For many, marriage is like a giant box filled with expectations of fairytale romance and happily ever after.
At The Good Men Project, we talk about The Man Box and its confines: where men are stuck in traditional masculinity’s ways. They don’t cry; are not expected to show emotion, fear, sensitivity and other qualities deemed “feminine.” In addition, they are encouraged to fight when upset or challenged, to fix problems rather than talk about them, and, to hide when upset rather than seek solace or comfort in friendship and community. One of our missions is to help and encourage men to break out of this restrictive and binding box.
Another problematic box, is the fantasy of what I call “The Marriage Box.” What do you think is in The Marriage Box? I know what was in mine as a young girl and in my 20s before I married. It was everything I believed marriage should and would be to (subconsciously) heal my wounds from childhood, and fulfill my fantasies of love and romance. It was every Hollywood Romantic Comedy with silly jaunts and upsets resolved in a perfectly dialogued and choreographed scene of “I” communication and gentle love-making.
I had a rude awakening when I realized my marriage was not a box full of goodies from which I could pluck. I did not go in completely blind. Some years of thearpy prepared me for the realities of marriage. But, there are two in a marriage, two with baggage, because let’s face, even if your parents’ marriage was intact and fairly functional, you have issues. We all do. We are human. And, my inner child is a strong little girl. Early honeymoon love can keep the myth of The Marriage Box alive for years. The fantasy is strong and intoxicating. But, it is a fantasy.
I believe now, decades later, that marriages can instead be places of healing from our childhood hurts and wounds (there are no boxes big enough for these, trust me). I believe in Imago (Imago is the Latin word for “image”) relationship therapy as a way to build strong marriages and unions. And, if I every remarry, I will hope that my future partner wants to join me on this journey, before we get into trouble. Kind of like the dentist. You go before the cavities. It’s maintanence for your emotional health.
Based on the work of Harville Hendrix and his wife of thirty-two years Helen LaKelly Hunt, co-authors of, among other books Getting The Love You Want: A Guide For Couples, Imago posits that we chose partners who trigger our best and worst selves. The therapeutic goal is to look at childhood patterns, and to explore old wounds so that our partner can help heal our inner child, to give her the love she wants. The neglected, abused or otherwise hurt little boy can let go of past pain. This is not for the meek. It’s exhausting work, but it provides clarity.
The Marriage Box fantasy prepares us for none of this emotional work. We know how to dress for a cocktail party, or a fantasy Valentine’s Day eve at home, how to (try to) please our partner in bed, when to spread rose petals on the duvet, and perhaps when it may be inapproptiate to ask about a visit from our mother. And, yes, I am breaking it down to it’s fairytale minutae to prove a point.
In a marriage, a real marriage with the daily grind, and kids, and illness, and jobs, and loss of jobs, and illness physical or otherwise, there is no rose-petal covered duvet or bottle of champagne that will cover how to handle unemployment when your wife is pregnant and your other child has just been diagnosed with ADHD, or whatever else you face. That is real life, and you are in it with your partner. This is when two adults come together from a loving, adult place and communicate, compromise, cry, get pissed off, accept it, and move forward together as a team. That is a marriage.
Always being mature enough to put the other person first and never going to your inner child because magically, you have The Marriage Box and the perfect spouse, home, jobs, and friends, and the inner child or angry adult is all better and love is always there. So why fight really, except playfully over who left the glass on the counter and then “Oh, silly me, I love you so much, what does it matter, let’s take a bubble bath and then plan a weekend getaway. We deserve it!” Does that sound ridiculous?
Because, it is. It speaks to what society often teaches us to come to marriage with, a deeply-ingrained fantasy that once in that love relationship, once we open The Marriage Box with that person, everything we need will be inside. But there is no box. Marriage doesn’t come to you full of what you need. Marriage and love is what you create.
The life you create with your partner, and the love you make, and the challenges you face, none of that fits in a box. Marriage is a path; it is a journey. It will grow and change and you are going to need more than just one box for all of what you will have with your partner over the years. You won’t find a box or a kit with instructions. And if you did, you’d never get it put together right. Because it’s not one size fits all, and its dynamic.
In addition, marriage is also not an endless supply of gifts. Romance, comfort, love, security. You have to give before, during, and while you take. Marriages don’t come with automatic romance. Every marriage creates its own romance. For some marriages, romance is chocolate and flowers, for others, it’s arranging an entire day off so one partner can go skiing, alone; or creating a way to spend a weekend together while the kids go to the grandparents. It’s what you make it. Those things don’t come in a box, they come through intimacy and closeness; through friendship and communication.
So, how do we go from the fantasy, which to give up can be a bit of a slap in the face, to the reality of a real relationship? First, shift your perspective. Look around you at the divorce rate, at the millions, or perhaps closer to home, four or five friends, who complain about their marriages, who are in the middle of a divorce, who are divorced, or who, for some reason can’t find the “perfect” partner. Could it be it’s the fantasy? Could it be that we expect unrealistic things from our relationships; complete and utter self-fulfillment; that all of our needs are met, happiness above all else, the romance of a Titanic I-would die-for-you sacrifice mixed with a magical Pretty Woman white-limo-save-me-from-myself fantasy? Isn’t that a lot to expect of another person? Are we happy on our own? That’s step one, be happy on your own. Another person’s job is not to make you happy but to share in your happiness. If you are looking for a partner to make you happy, you will be forever disappointed.
Needy is not attractive nor is it a good way to go into a relationship. Co-dependency is a relationship dynamic and it’s not a healthy one, typcially attracting a type of realtionship that ends up either dysfunctional, or over. Be strong on your own. It’s not your partner’s job to give you strength. Strength and self-sufficiency are sexy to the right person. To an independent, emotionally healthy adult who is ready for love, strength is a turn on. So get strong, therapy is a great place to start, for some, although it’s not necessary. But don’t look to a relationship to complete you.
More than anything, if you are looking for love, or disappointed in your relationship or marriage, are you looking to a magic box filled with goodies once promised in a fairytale, on a movie screen or created in your mind as a way to save you from taking care of you? Strong, independent, attractive you? If so, break out of that box. Put yourself out there. My guess is you won’t be alone long, and you’ll be happier and more fulfilled than any fantasy.
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