The truth is every good marriage has problems!
If your partner says, “We have a problem,” does your chest tighten? Do you forget to breathe? What goes through your mind? “A problem! Aggh! Does that mean he (or she) will leave me? Is our relationship doomed?” Do you imagine that something is terribly wrong with the two of you as a couple, and maybe impossible to fix? If this sounds like you, you are probably being duped by a harmful marriage myth: A good marriage has no problems.
The truth is: Conflict is present in any marriage. Our challenge is to deal with differences constructively. What you think a good marriage looks like will greatly influence how you feel about and behave toward your partner.
Whether because of the fairy tales we grew up with or because schools teach little or nothing about the realities of marriage, many people think that in a good marriage a couple is not supposed to have any problems. They will pretend all is rosy until the stress of keeping their feelings inside builds to the point where it comes out harmfully. Here are a few signs that may indicate you are ignoring a relationship issue: Your sex life is not good. Your child is too quiet or too aggressive. You think your partner doesn’t love you. One of you is depressed, angry, or jumpy. You may find that you or your partner is drinking, eating, or gambling excessively. Each of us has wants and needs — which don’t always mesh with those of our mate. When we try to ignore what keeps us upset for too long, it can erupt like a volcano. Your particular challenge may concern intimacy, parenting, sex, money, in-laws, work, or something else. Do not wait to deal with anything that puts your relationship at risk.
Marriage meetings, as described step by step in my book, Marriage Meetings for Lasting Love, provide a safe, sure time for a gentle, loosely structured conversation during which you both talk about what’s on your minds. You get to reconnect with each other lovingly, to nurture yourselves and your relationship. You maintain the good feelings by dealing with small irritations before they grow into big ones.
The Potential for Conflict Exists Everywhere
Marriage and relationship educator Ellen Kreidman, PhD, gives a simple example that shows how the potential for conflict exists in any marriage, by referring to one small room: the bathroom.1 One spouse wants the toilet paper to unroll from the top; the other wants it to unroll from the bottom. One leaves the toilet seat up; the other wants it down; one likes a sparkling-clean sink; the other leaves hairs or specks of makeup in it. One likes the door open; the other insists on privacy. And so on… If you’re thinking separate bathrooms, I’m with you! But that is not always possible. Still, by being creative and resourceful, you can often come up with ways to lessen annoyances.
The Risk of Concealing Differences
Lilly and Jonathan illustrate the danger of taking too long to identify and deal with a sensitive issue. Still childless after eight years of marriage, they finally adopted a baby girl. When Lilly first met Jonathan, she admired his take-charge manner. She felt protected by him. Soft spoken and diplomatic, she acquiesced to him on most matters. Lilly’s parents had fought a lot and eventually divorced. She didn’t want this to happen to her. She believed it was important to go along with her husband on most matters in order to keep the peace.
Before they became parents, Jonathan encouraged Lilly to give up her career as a hospital nurse to stay home with their child at least until kindergarten. Lilly thought this was a small price to pay for having her dream of motherhood come true. She squelched her doubts about giving up the work she loved and went along with Jonathan’s idea for her to be a full-time mother. She told herself that it was the right thing to do.
But after two years at home, Lilly thought she would lose her mind. She loved her little girl, but she sorely missed the hustle and bustle of her hospital work, interacting with colleagues, and caring for patients. She also missed the salary, which she had been free to spend as she chose. Now she earned nothing. When Jonathan objected to a small purchase she made, he justified his right to do so by saying, “I’m the breadwinner.” Lilly felt her chest tighten at such times. Wanting to keep the peace, she would say, “I’ll take it back.”
Lilly Pretends All Is Well until It Is Too Late
In public, Lilly played the part of a smiling, contented wife and mother. Privately, she began to feel distant from her husband. She lost interest in sex. She resented him but said nothing. She felt ignored and invisible — until she served a stunned Jonathan with divorce papers.
Is Jonathan a villain? Lilly had shared none of her frustration with him. Should Jonathan have read her mind? Either partner might have saved their marriage by initiating an honest conversation. Jonathan could have asked his wife whether something other than her “headaches” was causing her to withdraw sexually. She could have told him about her unhappiness and said what she really wanted, even if she felt selfish or guilty.
This couple might then have found ways to compromise, perhaps by agreeing that she would return to work on a part-time basis. Lilly might have suggested to Jonathan that it would be fair for each of them to have a certain amount of money to spend with no questions asked, regardless of who earned it. By talking it out with honesty and mutual respect, they might well have created a way for practical solutions to emerge, for trust to grow, and for the return of emotional and physical intimacy.
Know that all marriages have issues, and that by dealing with them constructively, you strengthen your relationship. By adapting a more realistic viewpoint about marriage you will be equipped to use effective techniques for creating a relationship that fulfills you emotionally and spiritually as well as physically and materially.
[Marcia Naomi Berger]