It takes a lot to mess up a marriage, just as it takes a lot to make a marriage work.
In my professional experience as a relationship counsellor and my 29 years of marriage, I believe that most of us enter into this most important relationship with high hopes and dreams of happiness, fulfillment and success. And yet are any of us really prepared for what is required to make a marriage successful? I have heard it said that nothing makes us ready for marriage but marriage itself.
I know that my own relationship has taught me a lot about others but mostly about myself. And my clients have privileged me with witnessing their courage as they wrestle with their relationship challenges and triumphs. Good relationships are about living out of our commitment day by day and together entering into the ‘whatevers’ that life throws up at us. I believe healthy relationships are characterised by the values of Commitment and Investment. Marriage is essentially the witnessing of two people making vows to commit to each other, and to invest their time and love in the new entity of a relationship together. I remember being impressed by the statement of a newly married young man that he wanted to be ‘the best husband he could be’ for his new wife- perhaps a rare attitude in today’s world.
Marriage isn’t an arbitrary sequence of events: there are common principles that influence relationships that work well and those that don’t. So what are those key principles that make marriage work? I believe there are 3 essential factors in good long term relationships:
- Learning how to handle conflict together
- And a willingness to continue to grow with and learn from each other.
Sometimes when I am sitting with couples I am reminded of what God said as He completed His creation of mankind: ‘It is not good for man to be alone’. And yet so often I hear of stories of loneliness and aloneness in people’s relationships. There was the example of the hard working couple, two careers, two young children, lovely home, every convenience, gadget and tool you could want, supportive extended family, generosity to family and friends but so very, very desperately unhappy.
What had gone wrong with the fairy tale life they both thought they were working so hard for? In the busyness of their lives there was hardly a moment for each other and the moments they did have were spent arguing. Somewhere along the line they had stopped doing what friends do.
So what is it that friends do?
- Make sure that they communicate
- Make time for regular dates
- Give each other respect
- Value their partner’s/friend’s input and influence.
- Deposit regularly into each other’s emotional bank accounts.
- Pursue common interests- goals, fun, values
- Share intimacies (and for couples – romance)
All these attributes of friendship and more are the common glue that keeps relationships working even in the tough times. We need to Like the person we live with, and Like the person we have become, (most of the time) not just love them.
This second essential factor reminds me of the story of a couple who thought they had to split up because they were constantly having fights. On exploration, the fights weren’t particularly out of the ordinary but a comment from the husband alerted me to the underlying expectation. He had been one of a large apparently happy Christian family. He said he had never seen his parents fight and that he thought good Christian marriages never had any conflict. So because he and his wife were arguing he thought there was something very wrong and maybe they were heading for the divorce courts. He, at least, had no model for conflict resolution from his family of origin. On reflection he supposed that maybe his parents took their disagreements ‘behind closed doors’ but this didn’t help him to know how to handle conflict in his marriage.
For relationships to survive and strengthen it is essential to be realistic that conflict inhabits all relationships and being willing to learn how to handle it together and handle our own subsequent negative emotions, Most couples who come for counselling are struggling to resolve conflict in one form or another. It is inevitable that there will be conflict and that without some conflict our relationships will not flourish; they will become boring, lifeless and vulnerable.
Most of us don’t have good conflict resolution skills, so early in our relationship it can be very important to get know our own (i.e. your family’s) conflict style as well as our partner’s and how they differ. I am yet to see two people in any marriage who have the exactly the same skills, so understanding the differences and finding ways to communicate are imperative- eventually coming up with a style that works for both of us.
John Gottman, who has researched and written on marriage for many years divides marital conflicts into two types: solvable and unresolvable. He states that 69% of all disagreements are unresolvable, so somewhere in our arguments we are going to have to come to terms with accepting what we cannot always get what we want and get on with our lives. Most of us know (but too often forget) the prayer: Lord help me to change the things I can change, accept the things I cannot and give me the wisdom to know the difference.
Another important understanding after a conflict situation is the making and receiving of repair attempts. In strong marriages both individuals make the effort to repair any perceived damage to their friendship and relationship and the other acknowledges and receives the repair attempt. ‘Making up’ can be part of deeper intimacy and understanding in healthy relationships.
Finally, healthy relationships commit to and invest in ongoing growth and learning. If we hear the question ‘are we there yet?’ we would have to answer ‘No’. Neither our individual lives not our relationships are static. We are creative beings and marriages that last are constantly changing and growing, sharing goals and expectations, adjusting to circumstances, learning from experiences and other relationships, seeking out answers to challenges and allowing ourselves to become more intimate. It could almost be said the main goal of growth is intimacy – emotional, physical and sexual.
I think too often we see marriage as the goal in itself, the day of our wedding the pinnacle of success, rather than the start of the journey, the beginning of a relationship that is new and exciting but also unknown. I believe we all have great expectations of marriage and want to be happy but anything with big expectations requires commitment and investment, marriage no less than anything else. But it is that commitment and investment which actually make us better individuals and make our marriages a successful journey.
One of the hardest challenges facing a marriage is the breaking of trust through an affair. But even an affair can initiate growth. I can speak of a couple who, following the birth of their first child, successfully negotiated the pain and hurt of an affair. It was not easy, it involved a period of separation but as they were each thrown into a place where they had to look deeply inside themselves, test their values and reassess their integrity they were each able to make a decision to re-commit to their marriage vows and re-invest in their relationship. Three years down the track they and their relationship have grown and they can face new challenges with more wisdom and maturity.
- Can you see areas in your own life where you have let commitment slip or stopped investing?
- Is your marriage (and any other important relationship) worth some reflection and assessment?
- No matter what the state of your relationships, they can all benefit from a ‘going back to basics’. What made them work in the first place?
Commitment and Investment reflects your own integrity and nearly always is responded to in kind.
Go ahead, try it again. I am sure it will be worth it.
If this article has prompted you to act or raised any concerns, it may be helpful to talk with a relationship counsellor or trusted friend.
Written by Bernadette Milsted
Copyright © 2011 Focus on the Family Australia. All rights reserved. International copyright secured. Used by permission.