Graham

On Marriage and Maintaining the Relationship

In Marriage on December 27, 2009 at 9:49 am

Love between two people does not usually last without the support of friends, relatives and other well-wishers who are willing to provide an atmosphere of growth, security and realistic expectations. While the bride and groom carry most of the responsibility for the success of their marriage, in a very real sense each actually marries the other’s entire family. If you can’t stand your in-laws then you should not be surprised to learn that your marriage is going to be difficult.

I don’t suggest that a couple planning marriage should be dominated by well-meaning others, or that Mom and Dad are the best judge of how to handle these matters. I do suggest getting input from as many people that you trust, as you can, while you can. And that the bride and groom, as a minimum, talk to each other, members of each other’s  families, and perhaps one or two long-time friends of the family. Find out up front what is important to each of them, and what is not—before making one of the biggest decisions you will ever make during your lifetime.

By understanding what is important, we understand the person for whom it is important. The question is: Can two separate views of the same issue coexist under the same roof without major adjustments? The older we get and the longer we let these issues fester, even a trivial difference of opinion can become an irritation that eventually becomes a hill to die on, from which there is no return. Divorce does not occur because two people stopped listening, but because they never started—at least, not the important stuff.

Most of us are just winging it, with only wishful thinking as our guide. Ideally, we would agree up front on major differences of opinion and on how we are going to handle fundamentally different views, held by the most important people in our lives. To do this well, the wedding couple needs to document, as a minimum, what is important and why it’s important.

For example, you might write:

  • Jane was raised in the Episcopal Church; John is currently an agnostic, but is thinking he might eventually choose atheism. We have decided that neither of us will proselytize the other, and that our children will be provided opportunities to understand their parents’ choices, without pressure to do likewise, beginning at age 13. Prior to age 13, on any given Sunday, the children are welcome to join their Mother at the church of her choice or stay home with their father. After age 13, we will encourage our children to learn more about the various world religions, without expressing a preference.
  • [ Views on Managing Money ]
  • [ Views on Parenting ]
  • [ Views on Abortion ]
  • [ Views on Politics ]
  • [ Etc ]

You might list some general behaviors, as well, such as:

  • We will never criticize each other in public, to friends and confidants, or in front of our children
  • We will do our best to resolve all differences equitably
  • We will strive to always show respect for each other
  • We will raise our children using only one, agreed upon, consistent approach, i.e., we will not undermine each other
  • [ Etc ]

No more than 1 or 2 pages, but short, succinct descriptions that both review and sign, on every anniversary, for mutually accepted changes.

It takes about a year to get to know someone, and the likelihood is that they are not going to change, even if confronted and a promise is extracted. Changing any behavior in a mature adult is quite difficult for reasons that are both physiological (physical brain mapping which organizes how the brain will deal with the outside world) and psychological (personality traits, or how I see myself).

One can be on their best behavior in short bursts, but the brain maps our habits and encourages us to follow these maps (unconsciously). We think of these behaviors as our personality, as defining who we are, and nobody is going to mess with who I am! But a minimum wait period of one year will almost always reveal true character.

Marriage is such an important decision that, like all of life’s important decisions, we do not know how to decide until we actually decide and observe the feedback. In the initial stages of developing (or discovering) our relationships, we often focus on only one or two attributes. Most of the time, the dominant attribute is physical attraction.

  • Too little of this attribute and there is no interest to spur us on to the next step in courtship
  • Too much of this attribute and we find ourselves in arrested development, and our lives thrown out of balance

However, we should not view ourselves as having arrested development solely on the basis of feeling an attraction to more than one person (regardless of marital status). The likelihood is that the new attraction is based on a similarity that does not have the same level of richness or intensity as the original. (If this is not the case, some reevaluation of the original relationship is in order.)

Often, exercising caution rather than acting on such feelings will remind us that what we do matters more than how we feel. It has more impact. Inaction provides time to evaluate how we really feel. For me, the test has always been to look into her (or his) eyes, below the surface, and if I still see the face of the woman I married 37 years ago, then I know I am in the right place.

Copyright © 2010 by Tad Laury Graham

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  1. Terry

    Your insights are excellent, as always, and I thank you for sharing them. You are right, of course. The “who should I marry decision” is one of the hardest things in life that we face, so it is no wonder that so many of us fail to make the “right” decision on the first try.

    My wife got a kick out of the 37 years similarity. It’s beginning to feel like we live in parallel universes—if you don’t count the fact that I was never a nun.

    Tad

    • And I wouldn’t disregard the similarities between convent and military life. Both are 24-hour-a-day commitments requiring a unrelenting discipline, and ultimately obedience to the commands of ones superiors, whether or not one agrees.

  2. As a woman who met the man to whom I am now married 37 years ago, I agree wholeheartedly with what you are saying. In the same spirit, I might also say: if you are a woman, look at your perspective partner’s mother. What she is like and what her son both admires and perhaps disapproves of about his mother and how he treats her is a strong indication of how he will treat you down the years.

    I would also say, don’t expect it to be easy. My step-mother used to say that if you always agreed about everything, there was an extra person in the marriage. If you don’t want one of you to be a cypher, simply always to say “you know best, darling,” then be prepared to listen, to stand your ground,to compromise, and sometimes to agree to disagree. It is sometimes terribly hard, but the rewards can be immense.

    It sounds as if you would also agree with my conclusion: a bad marriage might be one of the most terrible things we can face. But crafting a good marriage is a source of incomparable fulfilment and happiness.

    Though sometimes in the middle of it, one occasionally might be forgiven for a few moments when one does not know for sure which is which.

    Great post. Thank you.
    Terry

  3. Gotta love this man! Still my soulmate after all these years. 🙂

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