Thursday, March 22, 2012

What Makes a Happy Marriage?

I was inspired to write this by reading (or half-reading) an article on what makes a good wife, here:

I stopped reading when the author insisted that the first step is that the wife "must" choose the right man to be her husband.

No, no, no. There's no such thing as a perfect man or woman or wife or husband. And it is impossible for anyone -- no matter how long you date -- to think you will have perfect knowledge of the person you are choosing to marry. You learn a lot about that person AFTER marriage, and it may not all sync up to what you had wanted or expected, no matter how hard you try to search for some one who is "perfect" for you. Forget perfect.

DROP the expectation that you must find just the right person, and realize any two people can create a happy and loving marriage EVEN IF THEY ARE STRANGERS WHEN THEY MARRY! The proof? Thousands of years of arranged marriages in many countries have generated countless accounts of people finding love AFTER marrying. I'm not saying that's the best way, but it PROVES pre-marital selection is NOT the key factor in a happy marriage. What is the key? I'm not egotistical enough to think I have the perfect answer, but my suspicion (married for about 5 years) is that it rests on (1) valuing the concept of marriage, (2) honesty, (3) compromise, and (4) optimism.

Valuing the concept of marriage means to realize what I think a lot of people miss: Marriage is about synergy, it is about two people coming together and forming something where the whole is GREATER than the sum of the parts. It is not often, but there have been moments, when I feel like my wife and I are truly one "higher being," when we are acting in concern with common purpose and mutual love. These moments, though rare, reaffirm in me the expectation that these moments can become less rare over time. Moreover, to get to these moments, we had to really get past a lot of our own personal issues and traumas, things that rooted us in egocentric "me-centric" thinking.

Basically, we clashed a lot and had three options: divorce, empty marriage or work this stuff out. We worked it out, and are still working it out, and it is not easy, but the rewards are great because you grow as a person, you grow in your capacity to empathize and love and understand another person and, moreover, yourself.

I have read many times that you have to be okay with yourself to be okay with another person. I read this -- and I think a lot of people read this -- to mean you should avoid relationships, or at least serious commitment, until you feel you are attained a certain level of maturity or even enlightenment. I now think that is wrong. Maybe marriage is easier if both people come into it as such enlightened beings, but that is I think an unlikely situation for most of us. But hope is not lost. Marriage, and the communication with your spouse and working things out with them, can be what helps you become okay with yourself. When that happens, when your arguments with your spouse lead to personal insights and growth and healing and maturity, you realize the value of the spouse as therapist.

I often told my wife not to try making me her therapist, to get a therapist to work out her problems. I realized eventually that I was wrong, that spousal communication inherently serves a therapeutic purpose, and I was wrong to avoid that. When I stopped avoiding it, things got better, and I learned that I enjoyed talking to my wife. After years of marriage consisting of childrearing and staring at the TV together, with rare moments of necessary conversation, I found that I could find greater satisfaction getting to really know this other human being.

Well, that's all a long-winded way of saying that I have come to believe, and to experience, that if a person truly commits to the process of marriage, does not allow for the easy exit of divorce, or a total shutdown of communication (where you are functionally divorced even if you remain legally married and cohabitating), you will inevitably find your way to a deeper understanding of the other person and yourself. Two become one and you evolve in your thinking.

If you have such an idealistic view of marriage, if you truly commit that divorce is not an option, that you will keep your promise of lifelong marriage, then you will find there is a way -- there is always a way -- to love.

After that, you need to just be honest (very honest, no matter the cost or temporary hurt feelings), be willing to compromise, and be optimistic.

Honesty is hard for a lot of people. We have been sold a lot of false expectations by Hollywood about romance and love and life. Be honest about what you want, what you don't want. But be clear: Wants are NOT needs. A husband admits he finds another woman attractive, that's not infidelity but honesty. A wife feels bitter that she has a bad husband instead of one of the "good ones" who never get attracted to any women but their wives? False! Those "good ones" are just liars. And those lies, as well-meant as they may seem, chip away at the trust that helps to deepen understanding. And true love flows from understanding, not from deception.

Are you afraid that your "wants," if honestly revealed without deception, will drive away your spouse? Well, that comes back to the first key: Making the marriage bond sacred. If both people can fully trust that they will stay committed to the marriage NO MATTER WHAT, then no honest revelation can put that marriage at risk. Therapists often talk of about the importance of giving patients a "safe place" for them to be open and benefit from therapy. The best marriages are, in essence, a permanent "safe place" once each person in the marriage has fully committed, without reservation, that nothing will cause them to second-guess, the abort, to seek divorce. Then honesty becomes easy. And then you realize just how great it can feel to have that safe place, that complete honesty, that complete trust. And you love that so much, and that love bonds you to that other person.

A loving marriage is not just about each person loving each other, but about them loving the marriage, loving the bond, loving the honesty, loving the safe place they give each other, loving that they are each helping each other grow and evolve into something where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. Again, synergy.

Next, we come to compromise. This is pretty much automatic if you value the marriage, you cannot expect to get everything in life you thought you wanted when you were single. Even without marriage, this is true. Life gives us not what we expected, but something that may be different and even better. Accept that you will not get what you want, but expect that what you will get will be (perhaps surprisingly) even better.

Take room decor. You may feel your taste must be reflected in your home, you may hate the idea of compromising on your notions of how the household should run, how the home should be decorated, where your family should live, what is for dinner, what to see on tv. But when you embrace compromise, you find out that giving in means getting back. Give in to what the spouse wants to watch on tv, and you may find you love a type of show you never expected, like a cooking show. You will grow in ways you could not if you were stuck only doing the things you already knew you liked.

And this is related to optimism. When you must compromise, it should not be with a heavy heart. You should not lament that if you watch two shows in the evening, you will only get to enjoy one and the other you will have to "suffer through" because your spouse has chosen it. You should start out with the expectation and hope that they will surprise you, that you will get to experience something new that you would not have selected for yourself.

Look at the nature of gifts. If you want something and you go buy it, that's good. But what if some one else buys something for you? It may not be exactly what you want, but it is something new, something you might not have picked out for yourself, and maybe it is even better than what you would have picked out for yourself. You can look at compromise as a form of gifting. When your spouse compromises to let you pick out what is for dinner, that dinner becomes like a gift you give your spouse. Maybe it won't fit, won't even be really what your spouse wants or likes, there can be hits and misses. But a life full of gifting is still more fun than a life of just doing for yourself, buying for yourself.

And, what I have found, is those times when the gift "misses," when the other spouse selects something that makes you cringe or disappoints you, it disappoints them, too. "Gee, I thought this recipe would turn out better" or "Gee, I thought this movie would be better" or "Gee, I thought this paint color would suit this room better" You will probably find that much of the time, if not all of the time, you actually are on the same page, even when a compromise leads to something unpleasant.

If I compromise and let my wife pick a movie, I go to it expecting a treat I would not have selected for myself. If it is a real stinker, I will honestly let her know, and I've found more times than not, she agrees and we have fun ripping apart the movie to one another. And we realize we have even more in common and are more in sync than ever.

So, I have optimism that when I compromise, I will actually gain more than if I had my own way completely. I have optimism that whatever honesty I express will ultimately be accepted and will lead to deeper love with my spouse no matter what short term friction it may cuase. And I have optimism that holding to this marriage as sacred, and not allowing for the "safety net" of divorce to be a possibility, will continue to move us along a wondrous journey of self-discovery in this life, a journey more fulfilling than if I were traveling alone, of even if I were traveling with a partner. Because in marriage, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.

Doubts, on the other hand, feed on themselves and become a viscious cycle of distrust leading to ruin. So optimism has to be constantly nourished and cherished, for an optimistic outlook is the grease that lets the gears of marriage turn on and turn through any temporary sticking point or unpleasant squeal or friction.

Okay, I really threw out a lot there in a "stream of thought" sort of way. This essay surely needs some editing / tightening, but I hope it is good enough that others can take something positive from it.

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