Its hard not to become jaded about anyone's ability to have healthy or fulfilling romantic relationships in my line of work. As a counselor, I spend a lot of time listening to people talk about what's "wrong" with their marriages. They talk about their unmet needs, the big and small things that bother them, how their expectations were so different, and how they just wanted "happily ever after." They talk about present spouses and former ones and how they hoped "this time" would be different from any other relationship they ever had.
I know there must have been a time when things were different, when they were happy and "in love" and believed the best in each other. When I ask about such times, it seems like its hard for them to even remember how things were then. Some couples hang in there and find the good again. Others call it quits. Sometimes, the decision is about big stuff like addiction, abuse, affairs, or other types of irresponsibility or selfishness. Most of the time, though, its smaller things. People don't show enough sensitivity to each other's needs. They get caught up in raising the kids and become roommates and parents rather than still being spouses. They don't make time to nurture their relationship and grow apart. They don't treat each other with caring and lose respect for each other, get stuck in patterns of keeping score about who has done more or who has hurt the other more, or simply disconnect emotionally.
Fortunately, I do get to hear happier stories sometimes. Occasionally, someone will come to see me about a problem that has nothing to do with their marriage. They tell me they are married to someone who is friend and lover and partner. They describe how they've faced challenges and how they continue to have a strong relationship. Some of these marriages are still young while others have been with their spouse for twenty years or more. Either way, their spouses are sources of support and strong positives in their lives. These people always hasten to say that their marriages aren't perfect, but they also are quick to say they would marry that person again and are thankful for the life they have together. It always warms my heart to hear those stories and keeps me from getting so cynical about what marriage is like.
I recently spent time with a woman in her 60s who lost her husband of over 40 years several months ago. The way she tells it, it seems clear they had a good marriage based on respect, friendship, and many shared values. She hasn't re-written history to make him perfect now that he is deceased, thankfully. She says he never was one to share much as far as feelings. She admits they were both conflict avoiders who didn't like to confront difficult issues so they rarely argued. The flip side of this is that some important issues went undiscussed. She says they weren't the most romantic couple when it came to flowers, elaborate gifts, or displays of affection. Still, she always knew he loved and appreciated her. She knew they would stand by each other through hard things and appreciated him for who he was rather than worrying too much about who or what he wasn't. They raised children together, were close with family, and respected each other's individual personalities and interests. She seemed to have a lot of confidence in her husband's character and never doubted that his heart was in the right place. She told me that, whether it was in business or personal dealings, he was a steady man who treated people with kindness. She described some difficult times in their marriage. They certainly faced their share of challenges. but they always worked things out. They may not have agreed, but they didn't let differences separate them from all that was good in the relationship. No one is perfect and no marriage is perfect, but they handled what had to be handled as a team.
Was this the stuff fairy tales are made of? No! This is the stuff of real marriages between real people doing the best they can and staying focused on what they know to be true and the commitments they made to each other. During the months leading up to her husband's death, when he was becoming more and more ill and unable to maintain quality of life, she had to watch him wasting away and had to try and prepare herself for the loss that was coming. That's what "for better or worse, in sickness and in health, til death do us part" is all about.
I can't imagine trying to become an "I" again affter being a "we" for so long. I can't imagine the sense of emptiness that must be there after falling asleep next to that other person every night for years and years. She misses him now but is thankful for all the years they had together. She wouldn't change it, and she certainly doesn't talk about the times he left his clothes on the floor, didn't put a glass in the sink, took a snippy tone withher, or wouldn't take her out to dinner. I wish that some of the couples I work with who are squabbling about petty things like tooth paste lids, dirty clothes on the floor, or who's turn it is to unload the dishwasher could hear this woman talk about her marriage. They squabble like siblings about things that won't matter in 24 hours, like who ate the last cookie or whether the dog peed on the floor on Wednesday night or Thursday night. They're frustrated and disappointed and have lost perspective on what's truly important vs why they're arguing right this minute. I wish they could hear her describe what the grief is like at times and how it feels to be alone again after all those years.She has a bigger picture perspective that would do them a lot of good. Apparently, she and her husband stayed focussed on the bigger picture and what really mattered, and that's what helped them stay married for so many years.
So many people believe that love will magically make things easy and make everything work out. The realities of marriage are often a very rude awakening. Even those who had a somewhat more realistic perspective often say, "I just had no idea it would be this hard sometimes." I often hear that same comment about parenthood, too. None of us are truly prepared for the challenges of creating families. Even when its tough going, none of us can afford to take our relationships for granted. The day-to-day little stuff is not usually as important as it seems. Living out forty years or more of life together is quite an achievement and taking the long view can go a long way towards helping us keep things in perspective.