's not easy because it's not easy for me! So, it's hard for me to read articles or posts that tell me these unattainable, unrealistic, perfected marriages are normal and should be easily created.

This is the part where I look like a hypocrite, dear reader, because what is it I share on social media? I'm always accentuating the positive. I share the good stuff, just as much as those essays. Because even though I hate the sugar-coated pretend-stuff, I really do believe we need to focus on the good! I'm also very loyal to my husband. I will air my own dirty laundry, but I don't air his. I am devoted to him. This means I protect the vulnerable parts of our relationship. We can't work through our challenges if I weaken and cheapen them for a few likes on Facebook! For this reason, I tend to share the more positive aspects of our marriage. I think this is why people assume our marriage is so fran-freaking-tastic, and it makes me wonder if I've done a disservice.

I want people to know that our marriage is not always roses. It's not always easy. Sometimes, it has been really, really, really hard! We've had to work through things just like any other married couple needs to work through things and we've worked through a lot in the last 18 years. I've cried myself to sleep. He's stormed out of the house. We've ignored each other, yelled, said mean things, and hurt each other's feelings. There have been times when I wondered if I'd made a mistake. There's been times when he's wondered if he even wanted to come home after work. We've argued about everything a married couple usually argues about: sex, money, parenting, politics, and even religion. My mental illness has been very difficult for both of us! Sometimes him more than me. Having a large family has created very difficult situations and a lot of problem-solving on our part. We don't agree on everything. Our love languages are different. Our personalities are different. We were raised by very different people. Our goals don't always match up.

And because marriage is a connected entity, we could have allowed any of those things to dig in, fester, and then tear it all apart. If one part breaks down, then it breaks down the other parts, right? Isn't that what I've been saying? It is, after all, a very socially accepted conclusion that if part of a marriage feels un-fixable, then it must be un-saveable. Wouldn't my observation about the one-ness of marriage agree with these thoughts? Interestingly enough, no. It's not true.

Each part affects the other, yes. But that is why, dear reader, we can't allow the parts to infect the other parts. We have to fix the infection before it spreads. Once it spreads, it's really, really hard to clean it all up. It's not impossible, just really difficult.

But the point is this: you can fix it before it spreads. That is the goal. This is why it's imperative to understand how marriage is connected in the first place. You can't fix it if you don't understand it! And I think this is why Brandon and I have been able to have a successful marriage --not only have we put loyalty at the top of our priorities, but we've fixed the infections before they could spread too far.

You know those checklists you read from church leaders, therapists, authors, relationship gurus, etc. on how to have successful marriages? They're not wrong, you know. They know what they're talking about. Sometimes it feels trite to follow a checklist, but I think sometimes, we need them. We need guidelines from other successful couples to help us navigate our own relationships. We need experts (therapists, counselors, psychologists) to explain behavior to help us understand how to react (and not react).

You know the forever-used and sometimes-laughed-about triangle? This one:

It's absolutely spot on. It's probably the best marriage advice in the world! Even if you (or your spouse) don't believe in God, if the both of you are moving towards goodness --charity, love, compassion, honesty, integrity, civility, service, loyalty, selflessness, etc. --then you will be moving toward each other. You can't not create a better marriage when both of you are doing this! The marriages that are the most uneven in this area tend to be the most difficult. In fact, abusive marriages often have the abused spouse up there right next to God (because they think they can fix the relationship by repenting more, serving more, loving more, etc. and so they focus on God as much as they can) and the abuser is so far down on his/her side that there's no way they can see their spouse, anymore. The weight of it breaks the triangle. Abusers, I'm sorry to say, are not moving closer to God as long as they are abusing. If they could stop and repent, there's a chance. I wish more of them would...

What else is on this checklist for successful marriages? Here's the not-so-short list that Brandon and I have tried to keep a part of our own marriage. Sometimes, we do this very well, and other times, we struggle. I promise we are not perfect at any of this! Please don't think my writing about this is somehow propping me up as an expert or the guru of marriage. I just like to share the good advice we received and what has worked for us. I honestly believe the following is what people are seeing us do when they say we've got a relationship to emulate:

*Be fiercely loyal to each other. If you have to choose between family members and your spouse, choose your spouse. You left them to marry your spouse and the married relationship is the most important (not the only important! Just the most important). Don't put each other down in public. Root for each other. Cheer each other on and support one another in your individual dreams and goals. This applies to parenting --be a united front. It's okay if kids see you don't agree on everything, but make decisions together and support the decision, even if you don't really like it. Put each other first above everything --even your children. Your relationship is the most important and if it's strong, your children will have much more security.
*Communicate about everything. Everything! You don't have to vocalize every thought (especially if it's mean) and you don't have to share every desire or hope your heart whispers, but communicate about your lives. Sex, money, sex, children, goals, jobs, sex, where to live, each other's families, sex, money, religion, sex, and sex. Dear reader, because sex is one of the most vulnerable and sacred things a human can engage in, it becomes essential for a married couple to discuss it. Nobody is the same. Not every thing will work for every person. Husbands cannot read minds! Just FYI.
*Put God first (see triangle).
*Never, ever, ever assume (this one thing could have saved me a lot of heartache if I had applied it generously). Do not assume feelings or thoughts. Do not assume motives or intentions.
*Forgive. Always. Constantly. Forgive and then forget. Leave it alone. Don't bring up past mistakes when arguing about new ones.
*Apologize. Even if you apologized first the last time. Even if you are the one who's right! Apologize, because you love your spouse more than you love being right.
*Fix the infections before they infect the whole marriage. Are you having financial problems? Hash it out. Are you not liking the way sex is going? Talk about it. Do you want more children and your spouse doesn't? Discuss at length.

*Spend time together! Date night, anniversary trips, sit by each other at church, hold hands on the couch, eat dinner as a family, pray together (we're horrible at this one --isn't that ironic? We really just forget and fall asleep... ), read scriptures together, run errands together, etc.
*Spend time apart! Do things for yourself. Hang out with friends. Follow your dreams. Do things for yourself that makes you happy and don't rely on your spouse to create your happiness. Their simple presence and existence should be enough to make you happy, so don't put all of these impossible expectations onto them; if you create your own happiness, you can share it with your spouse! And chances are, they will want to make you happy, too. Happiness begets happiness. You'll simply be spending time wanting to make each other happy instead of worrying about how they are or are not making you happy. Does this make sense?
*Argue with each other. I don't mean fighting (although that happens) and I don't mean being mean (that's bad, even though it sometimes happens), but don't be afraid to disagree. Honestly, if you never disagree with your spouse, then chances are one of you is being emotionally and mentally abused. Marriage is a beautiful training ground for how to discuss issues in a safe place. If you can't express your thoughts in marriage, then where can you? Your spouse is supposed to have your back in all things, and if they love you as much as they claim they do, then they will want you to speak your mind. Just be kind about it!
*Go to bed angry. Ignore the advice that tells you to: fight naked, never go to bed angry, or never disagree with your husband (GAH! That last one makes me so angry!). Usually, a good night's sleep will erase a lot of anger, disagreement, and/or frustration. The longer you stay up to hash it out, the worse it will get. Go to sleep!
*Be friends. Friendship is much more solid and long-lasting than romantic love, dear reader. Friendship can get you through tough times! Friendship is the breeding ground for respect and loyalty.
*Laugh. Laugh a lot. Make each other laugh. Flirt and tease each other. Some of my favorite memories are simply Brandon and I laughing so hard, we're crying.
*Don't compare your marriage to other marriages, unless it's to look for advice. Especially refrain from comparing to fictional marriage or relationships in books and movies (how many divorces came about because of unfulfilled expectations women heaped upon men after reading romance novels?). Don't compare with your neighbors, friends, or family members. If you are using the comparison simply as a litmus test to see where you are at, that's probably okay, but don't dwell. Your relationship is unique! And ESPECIALLY don't compare your weaknesses to others' strengths. You shouldn't do that with yourself (comparing your weaknesses to your best friend's strengths), so don't do it with your marriage! Some couples have a great sex life, some don't. Some couples have really easy kids, some don't. Some have communication down solid, some don't. Don't allow others' strengths to stop you from recognizing your own!

*Don't sell out early when it gets hard. Be in this for the long haul. You know how the stock market works, right? There are always ups and downs in the stock market --you can't sell out when there's a temporary dip! I read a study where they said couples who stayed in their marriages for more than 20 years discovered that overall, they were much happier than they were at 5 years. It WILL get better. (If it doesn't, there might be abuse or addiction.) I can honestly, truly, cross-my-heart say that I love my husband more now than I did 18 years ago. Truly. Our marriage is so much better than it was even 2 years ago!
*Remember the 80/20 rule: In college, I learned about a study that was done years ago where they discovered (theorized?) that nobody could ever meet 100% of your needs. It's simply impossible. At most, your spouse will probably meet 80% of your needs and vice versa. However, people tend to get so fixated on the missing 20% that they go looking for it elsewhere. This is how a lot of affairs begin. They find that 20% in someone else, leave their spouse, and then discover that the person who had that missing 20% can only give them, at best, 80% of their needs, or just that 20%. In other words, don't leave your 80 for the 20. Focus on the 80! If the 20 is really important, discuss it, seek out a therapist, do what you can to figure it out. But don't think that you'll find 100% elsewhere. Chances are very slim you won't. (*Again, abuse is not part of this equation. It's the only exception.)
*Love each other. This one is kind of obvious, but sometimes it's easy to forget. Tell your spouse you love them. Show them. Tell your children you love their father/mother so much. My grandmother was a widow for more than 15 years when she passed away. She told me when I got married that I need to tell my husband I love him every day, because I will never know if it will be the last time he'll hear it.

I hope you have a good marriage, dear reader. If you don't, I hope you will be able to find one, someday. I'll also pray it's with the person you married! You deserve this kind of happiness. I promise --you really do. 

1 comment:

GCC said...

Cheryl, I absolutely loved this post and it was spot on. And many good reminders here for me! Thank you!!