As a marriage counselor, Winifred Reilly has seen plenty of couples fall into these traps and she has some tips on how to avoid them.
If you think marriage is hard, raise your hand.
Yep. You and everyone.
Yet, when the going gets rough, it’s as if we develop amnesia about how universally challenging marriage can be and think that our struggles are a sign that things have gone terribly wrong.
We don’t say, “No big deal. We’ll get through it. All couples struggle.”
What we do is freak out.
Some couples end up concluding they’re not cut out for marriage. Others are convinced that they picked the wrong spouse. Many think that they’re the only ones struggling — or, worse, that their marriage is beyond hope.
Back when I was having serious trouble in my marriage, I, too, imagined that other couples were effortlessly thriving. And, unfortunately, very little that I found in the popular media disabused me of that notion. Books and articles and marriage advice talk shows made it seem like there were five or ten simple things we could do to make our marriage fantastic, and I naively assumed that all the wildly successful couples around me were already doing them.
Those who weren’t (like my husband and I) were, presumably, sunk.
Or so it seemed.
The truth is, married life is a challenge for everyone. Without exception. Not just the ill-fated, mismatched, or poorly equipped.
How could it be otherwise? We step into marriage with zero experience and no clear instructions about how best to proceed. True, we come with our good ideas and enthusiasm and the sage advice of others, but every marriage is different and none of us can prepare in advance for the unique challenges we’ll face. The best any of us can do is approach the whole business with an adventurous spirit and make a commitment to put in our best effort. Marriage provides us with plenty of “on the job” training— which, by definition, means that most of our learning will come from our mistakes.
Even so, when those mistakes arise, many of us fall into the trap of believing that something is wrong with our relationship, even though what’s happening is perfectly normal. Challenging, complicated, and perhaps even painful, but normal all the same.
If all our time is spent thinking that the ship of our marriage is sinking, we’re not doing the thing we most need to do: learn how to sail.
How many of these relationship myths have you let steer you off course?
1. Marriage shouldn’t require this much work
It’s amazing how often I hear people question why marriage entails as much work as it does. One commenter on another post that I wrote said that all the talk about having to work hard makes marriage sound dreary and tedious, like a 9-5 job that you hate. Why bother? she said.
Why not bother? I thought. After all, anything in life that’s worth doing takes effort. Imagine asking why do I have to work so hard in order to be a brain surgeon… or a chef… or for that matter, a parent?
The misconception that marriage should be easier than it is keeps people from making an effort when they most need to, which is when things aren’t going well. Why not think if it takes this much work, we need some better tools to address our difficulties? Or, if we have to work this hard, maybe there’s something I’m doing that’s making it even harder.
Better still, if it takes this much work, we’re obviously committed to having a high-quality marriage.
2. Maybe we’re just too different
There’s no such thing as being too different. No matter how different two people happen to be. People can be too stubborn, too reactive, and too self-protective to deal effectively with each other, but that’s not because of their differences!
At best, difference challenges our beliefs and it demands that we grow. At worst, it reveals our inflexibility and intolerance and embroils us in conflict. Many will blame their struggles on the fact that their spouse doesn’t see the world exactly as they do, rather than examine their own fear or rigidity, or their sense of entitlement to have things go as they prefer.
Consider this: Any two people, no matter how different they are, can have a satisfying marriage — if they want to and they’re willing to work at it.
3. Fighting is a sure sign of trouble
Research has shown that couples who fight are no more unhappy and no more likely to divorce than couples who don’t. In fact people who don’t fight can be having marital troubles as serious, or worse than those who fight tooth and nail. There’s a world of difference between having good problem-solving skills that keep fights within bounds and stuffing things under the rug in the name of peace. Circuitous fights that do not end with repair are exhausting and problematic and erode a couple’s goodwill. But couples whose conflicts lead to deeper understanding, empathy, and reconciliation — no matter how fired-up and loud they may get — report high levels of satisfaction and often consider their fights to be worthwhile.
The belief that fighting is a relationship death knell can lead people to withdraw from their conflicts, leaving their issues unaddressed. They also cause them to worry unnecessarily about not seeing eye-to-eye. Many will fight about fighting (Why are you getting so angry? Why do you have to make a big deal out of nothing? Don’t talk to me in that tone of voice!) rather than engage in the valuable and necessary process of working things out.
4. People should marry their soul mate
Okay, look. Maybe you know some people who are convinced that their husband or wife is the one and only person on earth for them and that they miraculously found each other. In case that’s not you, don’t sweat it. Most of us marry someone who is a combination of positive and negative traits of our parents; a person who, for better or worse, resonates with our learned experience of love growing up in our family.
We pick them, we marry them, and we make them our “person.”
Rather than think there must be some perfect someone out there and unfortunately I didn’t marry her, a more realistic (and healthy) notion is this: there are many hundreds, if not thousands, of suitable partners to choose from and we just need one. Whomever we choose, he or she will sometimes push our buttons and sometimes touch our heart.
5. Aren’t we supposed to make each other happy?
There’s a lot more to being happily married than most people imagine. When my husband and I were first starting out, I’d assumed that because we were in love, because we had common values and compatible dreams, we had everything we would need to be happy together. I knew, in the abstract, that we’d hit bumps in the road and that relationships take work, but I never doubted for a moment that our union would be a happy one.
Most couples have these same assumptions — they come into marriage hoping for a lifetime of love and happiness, despite how little they know about what might give them their best shot at having those things. Many presume that if they choose the right person and do the right things, there’s a pretty good chance that their marriage will be a success.
But marriage is much more difficult than any of us expect and when trouble arrives, our experience of being “happy” in our relationship can take quite a hit.
Many are disappointed to find that the “shooting-star” feelings they felt in courtship aren’t sustained throughout marriage. Some mistakenly assumed that having a good marriage would mean that life with their partner would be blissful — in fact, should be blissful — as if being happily married is the same thing as living happily ever after.
Forget about bliss. It’s overrated and fleeting. The key to marital happiness is to figure out how to be happy without needing to be “perfectly” happy. To be happy despite the fact that your spouse snores, or leaves her keys in the front door, or forgets to send in the mortgage check; despite his not always being a good listener or spending way too much time playing Angry Birds.
Remember, happy couples aren’t happy 24/7, and they don’t expect to be. Sometimes they’re driven nuts by some of the things their spouse does. Sometimes they face serious issues that don’t have quick and easy solutions.
I was married many years before I realized that if I wanted to be happy in my marriage I had to figure out how to make peace with imperfection — in my husband, my marriage, and myself. I recognized that if the conditions are bad enough we can choose to leave. If we stay, then we might as well figure out how to thrive.
6. The trouble is “Marriage”
It’s amazing how much bad press there is about marriage. People regularly talk about how nearly half of all marriages fail rather than focus on the fifty to sixty percent of marriages that succeed. They say marriage is the end of freedom, the end of romance, and the end of____. (Fill in the blank with your favorite thing about sex.)
Then there’s the bounty of mean-spirited jokes: A wedding is a funeral where you smell your own flowers. Marriage is a relationship in which one person is always right and the other is a husband.
People blame marriage as an institution rather than think, Man I’m really not very good at this, or Wow, did I have unrealistic expectations.
Marriage is indeed a tough teacher and we all have plenty to learn.
7. The trouble is my spouse
Most people come into my office convinced that their marital problems are caused by their spouse. If he or she weren’t so difficult… stingy… forgetful… foul-tempered…. everything would be fine.
Though they rarely say it outright, many expect that once I’ve heard “both sides of the story” I’ll take their side. Then, at last, they’ll get help with the thing they want most: to get their partner to change.
There’s no denying that many of us struggle with serious, painful issues in our marriages. Infidelity, rage, alcohol, overspending. We have differences in parenting styles and want different things to happen in sex. Maybe we have a partner who has depression or anxiety attacks or chronic pain and refuses to get help. Maybe our partner can’t keep a job.
Like it or not, the only thing we can do is request change, though we have no guarantee that we’ll get it. After all, the only person who can change your partner is your partner, and only you can change you.
Though it may seem frustrating and unfair, our only choice is to focus on ourselves: how we respond and react, how we manage our emotions; the interpretations we make, the conclusions we form, and what we say and don’t say.
No couple can expect to live in a state of perfect harmony or non-stop bliss. Fortunately, good marriages don’t require it. My advice: forget about hoping for soul mates, smooth seas and a spouse who is flawless.
Real marital happiness comes from accepting our limitations and building on our strengths, from knowing that hard times are part of the package and our work is to become strong and solid enough to deal with them.
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You can check out Winifred’s blog at speakingofmarriage.com and follow her on Twitter @winifredmreilly.