I know my marriage is an anomaly. Happy marriages are rare. For as much as we all long for a relationship that we can grow old in, we don’t really believe in them. I think this might be because many people confuse the early “in love” experience of relating with the ongoing effort of creating a love that works. The confusion is not unwarranted as the experience of falling in love might be the most powerfully transformative lessons our heart learns. We become a better version of ourselves as our biological urge to pair drives us and gives us new eyes to see ourselves and our loved one. This softer vision through our hearts trumps tolerance with acceptance and even allows us to imagine letting go of things we have long held dear.
We are happy because we love. We are able to love when we are happy with ourselves. Most of us go into our marriages believing that this is the natural state of things. Even if we have seen few long-term happy marriages, we all begin believing ours will be different. We expect our marriages to make us happy. We attribute our capacity for happiness to our feelings of being loved. Then our biological embodiment of falling in love fades. We see the rough and brittle edges of our partner and the relationship scrapes noisily where before it seemed to float. This is not wrong- its normal. This is where we are demanded to fulfill the early promises of love instead of being filled up by them.
This is when the real work of love and acceptance begins. I remember as a young newlywed how angry I was at my husband when my feelings of loneliness or sadness were not cured by our relationship. I believed that all this would go away inside of his love. It took a long time, maybe close to a decade for me to stop blaming my spouse and my marriage for my unhappiness. This is perhaps the most lethal thinking trap and single biggest premature killer of many long-term relationships. We believe that someone else can make us happy and fix our brokenness. The biggest gift we can give our relationship is to realize that happiness is an inside job. We are each the master of our own destiny in our hearts.
Many people never really understand this revelation because most of us enter our marriages with little or no emotional intelligence. How can we possibly be responsible for our own happiness when we do not even have the fluency of naming our own feelings by their right name. Sadness, fear, insecurity and loneliness can all come out looking like anger or contempt. Our marriages become the wasteland of this ignorance when we blame our feelings on our partner, degrading the dynamics of our relationship.
Healthy relationships are the product of two individuals who are responsible for their own emotional health and who have something to give to a relationship. The relationship is the vessel that we build to hold and cultivate our best selves. When we are not driven by need, we have the opportunity to give freely, not measuring what we get back against what we give. We have the courage to look at ourselves honestly and the willingness to be held accountable to what we aspire to become. The late Caryl Rusbult, coined the term the “Michelangelo Effect” to describe this dynamic of close intimate relationships in her 30 plus years of research. Her studies demonstrated that love thrived and endured when the relationship’s meaning was interpreted through each partner’s ability to focus on and achieve the personal growth that was held dear.
Michelangelo approached his art with this same eye of love. He said “In every block of marble I see a statue as plain as though it stood before me, shaped and perfect in attitude and action. I have only to hew away the rough walls that imprison the lovely apparition to reveal it to the other eyes as mine see it.” His work of setting free the figures that were sleeping inside the stone is the embodiment of love as art. His mastery and genius was the product of what he himself called: “eternal patience,” which reflects volumes of truth about what it takes to make love and marriage work in our lives.
Loving relationships of all kinds, whether with romantic committed partners, parents, children, siblings or friendships are the most gentle and effective teachers that life offers us to become the person we aspire to be. Accepting the flaws in the people we love and working with them is the same sculpting work that Michelangelo faced within his blocks of stone. Like a master stone cutter, we learn to discern minor imperfections from the deeper flaws that the “eternally patient” hand of love is able to integrate into the greater beauty of the piece. We create beauty from the inherent difficulties of loving the flaws and imperfections in each of us. This is the heart of a happy marriage.