Men often joke about marriage as being like a ball and chain. Does this metaphor get too much airtime? Dr. Steve hacksaws into this old adage.
Ball and chain . . . hmmnn . . . sounds kind of heavy. Just the other day I was talking to a single man in his mid-thirties and he mentioned how all the married guys at work are constantly complaining about their wives and being married. “They are always making compromises to keep the peace and complaining about it.”
From his point of view, marriage doesn’t look too appetizing. “It’s like they have a ball and chain on them,” he declared. He especially did not like how they were not able to stand up for themselves and tell their wives how they felt and what they believed.
This is not a new story. I have heard it many times from both married men who feel they have indeed lost themselves in the marriage and from single men who are afraid of losing themselves. This fear keeps single men from committing and married men unhappy.
Is this the end result of marriage in the modern world? Does a “happy” marriage require the emasculation of men as they succumb to their wives incessant demands to “grow up, take responsibility, act like a man and stop acting like a child (i.e. have fun)?”
God I hope not. Fortunately, I have heard enough stories from men in happy marriages with a different outcome. A story where marriage has been an opportunity for personal growth. A place where love grows to never before considered heights, a place to demonstrate one’s love of their partner, a space to transform how two people can relate to each other and learn to overcome personal biases, prejudices, and beliefs while transcending old paradigms handed down from family or the culture at large.
Even with discouraging marriage failure rates, there are marriages that are healthy and work, proving that it is possible. I consider myself one of the lucky ones even though luck has not replaced the work of creating and maintaining my relationship.
How does a marriage go from the excitement of those early years to the prison like drudgery that the ball and chain represents? How can such wonderful ideals become such cruel realities?
Let’s go to a time before we got married or into a long-term relationship. A time of freedom. A time when we had no ties and could make decisions without consulting anyone. A time when we were looking with envy at our friends who had relationships and said to ourselves, “I would give up my freedom to have someone to love and love me.” Such an irony. We always want what we don’t have.
When we are married and bored, angry, depressed, or stuck in an existential ennui, we cast our eyes back to the time before marriage, conveniently forgetting what we were longing for and recalling only that heady feeling of freedom.
And maybe we have compromised ourselves in order to keep the peace and all we are left with is a feeling of being less than we could be, that life has somehow cheated us, and now the only recompense is a beer while complaining with our buddies.
I feel sorry for these men because they see no way out. For whatever reason, these men feel they cannot be honest with their spouses, and the relationship cannot change for the better. They are ensnared in a ball and chain psychology of learned helplessness without realizing the key to freedom is in their back pocket.
The freedom key, which men in healthy marriages know, is bringing oneself fully to the relationship. It is not about losing the passion, but recreating passion on a daily basis. The passion to tell the truth, the passion to hear the truth, the passion to put the health of the relationship paramount and to see that this is not about caving in, but in creating an atmosphere where a win/win situation is not only possible, but the only way.
Staying alive in the relationship is another key. The ball and chain is, if not death, a living torture of never ending entropy. Staying alive is challenging in our demanding lifestyles with work and children and it is easy to feel like life is one chore after another with no time to give to the relationship.
For healthy couples, the relationship is a place of safety, renewal, and comfort. It is a place that nurtures and gives joy. It is not a perfect place, nor is it expected to be. It has room to breathe as do the people in it. When there is safety and trust, the marriage grows with time and ripens into something succulent with vivid flavors.
I have sympathy for those men that complain about their relationship. Unfortunately, these men often feel there is no way to change the situation; they are dis-empowered and will grin and bear it, or take it on the chin like men of old. Such a waste! For these men, life as become weighty as they are burdened down with the ball and chain.
My young friend has not experienced a safe and enduring relationship. His own experience and those of his co-workers inform him that relationships are painful, dangerous, and end badly. How do I convince him that there is another narrative – one with a different ending?
He is taking the first steps by deciding to not be involved in a relationship and work on his own “shit.” He recognizes that he has contributed to the lack of success he has had so far in his relationships. He is taking responsibility and examining how he relates to women and where the breakdowns occur.
He has hope. He senses that there is a better way and knows he has to change in some ways. He is intelligent and articulate and full of anger. He is working on that too. In one sense he is lucky. He does not have the ball and chain holding him down. And as long as he does not focus on the ball and chain, but on what he wants – a healthy relationship – he has a chance.
I will end with a little known secret. Often guys complain about their relationship because they don’t want to make their friends feel bad. It is a rare man who comes to the worksite and say, “God, I love my relationship.” Maybe that is what we have to change in order to support our fellow men break the ties that bind us.
Men who are in healthy and happy relationships need to step up and share what and how they have either broken those chains or have never stepped into that trap.
Please, if you are one of these men, share below.