Do we expect too much of marriage?

By Caitlin Kelly

From The Economist:

Eli Finkel at Northwestern University in Chicago.. told a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science this week that most married Americans expect their spouses to develop profound insights into the essential qualities of their other half, fulfilling their needs for esteem and self-actualisation. A spouse, these days, can be expected to be a confidant, lover, co-parent, breadwinner, activity partner and therapist. This, he concludes, makes being happily married harder than it was in the past.

I was struck, and touched, by how many of you “liked” my recent post about my 14 years (so far) of marriage with Jose.

ringsOur rings and wedding certificate

One commenter noted that I believe in work, that a happy marriage doesn’t just happen spontaneously. Maybe it does for some people.

In our case, our marriage is hard-won. We were both married before, very unhappily. We came to our relationship, as many of us do later in life, scarred, wary and battle-hardened, by life, by work, by disappointing relationships along the way.

It wasn’t a great start and we’ve benefited from several smart, insightful counselors along the way.

So, what do you think of this list? It does strike me as exhaustive, and possibly exhausting to fulfill.

— confidant, lover, co-parent, breadwinner, activity partner and therapist.

I don’t expect him to parent children (we have none). I do expect him to earn a living, but he is not the only breadwinner; we rely on my income as well. I don’t really look to him as an activity partner, much as I’d like to. I love going to movies. He hates it. I love theater and dance and museums. He’ll join me occasionally but he’s happier reading or relaxing at home after another hectic workweek. We’ve helped each other confront some of our issues, but I also have a therapist and her role is clear.

I’ve also learned the hard way that it takes two people to make a marriage.

Duh!

Actually, not really. You can hit every traditional milestone: a fancy wedding and sexy honeymoon and a big house and tons of kids — and still have a crappy, lonely, cringe-making life, wondering why on earth you took vows with this creep.

If both people aren’t in the same set of traces, pulling hard in the same general direction most days, I think your marriage is less likely to last.

I don’t actually feel like an oxen tilling the fields. But we all need backup!

Knowing that each of us is as fully committed to life’s dreary scutwork — laundry, groceries, scrubbing the toilet, getting the damn car inspected, collecting all our tax paperwork — as we are to one another’s deeper happiness helps a lot. Jose is not, thank God, lazy or messy or disorganized. (OK, I can be the last two, rarely the first.) He puts gas in the car. I wash the floors.

Sexy? Maybe not for some people. Someone taking responsibility is deeply attractive to me.

Shared values matter enormously.

One of the many self-help books I read while dating, (yes, I admit it!), offered what I thought was an interesting way to decide if someone new might prove to be a good fit romantically: PEPSI — whether we had a decent match in the following categories: Professional, Emotional, Physical, Spiritual and Intellectual.

From our first date, I knew we matched well on four of the five.

Offering your sweetie your absolutely undivided attention, preferably for an hour a day, (yes, it’s not easy; that’s the point!), is also huge. In an era of CPA — continuous partial attention — this is one of the greatest gifts we can still, and must, give one another.

But I think the single most important element of a marriage you want to last for decades is, paradoxically, remembering that your partner or spouse is a separate human being.

We each carry our own fears, hopes, dreams, goals and unresolved wounds. We each arrive at the altar — whether we marry at 20, 40 or 60 (possibly all three!) — as someone with a past. We all bring ghosts, angels and demons, some of which we have yet to even notice, acknowledge, tame or banish.

(Which is where good therapy can also strengthen your marriage, whether you go alone or together.)

I keep a photo of Jose, as a small baby in his onesie, his mother beaming beside him, nearby in a lovely frame. I treasure everything about this image: her joy, his delight, her optimism, their love.

photo(30)

Gregorita is so thoroughly delighted with him, even though he’s a surprise baby and she’s 50 and her husband is not in good health and they have little money.

She cherished him, but she died decades ago.

Now it’s my turn.

Here’s a post from Psychology Today, by a man happily married for 43 years, with his five tips for a satisfying marriage.

What do you expect from your husband, wife or partner?

Is it too much — or not enough?