Mysister got engaged last month and is planning to get married next year. Last week she sprung a surprise on me during our face time call by asking, “You’ve been married seven years, gimme some marriage tips.”
I was caught off-guard. Gosh, I have been married for more than seven years, I thought. What marriage advice could I offer my little sis, eight years my junior, the baby of the family, and who I still couldn’t believe was a grown woman about to get married, herself.
Between my um and uh, as she rolled her eyes, I replied, “Well, let me think about it a little more deeply and get back to you.”
It’s astonishing how simple questions stump us, sometimes. What does make a marriage work?
No Secret Formula
I’ve been married seven years to my husband, who’s my diametric opposite in every way. He’s Catholic, I’m Hindu, he’s tall, I’m short, he’s an introvert, I’m an extrovert, I’m happy-go-lucky, and he’s more serious by nature. What we have in common are our life goals and our meditation practices. Those aren’t the only things that bind us together, but they are important to us.
In observing some of my closest friends, colleagues, and relatives in happy marriages, I reached a gazillion different conclusions of what makes their relationship work.
Some had fairytale romances that continued in their marriage; for some, it was opposites attract and connect, and for some, it was because most of their traits aligned, and so on.
The only conclusion I could draw is there is no secret magic formula to make a marriage work. What works for one couple may not work for another, and vice versa.
Adversity fuels what is good to make it great and erodes what is weak to make it empty.
That’s when I pivoted my attention to researching why marriages fail.
Relationship experts and attorneys predict that divorce rates will spike after the pandemic ends. You’d think spending more time with your better-halves and enduring tough times together would strengthen a marriage, right?
But adversity fuels what is good to make it great and erodes what is weak to make it empty. For some marriages, the additional time together is a blessing; for others, it has brought to the forefront already prevalent issues.
In these turbulent times, I think it is vital for us as a society to think about what sours a marriage.
I remembered something my chemistry professor from college used to say.
There are two ways to learn — one is from your own mistakes and the better way is to learn from other’s mistakes.
There is value in learning from failure, especially other people’s. I don’t mean it in a sadistic way, but because you can look at others’ failures more objectively than your own.
After talking to some of my friends in unhappy marriages and scouring the internet for studies and research on marriage, I realized something. Why a marriage works may span a broad spectrum of reasons, but the reasons marriages don’t work have common denominators.
Contempt not only erodes love and respect from a relationship, but it also harms the immune system of the receiving partner.
These mistakes become habits so easy to fall into that you don’t consciously realize it. They can start gradually and develop into nasty patterns. Even if your relationship is not in trouble today, these are indicators it is headed towards problems.
1. Criticizing Your Partner
If there is a habit or quality in your mate that rouses unlovely traits in your disposition, you should realize the purpose of this circumstance: to bring to the surface those poisons hidden within you so that you may eliminate them and thus purify your nature. — Paramahansa Yogananda.
This is one habit I can relate to. I’ve often noticed that I criticize my husband for making us late whenever we plan to go on vacation. But the truth is, I’m equally responsible. I stress about packing, and I’m always scrambling to pack last-minute items I forgot. In my exasperation, I sometimes project on my husband.
Criticism of others is an extension of self-criticism; what irks us about ourselves irritates us about others.
By extending sharp criticism towards our partner, we are attacking them. They cannot help but get defensive. Reason flies out the window, and fights escalate.
Occasional complaints are ok, but when this pattern gets repetitive, it perfectly sets the stage for the next mistake. Constant and excessive criticism lead to contempt.
2. Showing Contempt Towards Your Spouse
Dr. John Gottman, a renowned relationship expert, calls contempt the single most critical indicator of a marriage headed for trouble. Hailed as the sulphuric acid for love, it is the worst of what he calls the four horsemen that predict the doom of a relationship (the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse is a metaphor depicting the end of times in the New Testament).
Let’s say your spouse is late for a dinner date that you’re planning after work. What do you say to them once they finally get there?
“I’ve been waiting for half an hour. I would’ve appreciated had you called and told me you’re going to be late.” — a valid complaint.
“You’re always late, when will you change? You didn’t even call or text me. That’s pathetic of you.” — this is an example of contempt.
Contempt shows that the person indulging in it believes themself to be better than their partner. Marriage is a relationship of equals, and derision tips the balance and dynamics between a couple.
It can make the person being mocked feel worthless and seriously undermine their confidence, which could lead to depression.
Dr. Gottman claims the recipient of contempt can develop infectious illnesses. Contempt not only erodes love and respect from a relationship, but it also harms the immune system of the receiving partner.
Conversely, contempt also affects the perpetrator’s health. It lowers their immunity and often causes physical ailments, coughs, colds, flu, aches, pains, and chronic exhaustion.
Contempt is the weapon of the weak and a defense against one’s own despised and unwanted feelings — Alice Miller, a Polish-Swiss psychologist.
That’s how damaging contempt can be to a marriage as well as the health of both the partners.
3. Having Sky-High Expectations
When you stop expecting people to be perfect, you can like them for who they are― Donald Miller, American author.
Outlandish expectations can doom a marriage. We live in an age of instant gratification and fulfillment of our desires. When everything we want is at our fingertips, it becomes second nature to apply the same principle to our relationships and expect the world from our partner.
The problem is that we unconsciously expect our partner to be responsible for our happiness. So any action of theirs that doesn’t align with us rubs us the wrong way.
Sadhguru — an Indian mystique — calls this giving the remote control of your life in someone else’s hands.
4. Expecting Your Spouse to Change
We’ve all been guilty of this one, haven’t we?
Undue expectations stem from a desire to change others. It is an extension of wanting the best for ourselves without holding ourselves accountable. Nothing in this world is perfect, so we need to stop expecting perfection from our spouse.
In criticizing, abhorring, expecting, we’re ultimately trying to get our partner to change according to our wishes. It never ends well.
Be the change you wish to see in the world. — Mahatma Gandhi.
The best way to change others is to lead by the example of changing yourself. Lip service and empty platitudes cannot inspire your partner to follow suit, but seeing you make an effort to change, can.
We are all lifelong students in the university of life. We observe, introspect, and learn. Every marriage is a work in progress, and implementing something is easier said than done. Have I mastered steering clear of these mistakes? Not yet, but I try to, and so should you.
Look out for these patterns, and if you see them in your own marriage, fix them now. Here’s what I ultimately told my sister.
Avoid contempt, criticism, expecting too much, and hoping that someone will change for you. Do all this if you want your marriage to succeed.
It might take a lot of work, but thirty years from today, when you look back happily, you’ll say the effort was all worth it.
This post was previously published on medium.com.
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