Before: I thought the work of marriage had to do with the demands of juggling family, house and job. Poopy diapers, cooking, cleaning, house and yard maintenance, entertaining with incredible Martha Stewart-like style, raising 2.2 perfect children, paying the bills, maybe having sex sometimes when you aren’t feeling romantic. Of course, those things are all actual demands of marriage, but they’re somewhat mindless responsibilities, with the exception of parenting. You just have to buckle down and do them. There’s not a lot of thought involved, and hopefully relatively little conflict unless you include that hyperbolic perfectionism. That is a topic for another blog.
After: After being married for several years, I realized it pretty much boiled down to how to manage all the above as a team, and how to manage your relationship with your spouse.
Managing the house is still the relatively easy part. Hopefully, the duties can be split equitably according to interest, talent, schedule, and so forth. That’s a great start! But be prepared to re-evaluate and re-negotiate that split when/if the allocation changes. Agreements shift due to creeping incrementalism and/or because circumstances drive the change, maybe a job loss, a new baby, or illness in the family. Unconscious/unintentional change can cause resentment, so it is important to be mindful, proactive, and communicative about ensuring equity, especially as the years fly by.
In her book Love, Honor and Negotiate, Betty Carter says that couples often unconsciously shift into roles that were modeled for them as children. So you may have all the best intentions to be the modern couple with an equitable allocation of chores, but you may unconsciously slide into a more traditional division typically seen in older generations. For example, having the lion’s share of cooking/cleaning/child care may have made sense for the stay-at-home mom generation but does not work so well for two career couples. It still surprises me how often this distribution occurs in the otherwise modern couple.
Managing chores is still fairly straight-forward compared to managing relationships. Spousal/partner relationships are delightfully fun during the honeymoon phase, but when that wears off – and it always does – you have to figure out how to make the relationship work. This is the real work of marriage. Word of caution: everyone has different definitions of what it means for a relationship to “work”. A relationship that is placid on the outside might be seething with unhappiness or resentment, while a fiery relationship may actually be quite happy overall. But I digress.
When that romance fades, individuals often find that their loved one pushes their hot buttons like no other, turning otherwise civilized people into crazed and irrational cavemen. They may have recurring fights with familiar themes, each fight feeling worse than the previous one. Or they may find they settle into a stony resentment having given up on trying to resolve their differences. If your relationship has reached the phase where contempt is present, your relationship is in deep trouble.
Many psychologists believe that couples are attracted to each other initially because the other reflects their unresolved childhood issues. I may fall in love with someone, for instance, because in some ways he has the same emotional “personality” as one or both of my parents. That personality may not represent the best qualities of my parents, but rather the ones that recreate my unmet needs. Romantic, isn’t it? It’s just that with a new love, subconsciously I may believe that he has resolved those personality issues within himself and thus will heal my childhood wounds by finally giving me the love/attention/affirmation/time/safety/whatever I have been craving. That’s why it feels so good to be together.
The romance and euphoria wear off when I realize he can’t heal my wounds, and in fact, perpetuates my emotional void. As a result, he pushes my hot buttons and I push his. If we cannot resolve this fundamental conflict, our relationship will be headed towards the marital cliff (ha ha, sorry, just been wanting to use that word in a blog).
This cycle is predictable, clinical, textbook. Therefore, you are not a loser, you are not alone, you are not crazy if trouble with your relationships begins predictably after, oh 3-5 years. You’re completely normal and just like everyone else.
I used to think I was all alone, I was crazy, I was a failure when we started to have difficulty in our marriage after a long and fairy tale honeymoon phase. In the end, it was not my fault, it was not his fault, but it was our responsibility. The good news is, one role of marriage is to inspire people to heal those childhood wounds. If you both can do so successfully, you have an excellent chance of having a successful marriage. If you don’t, you’ll likely make the same mistake with your next partner, and so on, until you do heal those wounds. The bad news is, it takes two to make a successful relationship. But maybe that’s actually good news too as partners have an incentive to help each other.
The bottom line is, a successful relationship is up to each partner, both separately and working together as a team, to manage their personal issues and their half of the relationship. What better reason to grow up emotionally, learn to become truly whole as an individual, than for the sake of your relationship and your beloved? What better reason, really, to take a chance on love?