“Marriage requires a lot of hard work.”
How many times have I heard that sentence? Probably about a billion.
I hear it from faux made-for-TV counselors like Dr. Phil, I hear it from advice columnists in newspapers and women’s magazines, I hear it from my grandparents who have been together for over 60 years, and I hear it from my friends who are separated and/or divorced.
Whenever people give out advice about relationships and marriage, they almost always add the phrase “marriage is hard” or “marriage requires a lot of hard work.” And when I hear statements like that, I roll my eyes a little and groan.
I am not denying the validity of such statements, but phrases like that can make a person feel like a failure if their marriage does not succeed. Sometimes two people can work as hard as they can at a marriage and it will still fail. So what exactly does “working hard” at a marriage look like? And if two people decide after all that “hard work” they no longer want to stay married to each other, are they less successful than the couple who stays together even though they are unhappy?
The answers to these questions vary from person to person and couple to couple.
I agree that a successful marriage is one that withstands challenges and comes out stronger on the other side, but if we want to have one of those successful relationships that stands the test of time, we have to realize what “working hard” really means.
In a marriage there are two different people with two different personalities and two different sets of expectations involved; two people who came from two different families/backgrounds who have two different brains in their heads.
Then you throw in the fact that these two different people and all their baggage (yeah, I said it) decide to live together as a couple—forever and ever until death do they part.
And let’s not forget the part about love.
In most cases we can assume these two different people were brought together by affection felt for one another; but these two people might express love in two different ways or their ideas about what love is might differ. Marriage isn’t just hard work, it is complex.
It’s no wonder so many people end up in couples counseling or worse, divorced.
Before I go any further I must state for the record that I am not a marriage counselor nor am I an enlightened expert on the topic of successful marriages. Not even close.
I am one of those people who is still trying to learn how to successfully (read: happily) live forever and ever with my spouse.
I definitely don’t have it all figured out and I can attest to the fact that marriage is hard work. However, having been married for nine years, there are some things I have learned along the way that I’d like to share with the people out there who are planning to get married sometime in the very near or very distant future.
I kind of wish someone had talked to me about this before I walked down the aisle nine years ago:
“Serenity comes when you trade expectations for acceptance.” ~ Unknown
I love this quote because I know from personal experience that most of the discontent in my life has rooted from the fact that my expectations don’t match up with reality.
I recently saw a print ad in a women’s magazine for perfume; in the ad there was a picture of a man and a woman, each riding a horse in a meadow, leaning over and embracing one another. The photo showed love in an ethereal way, and I laughed when I saw it.
Why did I laugh? Because this is how I pictured marriage in my head as a young girl (and knowing what I know now makes seeing that image funny). Two people, beautiful (of course), in love, happy, and embracing (despite the laws of physics), for all of eternity. Impossibly high expectations, right?
The reality is that no one is that beautiful, it is probably super awkward to hug and kiss while each riding your own horse (I haven’t tried it but I am certain I would fall off), and who the hell has time to be riding around in a meadow anyway?
It isn’t just high expectations about “happily ever after” that can throw us off; it is every day expectations as well. Like the expectation that your spouse will drop everything and be there for you because you are having a bad day—that might happen, but the reality is that your spouse is also human and might have also had a crappy day and can’t be there for you the way you need him or her to be.
Or the expectation that your spouse cares about the laundry being folded the exact same way you like it to be folded. It might sound silly but it is all of those little things that can add up into one big pile of resentment if you don’t stop and check yourself once in a while.
It is okay to hope for things but in relationships it is important to remember what reality looks like, to see your partner for who they are and not who you want them to be, and finally to accept all of this. I have learned the hard way that if I can’t accept reality in my relationship, I will always feel let down. And who wants to feel let down all the time?
I recently read an interesting blog post about how and when people cheat. The author said something in his writing that stuck with me: he said cheating isn’t just about having extramarital sex; cheating happens any time you do something you don’t want your partner to know about. Mind = blown.
I am here to tell you that based on that definition of “cheating,” there will definitely be times in your relationship when you will have an opportunity to cheat. That is just the reality of it.
I can guarantee there will be situations when you will either want to do something you don’t want your partner to know about or you will do something you don’t want your partner to know about. The degree of how detrimental this is to your relationship is really defined by you and your spouse.
The key is to minimize these instances and to be aware that the more secrets you keep, the more slippery that “cheating” slope will get. Even the most innocent lies can destroy a relationship from the inside out.
Everyone makes mistakes, it’s really that simple.
One thing I have learned in my relationships and in life in general is that I have to forgive myself for mistakes I make; and I have to forgive my partner as well. If I spend my whole life holding grudges every time my spouse or anyone on this planet makes a mistake, I will live an angry, miserable life and I will die an angry, miserable person.
This kind of ties back to what I said earlier about expectations: allow yourself to see things for what they really are, and to accept yourself and your partner in all their flawed human loveliness.
This doesn’t mean you need to put up with abuse from another person (that is not okay!), it simply means that we all must see the reality of any situation and understand that everyone is capable of mucking things up once in a while. We’re only human.
And while we are on the topic of being realistic, allow me to just say here and now that you and your spouse will continue to be attracted to other people even after you are married.
Sounds like common sense but I need to say this because when I got married I actually thought that somehow my human nature would just click off and I would only see my spouse standing before me…even if a team of half naked volleyball players went strutting by me drenched in sweat and maleness, I would be blind to all of it. I actually thought I would never find another person attractive ever again. I repeat, you are only human, and don’t freak out about your human nature.
I speak from experience when I say that comparing my “behind the scenes” to everyone else’s “highlight reel” always gets me into trouble.
I see other couples on Facebook or even walking down the street holding hands, and I immediately think two things:
1) “How did they get so happy?” and
2) “What’s wrong with me that I am not like that?”
This is ridiculous thinking because for one thing, I am assuming these couples are happy based on outward appearances; I am not at home with them, I don’t know what their “behind the scenes” looks like.
Another reason this type of thinking is ridiculous is because who’s to say there is anything wrong with me or my relationship? Just because I am not acting like this couple that I am observing from afar doesn’t mean I am doing it all wrong. Being the perfectionist that I am, I always want to know that I am doing well, so I end up comparing my marriage to the marriages of other people. I need to know how I measure up!
I recognize now that this is very unhealthy and it only makes me feel bad about myself and my relationship.
Comparing yourself to others is a no-win game. Every relationship is different and no two should be compared; it doesn’t matter how you measure up to other people. What matters is what is happening between you and your beloved.
I am not the same person I was when I met my husband 12 years ago; I am not the same person I was when we got married nine years ago; this might be hard to believe but I am not even the same person I was last year.
I am forever evolving as I grow older and work at discovering who I really am. The older I get the more confident I get about my inner self; I feel more comfortable in my own skin and have learned to stand on my own two feet. When my spouse first met me, I was not even close to being that strong.
I am proud of who I have become over the years.
My husband has also grown as well; he has established a career that he loves, he has become an incredible dad, and he has learned (probably because of me) how to be exceptionally patient in difficult situations.
He and I are both older and wiser and we are continuing to grow and change as time goes on. Change and growth are inevitable. When you are married you need to make sure you grow and change together: parallel. Because if you
start evolving in different directions, one moving north while the other moving south, it is damn near impossible to find your way back to one another.
So how does a person ensure that she and her spouse grow and change in parallel formation?
Glad you asked. As I said earlier, I am not an expert and I don’t have all the answers, but I do know that it is important for couples to do things together. As newlyweds this tends to happen naturally because the marriage is so new and you are so in love and happy. But as time wears on and things get more complicated (demanding jobs, lack of child care for your children, boredom with one another), couples can drift apart.
The key is to stop that drifting in its tracks; stay interested in each other, do things together, make time for one another. Because once that drifting gets some traction, it is really hard to undo it.
So these are my personal observations about marriage. There are no guarantees, of course; people do just fall out of love sometimes.
And the counselors and other “experts” out there are right, marriage is hard work. But I think if you go into it with realistic expectations and you are always as honest as you can be with your partner (and yourself), you stand a good chance of making it.
But don’t try embracing each other while riding horses; that is just an accident waiting to happen.
Love elephant and want to go steady?
Editor: Catherine Monkman
Photo: Quinn Dombrowski/Flickr