Marriage is tough. Second marriages are even tougher (or so we’re led to believe). Katherine Hepburn, the headstrong and beautiful actress known for her spirited independence once said, “Sometimes I wonder if men and women really suit each other. Perhaps they should live next door and just visit now and then.” I’ve wondered just the same. The logistics of combining two completely whole persons under one roof for the rest of their natural born lives seems daunting, but when you factor in ideals of love and sex and family, not to mention cleaning and cooking and grocery shopping, it’s a wonder marriage works at all. Now add on ex spouses and step children. There’s a reason that over 60% of second marriages (and 73% of third marriages) end in divorce. Source.
Marco and I are 8 years into my first marriage — his second — and after a particularly exasperating row, we found ourselves talking about what makes us different than those couples who married around the same time we did, but have since divorced. Tooting our own horns? Maybe. But mostly it’s the conversation we have when we need to remember why we are so dedicated to each other. What follows is a sort of open letter to myself. I’m writing as much for my benefit as I am for anyone else’s so take it with a grain of salt. I offer you the three things that could actually be hurting marriages.
Disclaimer: I am not suggesting you implement these strategies into your marriage. They work for us, for now, but maybe they won’t in a year. Marriages are sacred and private by nature, and require countless acts of selflessness and hard work. Only you know what your marriage needs.
3 Things Hurting Marriage
Now, obviously there are the understood rules like fidelity and respect, but in my quest to control everything around me, I often find myself strong-arming Marco into agreeing to abide by rules “for the benefit of our marriage”. Rules like Don’t leave mad, or Don’t go to sleep mad, or Take 20 minutes to cool off and then talk to me about every single thing each of us said.
Many “marriage weekends” offer rules of marriage, and I think the majority of them are bogus. I was recently privy to one set of marriage “commandments” which listed not eating at a restaurant with a member of the opposite sex and not riding in a car alone with a member of the opposite sex. That sounds exactly like the rules from my Christian college and you know what? Marco and I got a good chuckle out of checking off all the “commandments” we’d broken. Lunch with my ex-boyfriend? check. Marco driving a female friend to the auto parts store? check. The list goes on.
Here’s the problem with that: we’re setting ourselves up to fail. Eventually, (and probably sooner rather than later) those rules are going to get broken and when they do, it will compound the argument dramatically. Think of a suicide vest versus an atomic bomb. When one of us breaks our self inflicted rules, the tone of the argument shifts from the actual problem to the new infraction and words become debris in a bombing; high speed projectiles maiming and killing all in it’s path. Forget the rules. Let him walk away. Go to sleep mad. Stop talking. Time and space will do more good for a fight than you realize. When you’re ready, just smile and pick back up like nothing happened. Which brings me to #2.
I’m quick to apologize when warranted and I expect the same from my husband. Except, we’re not the same. He’s Marco and I’m Christi and we are each two totally different individuals who value strikingly different things. I love to hear him say “I’m sorry”. To me, it’s an important part of an argument that says “I acknowledge that I hurt you, and I don’t want to do it again”. Though he’s gotten much better at it, Marco’s not one to wax an eloquent apology. He’d rather just go on with life and tweak what upset me in the first place. He is not dependent upon hearing or saying “I’m sorry” the way I am. I envy that of him. I need to remember that I married an exceptionally smart man who is fully capable of changing behaviors without me directing the change. That’s the apology that really matters anyway. Don’t get hung up on words, sometimes the best apologies are the ones you see and feel, not hear.
I’m going to tread lightly here because it’s delicate ground. I am a full supporter of individual and marriage counseling. Having a qualified person to help you work through issues can be an invaluable support to your marriage. That being said, your best friend, coworker, and mother are not qualified people. Spouse trashing is ugly.
About once a year, Marco and I have an argument that leaves us considering marriage counseling. However, neither of us are very keen on opening up our marriage to a stranger and letting them analyze it; it seems horrendously invasive. Then we take a look at ourselves: I was 20 years old when we married. He was divorced with a toddler. We’d known each other for 3 months. Statistically speaking, we should have parted ways 7.5 years ago. We both agree that trying to explain us to a counselor would be impossible. So we don’t do it. But the conversations about counseling seem to be enough. They refocus our energies on the two of us and what makes us special. It makes us a team again, and that’s pretty much the point, right?
Counseling absolutely has it’s place and the conflict resolution strategies are superb, but you know your marriage better than anyone. Listen to your own heart.
Since we’re on the topic, I’m going to go ahead and pull the trigger on my suicide vest from earlier. The vast majority of the time, church based marriage counseling is a sham. I don’t care how long that couple has been married and how many secrets to success Jesus has personally shown them through visions and whatnot. Unless they are licensed by your state, stay far, far away.
• Pastors are not marriage counselors.
• Small group leaders are not marriage counselors.
• Even church counselors are often not actual counselors.
While I genuinely believe they have altruistic intentions and sincerely care about you and your marriage, the church is fraught with staff who “counsel” members on matters they have no business talking about. Take, for instance, this situation: An educated, knowledgeable pastor who knew the intimate details of a middle age man’s drug addiction, sent him to a fresh-out-of-college staff pastor for counseling within the church. This “counselor/pastor” had never even smoked a cigarette, let alone managed any addictions. He was raised in a Christian home, he attended a Christian college, and he was freshly hired onto the staff of this Christian church. He had no business counseling a drug addict and ended up doing more harm than good. This isn’t always the case, of course, and the church means well, but this “counseling” is becoming an epidemic. When seeking help for your marriage, insist on a state licensed counselor. Lots of state licensed counselors have religious affiliations if that’s your style.
There are things that we think will help us, that end up blowing up in our faces. Marriage is too important to watch it implode without a fight, so take the time to nurture your marriage. Nurture your friendship with your spouse. And remember, it’s going to be hard. When you re-align your expectations, things have a way of falling into place. Friedrich Nietzsche said “It’s not a lack of love, but a lack of friendship that makes unhappy marriages”. Smart man, that Friedrich.