I have marriage on my mind this week. Or more specifically – what makes it work, what causes it to crumble, and what increases the likelihood that any committed relationship will thrive.
Once upon a time, most of us conceived of a safe place called Marriage. We were young, we were naive, we were idealistic; in the other person we imagine a certain belonging.
We ascribe almost magical powers to the union – we are unconditionally loved, we are less alone in the world, we are stronger as part of team, stronger still in bearing children and creating the family unit.
But marriage is not a fairy tale. Dreams and reality collide. Some relationships evolve with maturity. Other relationships decay or explode.
The slow death of a marriage? It has origins.
The seemingly sudden destruction? There are signs.
So what then do we mean when we take those vows – to love, to honor, to cherish? What do we owe ourselves, once embarked on that journey?
Marriage is a contract, and naturally there is a notion of obligation in any agreement involving two individuals and the promises they exchange. There is a premise of reliance. There is a premise of responsibility. Duty (or fulfillment of expectations) and accountability (consequences) are both are part of the picture.
- If you give me your word, you are obliged to keep it. If you don’t follow through, I’m unlikely to trust you. That is the consequence.
- If we oblige our children to do their homework, when they don’t, there are bad grades and lost privileges. Those are the consequences.
Earlier this week, elsewhere, I wrote about obligation in relationships, specifically sexual obligation, and the use of the word “owe” caused some consternation. While the term may seem contentious (as it evokes exchange of sexual services for a roof over one’s head), I believe we do owe each other something. Many things. But we don’t discuss it.
I also believe we owe ourselves the ability to remain who we are; we will evolve, we will compromise, but we need to retain a “self” even in marriage.
Obligation as a Societal Issue
As a society, we seem to balk at the notion of obligation. We ignore it when we no longer want to abide by it. We gloss over it in marriage. We go for the easy excuse and the quick fix, which mitigate against the likelihood of any successful partnership, certainly over the long term.
It is reasonably assumed that affection is part of the marital commitment. It is reasonably assumed that sex is part of the marital commitment. But then many things are reasonably assumed, and that doesn’t make them achievable.
Once, it was assumed that the wife put her family first; she gave up her job (if she had one), she set aside interests (during the baby years especially); she put her husband’s career ahead of her own.
In the past decades, that has changed for many couples. Yet for some, the legacy of the “traditional” model of marriage has left confusing and conflicting expectations.
Me First, You Second, “Us” Third?
An obligation to hang onto “ourselves” when mired in marriage and child-rearing? The exhausting juggle of kids and jobs and home and husband?
The fatigue is real, but so is the marriage – the need for both parties to put the “other” first at various points in time.
So why has it become standard to let ourselves off the hook in the name of “Personal Happiness?” Does obligation to the self always trump obligation to the spouse, or the marriage?
When did it become uncool to sacrifice – for an hour, for a week, for a year – and I don’t mean losing oneself; I firmly believe in negotiating workable compromises based on each couple’s needs and the needs of their family unit. But don’t good relationships require that the other be a critical priority?
Why is it that we’re determined to become the heroes in our own stories, but we’ve lost the capacity to become the hero in another person’s story? Quite likely, the one we vowed to cherish?
Marital Vows Mean What?
What are we promising as we join hands and make that commitment?
Kindness? Honesty? A clean house? A paid mortgage? Respect when it’s convenient, sex if we’re not too tired? Wouldn’t it be simpler to take in a roommate, hire a sitter, engage a housekeeper, or cohabit with your best friend?
And where does romance stand in this mix – however you happen to define it? Anywhere? Nowhere? Should wooing be considered a means to an end, or something both spouses engage in, as part of a healthy relationship?
Do you know what you owe your spouse? Does he or she know what you believe is owed? Where do you stand on the division or sharing of marital contributions?
- What about bringing income into the family unit?
- What about the time and work of running the household, or the daily execution of the parenting profession?
- Is everything negotiable in a relationship, as long as both parties agree to it?
- If one party changes the rules of the game, can the other simply walk away?
- Don’t good relationships require a concerted effort that we keep our word?
We all know that we can’t legislate morality (though we try), and we can’t legislate emotions (does marriage try?). But some couples dispense with far more than physical intimacy; they dispense with respect, they dispense with basic communication, they act as though little of the original elements of the marital agreement have any applicability whatsoever.
The Perfect Marriage
There is no such thing as the perfect person. There is no such thing as the perfect person for me – at least, that is what I believe, and always have. There is no “one,” but there may be many with whom I could build a strong and committed and happy relationship. One that isn’t static, one with no guarantees, one that would include implicit obligations – respect, friendship, genuine communication, emotional intimacy, physical intimacy, honesty, and trust.
I can only imagine there is more – a good deal more – and I find that fully appropriate. In a committed relationship, there is reliance, there is bonding, there is the desire (and fulfillment) of shared lives, friends, and possibly – a home.
As I enjoy an increasingly relaxed and rewarding relationship at present, although I am not feeling compelled to be married, I’m attentive to why things are going so well. I am focused on my partner’s needs as well as my own, and aware that the “couple” must also be nurtured. It is a delicate balancing act, the nature of which requires a willingness to question, and constant communication.
I see obligations as inherent in every relationship, personal or professional. “Owing” is not a dirty word – though it is about duty and it is about responsibility.
Without responsibility and accountability, where is reliance? Where is stability? How can anything possibly run smoothly? Where is the foundational strength to absorb the unanticipated curve ball? Shouldn’t we determine what “love, honor, cherish” truly entail? Shouldn’t we discuss it with the ones we wed – especially as time and circumstances will change each of us as individuals, and likewise, the “us” of the couple?
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