If you’re feeling bummed about your relationship success record, let me assure you that you’re in plenty of fine company. It’s probably a lucky thing that none of us know what to expect prior to tying the knot. It’s no doubt fortunate that the romantic view of marriage prevails and that helpful hormones drive us to procreate, because from any angle, living with another person over a long period of time is a downright unreasonable undertaking.
To ourselves and to those who don’t know us that well, we (you and I) seem perfectly normal and quite friendly, don’t you think? After all, when we’re alone, we’re fairly easy to get along with. Nobody hassles us or questions us. We get to do whatever we want, whenever we want. But hormones speak loudly. Finding a mating partner is a brilliant survival move built into our bodies, and we begin the search for that perfect partner.
Dating is essentially a sorting process, and the whole idea of dating is to keep the line moving. Does he fit? Does she fit? If not, next please. Here’s a big bonus: when the going gets tough, we can throw a flag on the play and walk away from any relationship game. We can stop. We’ve all got stories about crazy dates and why the weirdness had nothing to do with us. When things go awry, we simply flee! How convenient! This is especially helpful in maintaining the myth that we have nothing to do with who we attract, or what we summon from them, and that our only true mission is to find the “right” person to be our lucky partner.
Onward brave humans!
What are we looking for? Someone who makes us feel good. Normal. Happy. Satisfied. Interested. Excited. Inspired. Loving.
What’s not to love about that? It seems perfectly reasonable.
We sort, we try out people, and at long last, BINGO! We find a person who might work for us! What do we do now?
Because this person is extra special, we go the extra mile and really get to know them. We meet their parents and college friends. We thumb through photo albums, eat meals together, or go dancing. We attend a concert or sports event. Maybe we take an evening stroll through the streets of our city, go for a waterfall hike, hit the beach or maybe even take a road trip. All of this makes us feel as if we have done our proper homework.
We haven’t. Or more accurately, we can’t. Not really.
We continue to spend time together under ideal conditions until our inner jury excitedly and enthusiastically votes yes. Yes! This is my person! Let’s get married!
Why is this person the chosen winner from all available candidates?
Because who we are looking for is someone with whom we experience a pretty smooth existence. Someone who doesn’t fire our emotional triggers too often or in a way that makes us realize we might have an issue or two.
This person might even be someone we’d say we have a lot in common with, and it’s true that we do — under ideal conditions.
In ideal circumstances, s/he doesn’t activate the parts of us that will show up later when there are stress factors. In the early stages of our relationship, we do this totally brilliant thing. We focus on finding things to love about each other. Of course we find plenty of things to love, and this is good. Paying attention to each other in this positive way helps us get along naturally. We feel good about who we are around them. S/he seems decent, conscientious, and they pay attention to us in ways we love.
Let’s say our relationship grows and we decide to marry. We say, “I do.” We take the plunge.
THE UNREASONABLE PART
In doing so, the most unreasonable part of the story officially begins. It’s totally freakishly impossible to know what we’re in for in a marriage, no matter how much we think we’ve prepared, or how well we think we know each other. In truth, we say “yes” to a future we cannot even begin to conceive of, and we willingly sign a long term agreement without knowing the terms, reading the fine print or researching thoroughly. Marriage is basically a crazy idea. I really don’t know why anyone does it.
This is the part of the story where everything changes, because our perfect petri dish takes on new visitors.
There’s a household to maintain. Do we like the same furniture, what makes a house a home, who washes dishes and who mows the lawn, do we dust and mop on Saturday or hire someone, and what about landscaping?
There are employment issues to consider. Shall we live near your work or mine, do a job I love or one that supports us better, or accept the new job offer and move away from family and friends?
There are finances to discuss. Is my partner a spender or saver, is there full disclosure, who manages our money, what are our financial priorities, do we agree on how to plan for the future, is money pooled or separate? What if something is promised and not delivered? What if a job is lost or gained, which changes the playing field?
There are groceries to buy and eating preferences. And sex — how much is good — and when, why, where, and what’s included? There are pets, personal habits (whoa!), Ex’s and interesting family members, not to mention how to spend leisure time and vacations. Does a family reunion qualify as vacation? (Was that a “no” or a “hell no”?)
On top of all that, maybe there are children — mine, yours, and ours. Having children in the mix is like deliberately lighting a firecracker under your basic understanding of yourself and humanity from the beginning of time. Children require us to re-think our entire existence. It’s their job.
The marriage package offers something unusual. Unlike dating, where we can flee whenever we’re dangerously close to discovering our quirks and crazy places, marriage offers the lovely and ongoing opportunity to be accountable for every aspect of ourselves over time. It offers the every-day, all-day chance to view who we are and what we’re about, with ever-present assistance from our partner, which is quite something to reckon with. It’s a little shocking, frankly, to live with someone who reflects us.
MIRROR, MIRROR IN MY HOUSE
Marriage delivers jaw-dropping lessons. For starters, it cautions that the comfort of sameness doesn’t always save us. Having similar tastes or interests won’t necessarily get us through a marriage with flying colors. Who knew? Being madly in love is not an iron-clad guarantee for marital success, either. That realization has taken many of us to our knees. And no itty-bitty lesson here: the small bomb realization that the buck stops with us individually — the hardest lesson of all in a partnership. It’s a lesson most of us don’t learn for a good, long while, or ever. Whether or not we want to learn it, it is true that trying to change the other person instead of ourselves is a recipe for long-term torture. It’s a lose-lose proposition.
But there’s good news, hang in there.
THE GOOD NEWS
I have studied couples since the early 80’s. What I know for sure is that the couples who negotiate this totally unreasonable marriage adventure with the most grace and ease are the ones who learn the spectacular art of appreciation and acceptance. They look for and find each others’ strengths. They seek out what’s special about their partner, and they experiment with how this is an advantage to their game of two.
As individuals, yes, they are entirely different from each other, but they don’t fight. Instead of being resistant or critical, they are fearlessly devoted to discovery. They are curious and quizzical and interested in evolution. They look for and find what’s unique about the person sipping coffee across the breakfast table, and encourage the expression of “personal best” even if it means a major adjustment. They believe they are better together, even with changing circumstances or challenges, and that belief makes them recession-proof. The results of this kind of appreciation are miraculously, mind-blowingly uplifting, giving their relationship backbone and heart.
Loving and honoring your differences makes a couple road-worthy. It’s the hugest thing. Appreciating your differences will get you through.
Well, maybe marriage isn’t so unreasonable after all, it’s just not what we thought it would be. Instead of promising happily ever after, or blue skies and smooth sailing because we fell in love, maybe marriage is a course in ordinary, everyday enlightenment. And maybe, just maybe, knowing another person so intimately, and loving yourself ever so truly, is like having seven stargazer lilies blooming in your heart, all at the same time.