This is the fourth in an indeterminate series of entries that provides my “real world” lessons to young adults. It is my conviction that these lessons are rarely taught either at home or in the schools. For those who did not get them growing up you can get them from me for free. This is part of my way of giving back to the universe on the occasion of my 50th birthday.
I am 21 years into my marriage. I do not know if my marriage is typical or atypical, nor would I claim that my wife and I have a model marriage. However, we are still hanging in there. I do know that after all these years that I still sometimes find myself baffled in my own most intimate relationship. I suspect my wife feels the same way. Just who is this weird person I married? is what I am sure she often asks herself. What happened to the man I knew? I often have similar feelings. I view the current state of my marriage and compare it with a time when it seemed to me to be at its most wonderful stage, which was around 1986, and certain aspects of the way it is today are a let down. In 1986, we were childless and had few obligations. Since then lots and lots of life has happened. All these normal things that happen to normal people over 21 years put stress on our marriage. Just as a waterfall will erode the rocks at its base, life will tend to erode even the most solid of relationships.
Since you are likely young, you are probably not a homeowner. However, I think you can understand that if you were a homeowner that basic home maintenance is not just a good idea, it is required. Life sucks when your roof has a hole in it or the air conditioner dies in the middle of summer. Most homeowners quickly learn to anticipate these things. Your house, like your marriage or any partnership arrangement you get into, will also have to fight the forces of entropy. Unfortunately, just saying, “I love you” to your partner every day will not be enough.
My wife and I have learned through painful experience that complacency is not a great marital strategy. In any committed relationship regular spadework must be done. I suspect that marital complacency is likely the number one reason that marriages fail. If you do not place much value in your relationship, then go ahead and be complacent about it. Just do not be surprised if you end up divorced, or unhappy, or upset because your feelings are not being addressed. If you do value your relationship, you and your spouse need to regularly invest your most precious asset: time. This does not necessarily mean if you are a guy that going out with the guys is now out of the question. It does mean that that satisfying your partner’s needs for intimacy comes first. When that cup is full and if there is time left over, then go hang out with the guys.
If you are already in a committed relationship, I hope that your better half feels the same way you do about your relationship. If he or she does not, you should be hearing the deafening sounds of claxon bells. Now is the time to run, not walk and get some joint counseling. No positive relationship can remain in imbalance for very long. No relationship that is worth keeping should be one sided. The premise behind marriage is that the relationship is very valuable. Just as you would make sure a precious heirloom is protected, so should you and your partner work to ensure your relationship stays optimal.
I have written about marriage before. For me one of the key lessons that I have learned is that the participants actually define the scope and meaning of their relationship. A marriage certificate may offer some legal protections, but otherwise it really means nothing. Only you and your partner can judge the value of your relationship. If it feels dead, it is dead. You can both stay together for the sake of the children or to spare hurt feelings, but neither of these things changes the fact that the relationship is dead.
The good news is that unlike actual death, which is final, it is possible to bring a marriage back to life. However, it has to be done before the body cools. In addition, it requires the sincere commitment of both partners. Sadly, there is no guarantee that it will work and unfortunately, the odds are against you.
Since presumably you are starting out on this committed relationship business, you can learn best practices for building and sustaining healthy, long-term relationships. It starts with a solid foundation. Do you and your potential partner share the same vision and goals? What is your idea of a successful long-term intimate relationship? What are your partner’s ideas? Under what circumstances would you break up? It is far better to discuss these things candidly before you tie the knot. Do not assume that you can read your partner’s mind. If during this discovery phase you find that you have different expectations and agendas then it is far better to move on rather than deal with the carnage many years later.
I once posited in an online forum in dead seriousness that parents should be licensed. I also wish that couples planning marriage were required to wait at least six months and attend a rigorous premarital counseling course as well. A marriage should be given the same respect you would give a firearm. For marriages can kill too. When they go wrong they typically kill or wound a person spiritually, but sometimes they can actually kill you. If you examine homicide statistics, the person most likely to murder you is your spouse. Spouse abuse, be it physical, emotional and sexual (or often a combination of the above) is so common that it is likely someone within a few hundred feet of where you live is currently a victim. The NRA will strongly encourage you to take a gun safety course before owning a firearm. I am encouraging those of you contemplating a committed long-term relationship to make a very wise investment and get relationship counseling.
Star struck lovers often have little idea what a long-term relationship is all about. Sometimes they do know, but simply do not care, since their body is awash in love hormones. Trust me, the infatuation phase will end. While love and mutual respect should be the foundation of a committed relationship and sex its spice, on a daily basis relationships like marriage are far more prosaic. What it amounts to, frankly, is they tend to be a whole lot of work. It works much better though when the partners are in a harmonious relationship based on mutual understanding.
Through premarital counseling, you can garner vital insights and perspectives. If you receive good counseling, you will discuss those issues that tend to be given short shrift in the flush of a romantic relationship. What are your expectations about children? Who should do what housework? How will the money be managed? Should you have separate bank accounts? What are your needs for sex? What are your needs for privacy? How clean should the house be? How will chores be allocated? What does fidelity mean to you? Knowing you agree on similar values and have common expectations means that you can enter a relationship like marriage with a solid foundation. You may learn a lot about your partner from these sessions. Indeed, you may very well discover that the person who you thought would be your ideal lifelong partner has very different needs and expectations than yours.
I believe that more marriages would succeed if there were sets of older, experienced marriage veterans to act as mentors for the young couple. Having a couple ten or twenty years ahead of you in their marriage to discuss marital issues would provide the wisdom and perspective that so many couples lack.
Finding such resources may prove challenging. If you are religious, your place of worship may offer such a service. Any marriage counselor can provide this service and a few sessions are likely all you will need. They would probably be thrilled to have a couple anxious to avoid mistakes for a change. Most marriage counselors learn from experience that by the time a couple makes it to their office, the marriage is usually over and they end up in the role of facilitator. However you get such counseling, it is an excellent investment. While having a facilitator like a marriage counselor is ideal, there are no lack of self help books on premarital counseling too. A counselor is a better choice than a book but if you are financially challenged a book may suffice.
Divorce is likely the most traumatic and costly event that can happen in any life, but living in a bad relationship can be equally damaging as well. Taking proactive steps to ensure your relationship is solid before starting a long-term committed relationship is just common sense.