Sorry, folks. I don’t know the silver bullet to a long, happy marriage. I do know that while 50% of Americans end up in a divorce, a large chunk of those who remain married do so unhappily. While marriage isn’t a requirement of a fulfilled, happy life – for many of us, having a lifelong partner is a key factor in our emotional and even financial stability. I used to be opposed to marriage as an old-fashioned idea steeped in religion and generally designed to make women a property of a man. Today, engaged to be married, I’m looking forward to that next stage of commitment. After nearly 10 years of dating, it’s time to lock this in forever.
Unfortunately, for MANY people, marriage isn’t forever. I spent last week “hanging out” with my 50-years young aunt and her either unhappily married or divorced besties. These women, all in their late 40s/early 50s, were all uniquely depressed, and the conversation reminded me why, if I have anything to do about it, I won’t be alone at that age (knock on wood.) It intrigues me how everyone is selfish by nature, and that happy marriages are largely the result of two people willing to be aware of their selfish tendencies and to compromise around many things that, in single life, would not be acceptable. Furthermore, the stress on a marriage that having kids brings is immense, and if the parents do not see eye-to-eye about this, they may be doomed to crumble – as no one wants to think about an intimate evening post fighting about their child’s behavior and what to do about it.
I grew up in a very unhappy, abusive household. My parents, now in their 60s, are still married – but rarely go a day without my father telling my mother, in a not-so-nice tone, that she’s a, and I quote, “fucking idiot.” They are not the spitting image of a good marriage or even a decent one. And both of my mother’s sisters are divorced and not remarried. This tells me a lot about the mentality in that side of the family – one which lacks empathy for others. It makes sense since the three sisters grew up with a very narcissistic mother and each of them have pretty much ended up with narcissists because it’s the only relationship dynamic which feels comfortable to them – the youngest, dating a man who is infinity self-absorbed and incapable of commitment; the middle sister, committed, not married to a man who is not exactly the warm and fuzzy type in terms of being open to people who do not fit his limited view on an acceptable human being (but maybe that’s just because he’s French); and my mother, of course, with my “can do no wrong” father who blames the world for all the problems but never can blame himself for anything.
Without self awareness, I don’t know if it’s possible for people like this to have a sustainable happy marriage. What we’re attracted to is not always best for such arduous happiness. Marriage is work, they say, and it’s true. I see some young couples I worry are headed in the wrong direction. I look at friends who do not seem to be able to talk about serious matters to each other. Friends who are married to men who are mama’s boys and who are worried that when their child is born they will be left alone to do all the housework along with childcare and returning to work. I worry about my friends who don’t talk about their finances, where one partner is stressed about work and the other is firmly committed to not worry about money or how it is spent. I worry about a couple who fight all the time with two young children present, who no longer find time to love each other, who maybe will never be fully happy, at least due to the presence of each other.
And then I look at my own relationship — nine-and-a-half years is almost like marriage in its own right. We live together and split some of our bills, so it definitely feels like more than just dating despite nothing legally tying us together just yet. And I love him more than anything and we get into little tiffs every now and again but generally we can have open conversations about important things and we get along pretty well as long as I don’t focus too much on the serious all the time and we can enjoy musing on absurdities of the world together. I know that for my own marriage to work, it will be a lot of work. I have to change my ways – the many things I don’t like about myself to begin with, so I’m ok with that. First, I need to keep my household clean, and uncluttered. Second, I need to find a job where I can not constantly worry about getting fired and be super depressed all the time (he isn’t so much worried about the loss of the income as he is my constant bad mood about 5-6 months into any new job.) And I need to focus on trying to feel like a woman who can be desirable instead of sabotaging myself with my very low self esteem and body image. If I could do all three of these things and not chew so loudly (he is very sensitive to food noises) and be ready on time when we’re going out instead of always 10-15 minutes late, I think he’ll be very happy with me in our marriage. That’s really ALL I have to focus on doing. The rest comes naturally. Being aware of these things doesn’t mean they are easy to do, but I know they are flaws in my character and things I need to work on anyway.
But marriages can fall apart when one person is aware of the things that upset the other person and feels they are putting an effort in to resolving these things, when the other person doesn’t make an effort or a strong enough effort to show the other person they are doing the same. This pain point in marriages can be exacerbated by the fact that so married couples just don’t talk about things. Sure, it’s easy to ask someone to clean the house, but it’s less easy for a working parent to share with a stay-at-home parent that they are too stressed out in their job and want to move into a position with less pay and less expectations. Or – things as silly as I miss when we used to get dressed up and go on dates, and now I only see you in your crappy clothes that don’t fit well at home because you’re tired all the time and quite frankly so am I. This is why marriages fall apart. People stop putting in the effort. They start becoming passive aggressive to each other on purpose or accident. That once-novel romance story has turned into a nightmare. And so many men and women get past the point of no return. They can no longer look at each other and understand how they were attracted to the other person in the first place. They long to move on to something new, something where the weight of all the years of passive aggression, poof, disappears, and they can start fresh. They can look at another person and see them not as the man who forgot to take the garbage out or the woman who was too tired from her job to be the exciting, passionate woman she once was. Starting fresh is easier than mending a wounded relationship, in theory, at least.
Divorcees are usually not happy either. Few people can manage being happy and being alone, especially after being in a committed relationship for many years. In spending time with these 40-year-old and 50-year-old divorced or unhappily married women, I wonder if there is any piece of the failings of their marriage that they see as their own faults, or if all the blame is on their former partners, or both. The common thread of conversation is that “he’s awful,” “he’s lazy,” “he’s unhelpful around the house,” et al. Or maybe there were just huge fights about how to raise the children that were unexpected which led to two people who couldn’t manage to love each other let alone spend time together. There’s a musical with a song that asks “When was Dividing Day” that is about divorce. No one goes into marriage wanting to or expecting to get a divorce, or to fall out of love. I wonder if it’s possible for two people to be so aware of their own flaws and especially the ones that rub the other person the wrong way, and to just hyperfocus on changing these behaviors as to always show the other person that you care to be the best person you can be for them. And, the second part of that is for the other person to do the same, all while being verbally appreciative of those changes in behavior, not just accepting them as part of the status quo, when the other person is still working very hard to be a better man/woman for the other person. If two people can do that, I think that a happy marriage is possible. But it requires us to go from our selfish, childish ways to becoming real adults — giving up our wants for the better of someone else, as long as that someone else is doing the very same for us. It won’t always be perfect, but as long as expectations are reasonable and two people really love each other, I want to believe it’s possible, and I want to try. I want to be the old couple that celebrates their 50th wedding anniversary with the same sparkle in our eyes that we have now when we look at each other, and see the man who I fell in love with, and who I’ll always love.