Next week is our 25th wedding anniversary. That has me thinking, of course, so here it goes.
As we all know, there is a lot of talk about marriage lately. What it is and what it isn’t. People are VERY attached to their views about what marriage should and should not be. Traditional marriage – what is that, anyway? Set aside the gender issues for a moment….
The “traditional” model seems to go something like this: Once you decide to get married and make that promise, as long as the couple stays together, the marriage is a success. If they split up, it is a failure.
When you put it that bluntly, it doesn’t sound quite right, but yet that’s the essence of our marriage paradigm.
We read about marriages in magazines, we have friends with all kinds of marriages, we know people who have split up, we know people who are struggling to hold things together, we know people who don’t want anything to do with marriage.
We all probably know couples that have been married a long time who don’t really get along all that well. We might even say they have dysfunctional relationships. They’ve struck a balance, but it’s not all that healthy of a balance. But the superficial appearance to the outside world is of success.
When couples have been married a long time, others look up to them. I think this is because we all long for security and love that stands the test of time. We project these hopes and dreams on others, and we don’t want to hear about break-ups. We hear about them and we are disappointed and shocked. This is illustrated by society’s obvious interest in celebrity marriages. Just read a few magazine articles and note the “fantasy” quality with which they are described.
Being married a long time, it is easy to be tempted to feel superior. We are the elite, after all. Uhh…not! I am not an inherently better person because of the number of years I have been married. But I see this attitude all the time.
I think we need to redefine success in marriage. I have a friend who has been saying this lately: Years ago, people got married and they only expected to live another 15 years – not 50. People change over time, and how can we expect a relationship that worked at age 20 to still work at age 70? Why can’t a “successful” marriage consist of 5 or 10 good years?
So what do we see happening when relationships are not working? If we label this situation a FAILURE, then the next thing we want to do is figure out who or what we can BLAME for the FAILURE. Who is WRONG? Why did it go BAD?
Can you see how this cycle is so destructive?
Because not only do we want to decide who is at fault for the FAILURE of the relationship, we then start to look for evidence to justify why one party is RIGHT and the other party is WRONG. This paradigm is set up to perpetuate conflict and competition, rather than cooperation and understanding. Friends and family then feel pressure to take sides.
Marriage is not a sport. It’s not a competition. There should be no need to take sides. We don’t need to keep score. The sooner we get over this paradigm, the better.
Rather than longevity, I think we need to focus on the quality of the relationship. If we reframe the idea of success to focus on quality, not quantity, we will focus on what matters, not on superficial appearances.
Every couple is different. What works for us won’t necessarily work for you. What worked for us 25 years ago probably won’t, and probably shouldn’t, work for us now. As individuals grow, couples need to grow and adapt. Add kids and the challenges of work and extended family and the rest of life, and you have a complex set of issues that must be balanced as well.
We like simplicity. If we can just follow a couple of rules, that’s easy. But life and relationships are way more complicated than a few simple rules. We need to get comfortable with the complexity and realize that relationships involve effort and compromise.
And the reality is, sometimes relationships just aren’t working any more. Obviously, if half of marriages end in divorce, we cannot deny this fact.
For whatever reason, I’m close to several really nice guys who have been divorced in the last few years. In a few instances, they have shared stories with me that if repeated, would be situations that most people would readily judge as just terrible. My point is that I could easily perpetuate the old paradigm and get into “who is right and who is wrong” and get you to decide that these guys were “right.” And I’m sure the “other side” if given the chance, could make these guys out to be jerks, just as well. See what a losing proposition it is to play that game?
But what matters, to me, is the way these guys view their situations. They have very thoughtful, philosophical attitudes about what happened. They say things like, “I still love her, she’s a great girl,” and “She’s just following her heart.” These guys have learned forgiveness and understanding. Despite breakups, they still want what’s best for their ex. It’s actually very impressive. They have become wiser.
Are these guys “failures”? I think not. Yet I know from talking to them, they can get down on themselves and feel hopeless and very lonely and defeated.
On the other side of the coin, I’ve spoken to women who are just fed up, who are done with the idea of marriage. One of the guys I mentioned, after dating for the past couple of years, concludes that most women out there are just too hurt and damaged from previous relationships. I am sure being labeled a “failure” hasn’t helped any women out there, either.
Obviously, there are women and men who have been in “good” and “bad” situations, but again, life is complicated, and if we look for it, there is enough blame to go around. What we need more of is compassion, understanding and acceptance, so people can heal their wounds.
Marriage is not a game to be won or lost. It is very personal. You can never know what another relationship is like, because you haven’t lived it. So why feel the need to have expectations of another person’s relationship?
What matters is whether we are turning experience into wisdom. That’s the only result that counts.