Wednesday, May 9, 2007

Waxing Philosophical on Marriage

I've been MIA for a few days, busy with editing and such. I still have a long night of retouching and ordering ahead of me, but I thought I'd post a little something.

I've been blue because a good friend of mine is getting a divorce. We've been friends for 8 years, since her oldest was just a baby, and I have watched her marriage over the years. There is no good way to tell your friend that the majority of her problems lie not in the fact that her husband is a lazy jerk, but that she is selfish. So many people view marriage as a vehicle to meet all their needs and make them happy, rather than an opportunity to serve another person and make them happy. My friend is a score-keeper and has a "what have you done for me lately" attitude. That builds and builds over the years until you lose all willingness to forget yourself and consider that your spouse is not getting their needs met.

Surely I am going to offend someone reading this, but I feel like I can say these things as one who has been on the other side. I have been on the verge of divorce before and I have seen firsthand that if you are willing to work and swallow your pride, you can have a good marriage. Eight years ago I thought that there was no way I could be happy being married to Dan and that I'd better get out before we had any kids and I was stuck. I was given some wise counsel not to get a divorce unless I was absolutely certain that I could feel justified in breaking my marriage covenant come judgement day. Looking back now, I realize how foolish, self-centered, and immature I was to think that I had a good reason to get a divorce. Dan didn't meet some of my expectations, but I never even considered that my expectations were unreasonable. I never considered that I had a responsibility to make Dan feel loved regardless of how I was feeling. I thought, "marriage is supposed to make me happy and if it doesn't, then I shouldn't stay married to this person." How narrow minded!

I've been giving a lot of thought to the purpose of marriage and how to maintain a proper perspective about what it's supposed to do for you, or rather what you're supposed to do for it. When God created Eve to be a companion for Adam, I don't think it was simply to give them both a pleasurable existence, although that can certainly be one of the blessings of marriage. Marriage was instituted to give us a purpose in life, to give us something and someone to work for. God didn't send us to this earth just to sit on our cracks and be waited on hand and foot. He sent us here to learn and to grow. And we do that by serving others, not by serving ourselves.

Here's what I have learned. The more you genuinely care about your spouse and are willing to make their comfort and happiness your primary concern, the happier you are. It's a simple concept that many people are just too stubborn to implement. They aren't willing to try to see things from their spouse's point of view. They are so bitter and wrapped up in "I'm not getting my needs met" that they can't empathize with how their spouse may be feeling. The biggest change came in my marriage when I really started to care about how Dan felt more than I cared about how I felt. And you know the beautiful thing about it? As you empathize with your spouse, you get this overwhelming feeling of love for them. My friend was talking about how she and her husband have always been more like roommates and friends rather than lovers, that she was envious of women who were crazy about their husbands and vice-verse. She said that she never felt like her husband really cared about easing her burdens and that made her feel so lonely. But I know that you can go from feeling alone and sure that you can't be happy with someone to having this overwhelming feeling of love and affection, that you would never want to be married to anyone else. It is possible...and it is worth it! You just have to be willing to step outside of yourself and make a choice. Do you want your marital efforts to be equitable, do you want to feel self-justified, do you want everything to be "even?" Or would you rather just be happy? Don't hold back affection, respect, and kindness just because you feel you may be justified. Just forget yourself and do what you promised to do when you took your marriage vows.

The saddest thing about my friend getting a divorce is that her kids will be damaged by it. There is just no way around it. People getting a divorce try to justify it by saying, "the kids will be better off having us separate than having to grow up watching us fight." As if that is a state of being that can't be changed. The kids would be better off if they had less selfish parents. Parents who were willing to make the effort to work through their crap in order to give their kids a safe and stable environment. My parents are divorced. They were unhappy for the majority of the last 10 years of their marriage, from about the time I was 11 years old. I knew they had problems and there was tension, yes. But looking back as an adult, I am so grateful that they stuck it out until all their kids were grown because I didn't have to make special arrangements to see my Dad. He was there anytime I needed him. I didn't have to split my life between two homes, two sets of friends, two conflicting loyalties. I didn't have to miss my other parent during holidays. Was my home life ideal? No, but my parents gave us stability and especially as an adult, it means a lot to me that they were willing to endure loneliness and bitterness in order to make us feel safe. Whenever I have friends bad mouthing their husbands or talking about divorce, I just think, "your kids deserve so much more effort that you are willing to give." Forget about whether you think your spouse deserves your kindness and respect, your kids deserve for you to show that to their father/mother.

So, this is all pretty opinionated, but you already knew that about me! Having said all these things, I have to clarify that I don't resent all people that are divorced. A true fact of life is that you never know what lies in another's heart. You never know what all of their sorrows are. Many people in my family are divorced and I don't wish to cast judgement on them. The past is over and regret is a big waste of time. I'd rather love and appreciate the people they have become despite (and perhaps because of) the trials they have faced. I guess the only reason that I'm posting these thoughts on my blog rather than just writing in my personal journal is that there's a chance these thoughts might help someone. Someone struggling in their marriage and feeling hopeless. Dan and I were talking and he said, "you know, for most people the answer is not to get a divorce. The answer is to change yourself so that you can be happy." I am living proof that it can work.

Love you all!


Kris said...

Sue, this is great to read. I agree with you. BUT, I know I still - often - get caught up in "keeping score." It is so easy to start down that bitter wife path! I guess sometimes I feel like my husband, like most men I know, doesn't appreciate how much time to himself, and autonomy he still has, while I'm usually not even able to go to the bathroom in private, let alone anything else! I find that when I make a conscious effort to carve out some time for my own interests, I am much more willing & able to give him what HE needs/wants. Does this make sense? Maybe this sounds like the opposite of what you are saying, but I don't think it is... Anyway, it is a constant process trying to figure it out - to love and serve my husband while still taking care of myself. I still am meaning to get & read the Dr. Laura book you were telling me about so long ago. Thanks for giving me some good food for thought!

Becky in Wyo said...

Sue, I have to agree with you. I think there have been cultural attitudes many times in history that have thrown up roadblocks to happy marriages, and in our modern Western culture, there's this concept with young people that marriage is supposed to be some kind of happiness dispenser. It's as if marriage is supposed to give you a lifetime passkey to the magical happiness dispenser machine, and if you're not getting happy pills dispensed to you on a regular basis, then you need to go out and get another spouse and passkey. What a crock! ALL of our earthly relationships are held in trust with our Heavenly Father, marriage being the BIG ONE, and we will be held accountable for them someday. Marriage is something you hold in trust, not something you get to do with whatever you want. It's a big job, and requires lots of sacrifices. Also, I think more people need to drop the immature brother/sister attitude of "Well, I'm only going to do my job if he/she does their job." You CANNOT wait for your spouse to give you what you want before you decide to meet their needs, and do your job right. Realistically, it's got to be nearly impossible for two people to be on the same level at all times, so that means one of you is going have your act together better than the other one. That's okay, we're human, we're not perfect, so let's have a little mercy for each other, and just throw out more of our baggage, so the boat doesn't sink and we can enjoy the time we have together. That doesn't mean we shouldn't take to our spouses about issues, it just means we should give each other a break more often. Another thought on men and women. Okay, I hope I don't offend the men out there, I'm really trying to get some sympathy for you and get women to cut you some slack, but I've come to the conclusion that a man cannot possible satisy all of a woman's emotional needs. Yes, you should support your wife, show respect to her at home and in front of your children, and be kind and generous to her, and just overall be a good person, but a woman's brain and a man's brain are just wired differently, and a man is just not going to understand perfectly all the time, say the right things, have all the right opinions, and be willing to do everything a woman wants. Women need things and want things that a man just isn't wired to understand, and probably vice versa. So, I think we just need to have more sympathy for our differences and imperfections, and quit taking everything so personally. I mean, come on, we live in a culture where we pick our own spouses, so there was definitely something we really enjoyed about them to start with. Quit obsessing so much on the differences and imperfections, and figure out how in the world you can enjoy each other. If "swallowing my tongue" was so literal, I would have choked to death a long time ago, for all the times I've had to keep my mouth shut, and just been privately irritated until I could get over something, and I KNOW Zen has had to do the same thing, and we've definitely had to apologize to each other plenty of times, as well, when we couldn't keep our mouths shut. I think a woman has to spend some serious time thinking about how she's going to fill in the gaps in her needs without wrecking her family, and it may take a long time to figure it out, months or years. First off, I think taking care of ourselves spiritually is key, so that Heavenly Father can make us smarter and stronger than we are naturally (couldn't we all use that?), and so that we don't mistake spiritual hunger for another kind of hunger. I think this is my biggest challenge right now. I could definitely use some improvement there. Next, a woman needs women friends. Women will understand you, and will "get" things that men won't, and you can laugh about your common challenges together. Women friends are great, but a word of caution, don't spend your time with women who trash talk their husbands or other men constantly. They will only help you feel irritated towards men, and will eat away at any feelings of love, mercy, and charity you have for your spouse. This is how little things get blown all out of proportion. Don't badmouth your husband to other people, because whatever it is, you know you will get over it eventually, but you'll leave all your negative thoughts planted in someone else's head where they get stuck, and then other people don't know very much of the good things about your spouse. Next thing, I think a woman has a great need for recognition and respect. She wants to be especially good at something, and have other people recognize her for that. It can be hard to get this when you're a stay-at-home mom, and you don't interact with other adults very often (and there's probably lots of other circumstances where this is a challenge too, but I'll talk about what I know.) I've tried over and over to explain to Zen, how the psychology of staying at home is different than being able to go out into another work environment, and get some kind of recognition, even if it's only just in a paycheck, but I don't think he really gets it. It's a man-brain thing. (I know, working at a job away from home isn't all it's cracked up to be, either.) To some degree, you just have to know within yourself that you're doing the right thing, but recognition really can help smooth the rough spots. That's why I think it's great to have your own interests, hobbies, or activities, as long as they don't squeeze out your family life. Note to men: please, please recognize your wife. Personally, I don't think women really care about how much, or how little, work men do around the house. If a man would just compliment his wife to no end, and spontaneously do a few things once in a while, she would complain a WHOLE lot less. Men, get out your sweet-talking skills, and you'd get out of a whole lot more house chores. Examples: "Honey, you did such a great job on the yard (laundry, bathroom, etc.), I really appreciate it." "Honey, dinner was really great tonight (or if it wasn't, you could at least say, Honey, thanks for taking care of us by making dinner.)" The overall concept is to create an atmosphere of respect for her, so that the repetitiveness of home life seems more worth it. Experiment with the sweet-talking and the little pitching-in, and you will reap the benefits. And women, you do the same thing for your husband with what he does, because most men work hard at a job that's less than ideal, and he'll warm right up, too. Get your nighties ready. Okay, I think I've said my peace for the day. I probably irritated somebody out there, but that's why you get to make comments, too, if your experiences are different. Love you guys!!!

Chrissy Poo said...

I agree and disagree with a few things. Having only been married a year I realize my experience is limited but I do have some. I will start with the agreeing first. I do agree that it is not wife vs. husband, it is couple vs. everything else. When we started to look at it as a team it worked much better. It was not about who made all the points in the game but that the points were made, for the team. With me making more of the income for our little household this was a hard one for me to grasp. Trying to pull the "I pay the bills" card never goes well. And that the team cannot play and win if one member is benched. Both members need to be willing and active participants. This is a strange metaphor since I don't play team sports, but I like it.
I heard or read somewhere that people give what they would like to receive, I thought I would give it a try. So instead of being upset that he didn't hug and kiss me as soon as he came home from work, I hugged and kissed him. Instead of feeling like he never listened to me, I started listening to him. Small steps at first but it turned out that it worked. If I gave him the attention that he needed I, in return, received what I needed, in all areas, if you know what I mean (too much information from the youngest cousin?) I know that he and I still have a long road ahead of us, and with 8 divorces between our parents the odds are against us. The statistic is that if you parents are divorced you are 50% more likely to have one yourself. If that is true, we started in the negative. But we both took our vows knowing what it was for the long haul and we plan to stick it out. For better or for worse.
Now to the disagreeing. I disagree that it is better to stay together for the kids. I am a product of joint custody, and although my siblings may disagree with me, I think it was for the better. And although we knew that every Friday after school we couldn't hang out with friends, we did know that Dad would always be there, on time, in the parking lot, with some sort of crazy project planned for the weekend. And we always knew that he would come to any school function wether it was a play or awards ceremony, you could always find him, in his tie straight from the office to support his kids. Which is more than you can say for some live in dads these days. We had some hard times, especially when I was a teen where I was rebelling and hated all authority, but who doesn't. It is an awkward time in ones life to begin with. But as I have grown up, I wonder what it would have been like to deal with the tension and the argueing that might have taken place. And although you never know how it "could have been", I support my mother in making the choice to divorce. She felt that it was better for herself and the three of us to leave. I can't imagine having to make that descion. To leave the security of your life as it is and start all over, go back to school and raise three kids. I trust her and although she is a little bit of a nutcase, I love her and thank her for teaching us what independent women can do. I think it made me a more interesting person.

Anonymous said...

Excuse me, did you say "a bit" of a nutcase?

Sue said...

Yeah, so that comment wasn't quite so anonymous!

Thanks everyone for all the great comments! It's nice to really discuss something and marriage is one of my favorite subjects.

Kris, I absolutely agree that you have to make time for yourself, but I guess my point was that you should do it with a healthy attitude of giving your spouse that same opportunity. I don't know any men who would begrudge their wife some leisure time if they in turn don't nag them about going for a bike ride, playing a round of golf, or running off to an action flick at the movie theater. Men need an outlet just as much as women do. Most women just don't make taking that leisure time a priority and then they end up resenting their husbands for it when really it's their own choice. I don't think a lot of women, especially stay-at-home moms, recognize the stress and burden of working a full-time job and knowing that you bear the financial responsibility for your family for the rest of your life. (Kris, this does not apply to you!) Sure, sometimes I hate having to work, especially trying to work from home where I have constant interruptions, but in the back of my mind I know that it won't always be this way, that in the not-too-distant future, we will be able to live off of Dan's income. And Dan deserves a lot of respect for that. He deserves some leisure time for bearing that responsibility. And he is always willing to extend me that same courtesy.

You don't have to be subservient to serve your spouse. Our society has taught women that if they "serve" their husband it is somehow degrading. Since when is following the Golden Rule a weakness? I love Chris's comment that once she started doing for her husband the things she really wanted for herself, he totally reciprocated. One of my favorite points in Dr. Laura's Book "The Proper Care and Feeding of Husbands" is that men have a few basic needs and if you will just meet those needs, men will bend over backwards to make you happy. Give them the kindness, respect, and affection they crave and deserve. Women get so caught up in thinking they are justified in withholding those things because they aren't getting their needs met that they don't realize they are perpetuating a vicious cycle. One of my favorite lines in Dr. Laura's book is from a husband and it says something like, "What ever happened to good ol' fashioned kindness? If you act like a Bit@#, you're going to get treated like a Bit@#!" So true! My friend that resents her husband's lack of affection won't recognize that she is largely responsible for that behavior because she has been a bitter, dissatisfied nag for years and years. Who wants to cuddle up to that?

A word of caution when implementing the "I'll give him what he needs and he'll in turn give me what I need" concept. This is not an overnight fix and you should not quit just because you've tried it for a week or two and it isn't working. When you have a history of unkindness between you, it's going to take some time to soften those resentments and for your spouse to feel like your efforts are genuine. Someone else who is close to me and having some marriage problems said to me, "Sue, I'm trying to do like the books says, but it's not working that well." I pointed out that when you've been nagging your spouse for months or years about any number of things, it's not going to come across as sincere when all of a sudden you're like "Oh, I appreciate you so much." It's just like if you're struggling with your weight and your husband has commented that you should go to the gym or take better care of yourself, if he all the sudden starts telling you how attractive and sexy you are, you're going to be like. "Yeah, whatever!" It takes time for both the giver and receiver to feel genuine in their compliments and gestures, but the more you do it, the more natural it will become. One of my favorite things Dan has said about how to solve your marriage problems is "Fake it until you make it!"

One more comment and then I'll shut up. I love Becky's idea that marriage is not the magical happiness dispenser. Marriage is not an institution designed solely for your edification. Women somehow have this idea ingrained in their head that they have every right to expect complete satisfaction from their husbands, but that they don't owe their husbands that same satisfaction. Their husbands should just be understanding when they are cranky and tired. Now, I surely have my days, but c'mon girls! Let's try a little harder!

OK, so I can't shut up (shocking!)I have yet another friend who has just separated from her husband, but is thankfully treating it with the hope that some space will help them work through their problems. In general, based on my experience in my own marriage and as I have watched several people close to me, women are the root of the majority of marriage problems. That being said, my friend helped me realize that men don't help the situation by not communicating their needs and being willing to lay things out on the table without getting super defensive. Men need to tell their wives, "I resent doing nice things for you when you nag me all the time" or "I don't feel like hugging a woman who always has a bitter beer face and makes me feel like no matter what I do it's not good enough." We would all benefit from the maturity of having an open discussion about our needs, and being willing to take the heat, own our weaknesses, and commit to trying harder.

Now I really will shut up!

Becky in Wyo said...

Yeah, I was a bit wordy (that's an understatement) with my last statement. I have difficulty with short summations. Too many English papers in college, I guess. And I guess I was trying to say what Sue was saying: young married women our age have a tendency to over-complain about the common failings of men. Ladies, we're not all that fun sometimes, either. And I have to ditto all of Susie's and Kris's stuff, too. We will all have our own opinions on things, based on our own experiences, and that's okay. Also, I hope I didn't step on toes too much with the great ladies of our family who have been through a divorce. Believe it or not, you have given us lots of love and provided great relationship examples in how you treat us in our family relationships, and in how much you openly adore our spouses. I can't tell you how much that means to me, that you are so welcoming and friendly towards my hubbie, and the other men in our family. Five gold stars for you!!!! Lots of love, Becky

Barb said...

I think this was your very best blog. I've read it several times. We have to be careful not to get caught up in the world"s self-centeredness. It is not what God wants for us. Marriage is a matter of talking honestly (When Dave and I first got married we talked often about things like "I like it when you..." and I dislike it when you..." Dave called them pow-wows and we still talk that way, after 31 yrs of marriage. But also marriage is truly accepting each other - the good, bad and ugly things in one another that cannot seem to be changed. As they say "a friend is someone who knows you and loves you anyway" How much more a spouse?