It’s necessary to consider what we believe we’re obliged to do in our marriage, and what the consequences are when we fail.
Once upon a time, most of us conceived of a safe place called Marriage. We were young, we were naive, and we were idealistic.
In our future partners, don’t we imagine a certain belonging? Don’t we ascribe almost magical powers to the union? We’re certain we’ll be unconditionally loved, no longer alone in the world, stronger as part of team, and stronger still in bearing children and creating a family unit.
But marriage is not a fairy tale. Dreams and reality collide. Some relationships evolve with maturity, while other relationships decay or explode.
The slow death of a marriage? It has origins.
The seemingly sudden destruction? There are signs.
So what then do we mean when we take those vows – to love, to honor, to cherish? What do we owe ourselves, once embarked on that journey?
Marriage is a contract, and naturally there is a notion of obligation in any agreement involving two individuals and the promises they exchange. There is a premise of reliance. There is a premise of responsibility. Duty (or fulfillment of expectations) and accountability (consequences) are both are part of the picture.
- If you give me your word, you are obliged to keep it. If you don’t follow through, I’m unlikely to trust you. That is the consequence.
- If we oblige our children to do their homework, when they don’t, there are bad grades and lost privileges. Those are the consequences.
I also believe we owe ourselves the ability to remain who we are; we will evolve, we will compromise, but we need to retain a “self” even in marriage.
Obligation as a Societal Issue
As a society, we seem to balk at the notion of obligation. We ignore it when we no longer want to abide by it. We gloss over it in marriage. We go for the easy excuse and the quick fix, which mitigate against the likelihood of any successful partnership, certainly over the long term.
It is reasonably assumed that affection is part of the marital commitment. It is reasonably assumed that sex is part of the marital commitment. But then many things are reasonably assumed, and that doesn’t make them achievable.
Once, it was assumed that the wife put her family first; she gave up her job (if she had one), she set aside interests (during the baby years especially); she put her husband’s career ahead of her own.
In the past decades, that has changed for many couples. Yet for some, the legacy of the “traditional” model of marriage has left confusing and conflicting expectations.
Me First, You Second, “Us” Third?
An obligation to hang onto “ourselves” when mired in marriage and child-rearing? The exhausting juggle of kids and jobs and a spouse?
What about the fact that I put kids first in that question, jobs next, and spouse last? If I do so unconsciously in this writing, what does that say about me? What does it say about our society?
The fatigue of that juggle is very real, but so is the marriage – the need for both parties to put the “other” first at various points in time.
So why has it become standard to let ourselves off the hook in the name of “Personal Happiness?” Does obligation to the self always trump obligation to the spouse, or the marriage?
When did it become uncool to sacrifice – for an hour, for a week, for a year – and I don’t mean losing oneself; I firmly believe in negotiating workable compromises based on each couple’s needs and the needs of their family unit. But don’t good relationships require a degree of unselfishness?
Why is it that we’re determined to become the heroes in our own stories, but we’ve lost the capacity to become the hero in another person’s story – and likely the one we vowed to cherish?
Marriage Vows… Say What?
What exactly are we promising as we flash our smiles, join our hands, and exchange those rings?
Is kindness part of the deal? What about honesty?
Is there an assumption of a tidy house, a paid mortgage, entertaining friends?
Is respect a given, or a matter of convenience? Is sex a given, or only if we’re not tired? And if sex goes by the wayside, is it simplistic to say we’d be better off taking in a roommate, hiring a sitter, or engaging a housekeeper?
Do you know what you owe your spouse? Does she know what you believe is owed? Where do you stand on the division or sharing of marital contributions?
- What about bringing income into the family unit?
- What about the time and work of running the household?
- Is everything negotiable in a relationship, as long as both parties agree to it?
- If one party changes the rules of the game, can the other simply walk away?
- Don’t good relationships require a concerted effort that we keep our word?
We all know that we can’t legislate morality (though we try), and we can’t legislate emotions (does marriage try?). But some couples dispense with far more than physical intimacy; they dispense with respect, they dispense with basic communication, they act as though little of the original elements of the marital agreement have any applicability whatsoever.
As I enjoy an increasingly relaxed and rewarding relationship at present, although I am not feeling compelled to be married, I’m attentive to why things are going so well. I am focused on my partner’s needs as well as my own, and aware that the “couple” must also be nurtured. It is a delicate balancing act, the nature of which requires willingness to question, and constant communication.
As for obligations, you may bristle at my use of the term, but “owing” is not a dirty word. It’s about moving beyond fairy tales, and understanding the importance of honoring our commitments.
Photo by Newtown graffiti.
This article originally appeared at Daily Plate of Crazy.