Marriage is tricky. To assume (oftentimes in our 20’s or early 30’s) that what we need now from a partner will stay the same over the lifespan is unwise. Developmental changes, alone, will have a huge impact on what is most important to us in a partnership over the lifespan. Add children (or infertility), potential illness, career changes, loss, house buying etc. and it becomes even more unrealistic to expect that we can predict what we will need in 10, 20, even 30 years. Now add another moving part—your partner. While you are going through your own developmental journey, your partner is doing the same—at a pace that may or may not be to your liking (and may or may not be moving in a direction that brings them closer to you). To make things just a bit trickier, let’s add all of our society’s complicated and competing messages about what we should expect from a marriage and how we should go about getting it. We have messages ranging from “Divorce isn’t an option” to “Only love that makes you feel totally alive and seen is worth the effort”. And, then, let’s just complicate it a bit more and add our own attachment histories. With our histories come our own protective walls, unmet needs, reactivity and stories about what marriage means and symbolizes. I’ll also give a nod to the fact that many of us are terrible communicators who don’t express our needs and frustrations very well at all. So, it is no wonder that this institution of marriage so often fails.
As I approach my 5-year wedding anniversary I feel compelled to share some of the things I've learned so far that no one told me before. Through my own personal depth work, I've come to understand this love thing very differently over the years and what I've learned doesn't show up in the popular marriage blogs. While none of us have a crystal ball and no marriage is guaranteed, I am quite sure that NO marriage has a chance to truly THRIVE without these bits of wisdom.
· Your Marriage Path is Not The Same as Anyone Else’s. Therefore, marriage advice from others may be really off base and it’s important to know what fits for you and what doesn’t. It is dangerous for someone in an abusive relationship to hear that marriage means never giving up. That advice just further encourages a victim of abuse to stay married and keep trying when the evidence that further abuse will happen is clear as day. If you are being emotionally neglected, it is damaging to hear advice that encourages you to ask for less from your partner. Often people who are emotionally neglected in their marriage ask for too little from their partner and would benefit from fighting harder for their needs. For someone who has an avoidant attachment style, it is not helpful to hear that the only love worth fighting for is one where you feel deeply connected and alive. That would lead you down the unfulfilling path of serial monogamy. And for someone who tends to become explosive and unfair to their partner it is unwise to “never go to bed mad”. Sleeping on it and taking space may actually lead to better discussion the next day. If you’re going to get through this marriage thing feeling seen and alive, you’re going to have to understand the path you’re on and how to travel it your way.
· Love Is Being Seen. When patients say that they don’t feel like their partner loves them, what they are really saying is that they don’t feel like their partner KNOWS them. Sometimes we make the mistake of thinking love is some magical feeling sent from above that we either have or don’t have with someone. But that feeling we most often think of as love is just science—it’s our brains telling us to reproduce. That feeling fades over time and the one that can sustain the test of time is the feeling of being known. The partner that feels known is the partner that will fight for the marriage every time. So our goal must be to figure out how to be truly us and vulnerably allow that self to be seen. We must also figure out how to hear our partner's truth without taking it personally or being reactive or trying to fix it all.
· We Can’t Know And See Someone Else Until We Know And See Ourselves. Know what you need to feel balanced and alive in the world and know when you’re not getting those needs met. Know what your body does to tell you that you’re not getting your needs met so that you can be proactive instead of reactive. Know your deepest fears so that you know when you’re protecting yourself with emotional knives and guns. Know how you’ve learned to protect yourself from emotional pain so that you can notice when you’re protecting instead of connecting. I believe that, for most of us, deep individual therapy work is the key to a thriving marriage.
· Our Marriage Is Only Alive If We Feel Alive. Do you know what it means for you to feel alive? What gives you those feelings in life? We must feel alive or we are likely to seek out that feeling somewhere outside of the marriage—whether it be an emotional affair where someone stimulates our mind and connects with our dreams or a physical affair where someone stimulates our bodies and activates our libido. For a marriage to thrive, we need to fight for that feeling of being alive and be creative in finding ways that we can feel alive together or in complimentary ways.
· We Must Speak Our Truth Without Blame And Judgment. Radical honesty is key to a truly thriving marriage. That means saying things that aren’t easy to hear or to say. While our goal must always be to speak our truth without blame or judgment—our goal cannot be to avoid hurting our spouse. Growth is an inherently painful process at times and if we can’t grow together we will grow apart (unless neither of us is growing at all). Many of us never learn how to speak our truth without blame and judgment, which is why I believe so strongly in individual therapy. You can say it with all the anger and blame and shame and judgment you want in therapy and then find the core truth that can be heard by your partner.
· Let The Arc of Time Inform You. It can be too easy to get stuck in how we feel right now about our marriage. We do ourselves a great disservice by reacting only to the here and now feelings. This goes for both ends of the emotional spectrum. If you are feeling very disconnected and that you are “no longer in love”, pay attention to the emotional arc of the relationship to gain strength from times of connection and perspective on a path back to that. If you are feeling very connected right now, but the trajectory has been a predictable roller coaster of ups and downs know that it will stay that way until deeper knowing of the self happens in BOTH partners. If your partner rages then apologizes then soothes with connection and then starts the whole thing over again it is not wise to focus on the moments of soothing and connection only. The pattern is important and it will happen again no matter how connecting and enlightening your make-up conversation was. That’s because the roots to the pattern are deeper than our cerebral rational thoughts can change.
· Divorce Is Not Necessarily a Failure. It feels that way for every single person I’ve met who is considering divorce, but it really doesn’t have to be a failure. Knowing the self is an evolving process over the lifetime and it never stops and it will inevitably bring with it new challenges and needs. We can’t rush our own process of self-knowledge—we can only choose to give ourselves the opportunity to start the process. Sometimes one half of the couple will be further on that journey than the other and it truly impacts that person’s ability to feel seen and known. Sometimes we realize that the ways we feel alive in the world are not compatible with our partner—making the marriage a tomb. Sometimes the most important growth in front of us must be done outside of relationship. Sometimes our wounding is so deep that a relationship is too much for us to manage without further hurt to our partner and ourselves. Success in life is not always to set goals and meet them. Success is the ability to set a goal and re-evaluate it’s fit for us over time so that we can feel known to ourselves, known to others and alive in this world. As long as we continue to know ourselves deeper we are succeeding at the most important life task of all.