by Annie Knepp (aka Ann Hansen Gamble) with Gail Hansen Fox
HOW TO BE HAPPY THOUGH MARRIED (with a Nod of the Head to Grantfather, who coined this title)
On this auspicious occasion of your marriage, I feel prompted to share with you my observations on the snares and pitfalls of marriage, many of which can be avoided. Even if these observations may not seem terribly original, you can be sure that, after 25 years of seeing and hearing it all in my practice of family law, they are first-hand. What takes a couple from the excited anticipation of the happiest day of their lives to sitting across from me? Therefore, I write this for you with all my love, in the fond hope that you will never, ever need the services of a divorce lawyer!
What is it that turns two people who marry with the highest of hopes into two people who find it impossible to live together? Sometimes I find myself quite astonished to hear complaints that seem, at least to me, to be about perfectly acceptable behavior and attitudes. Other times I see couples getting along with partners whose behavior would make me (and other Saints) crazy. Why are some people so eager to leave their marriage while others can stay despite tough (or even crazy) situations? Discounting the folks who are masochists or who live in separate homes across the continent from each other, here are some observations…
What I Have Heard or Confessions of a Divorce Lawyer
No one gets married to feel worse about himself. Why is it, I wonder, that people can be polite to the clerk in the local 7-11 store and not to the family they have at home? Why can they tolerate, indeed even feel affectionate toward the vagaries and eccentricities of friend, and find fault with those closest to them? The answer is, “because friends don’t matter as much!” (Wouldn’t you think that if it really mattered, you would be putting forth more effort to get along than if it didn’t?) Therefore, we can assume the first thing is to love and honor one another. (And soften the focus a little, lighten up a little…)
So, it makes sense to support and uplift your partner, not criticize them. Probably the number one killer of marriages is criticizing the other person! It may start with benign little suggestions for improvement, but can move on to earnest scrutiny, with one partner pointing out the changes that they would like to see made. First this is done in private, then it happens in public, in front of others. Even spoken in jest or jokingly, criticism sends the clear message that the critical partner finds his mate unacceptable as is.
Criticism of your partner arises from issues of control, not cooperation. It reflects a truth about the criticizer, not the partner. If you have been a person who must boss other people, if you have had a desire to change others (an impossibility, by the way), the arena of matrimony is not a good place to indulge yourself. Certainly there are things about your partner that you may find less than perfect (you are marrying a human, I trust – remember androids are only in the testing phase right now) but here is a time-tested way to avoid wrangling over your partner’s differences from you, to avoid discomfort or surprise over something your partner may say or do, or to avoid disappointment over something they may forget to do: (I know this is controversial) ignore it. (This is, of course, assuming that these situations are of minor consequence, more annoying than serious).
Other coping skills include acceptance of the other person’s vagaries or eccentricities – learn to love and laugh about them. (Recently, we had a group of people come to our house for a meeting, to be followed by a party. Two husbands arrived without their wives, who followed a half-hour later. Neither apologized or explained or seemed the slightest concerned that the wives came along later. It turned out that each of these men made it a point to arrive on time, and both of the wives are apparently unable to do so. Therefore, they have arrived at a solution: different arrival times. What could be an endless wrangle [with many opportunities for escalation and creative variations] has been simply and easily solved. If anyone were to observe anything about these couples, one of the first things they would see is that they have very little interest in wars or contests, and quite an interest in practical solutions.)
Another coping skill is being serenely secure with yourself – your partner’s actions do not define or reflect on you. The only thing we can do in this life is to decide whether we will be the kind of person who shouts encouragement to others or criticizes others.
If you must work on something, work on marriage. The proper place for working on improvement is on the mutual investment that is your marriage. Hopefully, on of the reasons you decided to get married was because – like building a house or starting a business – you and your partner are looking forward to building a happy, effective, successful marriage. It is strange, but many people get married as if they were going on a vacation together – sure hope the service is good and I have nothing but fun!
But what if we hit snags in the everyday workings of things? (Everyone does.) It’s not as if we grow up with the curious situation of having a romantic partner whom we fervently (and self-consciously) hope admires us, but with whom we must also get along in the unglamorous, tedious agenda of daily life. If you hit trouble spots in the allocation of chores, for example (where are that butler an maid when you need them?) don’t start a fight – rearrange tasks. If you are Felix (the neat freak) and you have married Oscar (the slob), and have your own Odd Couple situation going, the person who cannot stand the mess should be the one who takes care of it – by doing it or hiring it out. Pulling out the unfair stops of “you don’t love me or you would – ” is blackmail. Believing that blackmail is also wrong. The snags of everyday life can provide you with fertile ground for criticism, argument and escalation of differences if you have decided to be thin-skinned, prickly, quickly offended, and that you like making war, not love. Or, you can decide to keep your love and friendship as a basis for whatever life throws at you – and of course, life will be hurling things you will not like. How much better to go through those bad times with a friend than an enemy.
I am going to sacrifice everything for the peace and then everything will be all right – right? Not exactly. While it is admirable to be generous and sensitive to your partner in your marriage, it is equally important that your own basic needs are met (or you will not have anything left to meet life’s obligations, much less the needs of your family). Just as you would not ask your best friend to give into your relationship so fully that they never get time alone, cannot keep their own sleep schedule, cannot schedule the kind of recreation they prefer, so must not ask a partner with whom you ostensibly share the highest bonds to do so. On the other hand, you do not stay best friends with someone who never comes around, never gives you any time, and with whom you cannot have fun. Also, best friends do not last very long if one always gives in to the other. Martyrdom seems to take seed in families, and in particular in marriages. Balance seems easy with a best friend – why so hard with a mate?
Balance is hard with a mate because of the formidable dragon called Unmet Expectations. Another name for this is the unspoken bargain. Both arise from an unfortunate trait in humans called “assumption.” Assumption is deadly, but never more so than in matrimony. If you have your own story line that is going on (complete with the highest expectations) but superstitiously, like kids who can’t tell after they wish on a star, you have not mentioned these expectations to your mate (they are just supposed to know) you are setting yourself up for self-inflicted grief. Every time you do something with the idea that it will prompt a certain desired behavior from others, you setting both yourself and the other person up for disappointment and resentment. If it weren’t so sad, it would be hilarious, because it is a one-way script, complete with characters and dialogue, except that the other person hasn’t a clue. If you do things that you would rather not do because your partner asks you to (like visiting one of their crazy relatives), and then expect to collect later by making them come with you to visit your crazy family – but they have the good sense to say no, then you have your just comeuppance. You made an assumption. (One of my favorite sayings is “no good deed goes unpunished”!)
Speaking of assumption, a phrase that helps avoid it is: Don’t Cry at Your Own Movies. I hope this is not a trap that you will fall into. But, it’s everywhere – in politics, in war, in civilization. So, perhaps it would be better to say I hope you don’t take it too hard if you fall into it occasionally.
What if there are Real Troubles? Truly awful things must be dealt with firmly, quickly, calmly. Think of a truly awful problem as an intruder into the warmth and safety of your house. What truly awful things do I see?
Substance abuse. If your find your partner abusing alcohol or drugs, you must deal with it head-on, and not try to avoid the issue with denial. (“That man with a gun at the front door isn’t a burglar – he’s selling encyclopedias…” See how ridiculous that is?) One client of mine who dearly loves her husband and loves their life together was awakened to a potentially dangerous problem when her husband was picked up for DUI. This seriously impacted their family business, and it was then that she admitted to me there was a problem. Instead of throwing out the baby with the bath water, she saw this situation as an opportunity for change. She decided not to leave her husband, which might not be everyone’s decision, but it certainly was a practical attitude. Of course, if a situation becomes irresolute, such as both partners being involved in substance abuse, or the abusing partner refusing help, then I might see that person sitting across the desk from me (and it might be the best thing to do).
Physical violence. This must be stopped dead in its tracks the very first time it occurs. Whatever the reaction, the person who has been hit must forcefully assert him or herself and affirm that this is not acceptable. The worst mistake is pretending that nothing happened. Once violence is accepted, it will never end. Do not accept tearful apologies, flowers, tender treatment – this means that you are accepting payment and that the violent partner has now purchased the right to do you harm. I recommend that a person make it clear that the perpetrator has used up his or her one and only episode of physical abuse. If it is repeated, the person upon whom the violence has been inflicted will (and must) leave. Period.
Physical violence against children. Children are an enormous cause of stress in any marriage. They exacerbate any problems you might have. In some marriages, violence against the mother doesn’t begin until children are born. In other situations, the children are the unfortunate victims. This is nothing new – read Charles Dickens – but it is on the rise today with so many stresses, and the incidence of so many “blended” families and other creative living arrangements. I trust this will never be an issue.
Not to digress, but speaking of children, I think there is a deep need and desire on the part of many parents to re-live their own emotional development through their children. More than anything else, I think this accounts for how we treat our children. We had a County Commissioner several years ago who was a psychologist. He started a program at the County Jail for the inmates of parenting classes. Even the most depraved of these individuals wanted to be better parents. (Of course, one of the things you learn in parenting classes is how to meet your own needs while meeting the needs of your children – effective parenting as personal therapy.) Most people, happily, change and grow (grow up) as a result of having children, despite the stress it places on a marriage.
Another Real Trouble is infidelity. Sexual infidelity is immensely painful, and of course in this day and age, extremely risky. Unfortunately, one cannot know ahead of time how deeply this will affect you. I personally have no tolerance for it It violates many trusts – including personal integrity – and this, in fact, is the true damage. If you ever slip, and your partner doesn’t know, do not share this information on the misguided idea that (coming to this kind of late, aren’t you?) “we have no secrets between us.” Yes, you do. Telling is deliberately shattering another’s trust and peace of mind. If your partner knows, counseling may help, but the less said, the better.
Speaking of keeping things to oneself, it is perfectly okay not to “be an open book” and not to voice every thought that you have. First, when you blurt out everything you think, it invites discussion, comment, criticism. If the atmosphere in general is trusting and peaceful between you and your partner, there is no need to tell them everything. (“You know, I’ve always thought your mother’s teeth look terrible…”) Second, be very careful of revealing your innermost secrets. You can gauge how comfortable you are, as time passes, letting out a few, little by little, but should you ever come to a parting of the ways, you would be surprised how those things you would rather die than have known will be used against you. (The people who proudly tell me that they are just “too honest” and “trusting” annoy me more than I can say.) It isn’t a question of making your partner “earn” your trust so much as not boring him or her to death with stuff he really doesn’t need or want to hear right then. Also, you must be sure that what you have to say about yourself is not going to shock your partner in some way or cause some resentment. It may feel wonderful to reveal yourself – “the true me” – but it isn’t going to feel so great when, in the middle of some quarrel – or later in the courtroom – it gets thrown back in your face. (In spite of my wonderful advice that Fighting is Futile, I’ll bet you’re going to try it once or twice.)
Maintain your dignity. Maintain your privacy, even as you share your life with others.
What about money problems? There is a new variation on money problems these days. I seldom hear people complain that fights over money have brought them to my office. Instead, I see people who have acquired an enormous amount of consumer debt in a relatively short period of time. Whether buying a lot of stuff is a reaction to the disintegration of a marriage, or turns out to be a self-indulgence that leads to the disintegration of a marriage, the bottom line is – credit card debt can sink a steady ship. The true issue is that money is really a power function. If one person prevents another from using money, it is not because one person is a spendthrift and the other person is careful. It is because they are battling out the issue of who is the boss. The best course to take is to share money decisions. If you are basically different in the way you handle moey, come to some sort of compromise BEFORE problems arise. It is hard to fix any hard feelings that arise over the use of money. People see their spending habits as intensely personal aspects of themselves.
Least said, soonest mended is an old saying, but works today. Whatever mean things you might say really cannot be unsaid. Apologies don’t change anything. If your partner has done or said something that really might call for a mean remark back, the fact that you show restraint builds a huge reservoir of gratitude. Additionally, you will not have escalated a situation where the initial issue may very well be lost. Last but not least, you are responsible for whatever comes out of your mouth – and in disagreeable circumstances, can quickly lose your advantage as the rational partner.
Suppose your partner says something mean to you. Out of the blue? What are the circumstances? First, try not to take is personally unless, of course, you did something to deserve the remark. Do you think your partner is taking this opportunity to try to change you? Did you partner deliberately try to hurt your feelings? You need to assess all these things, and cannot do so if you are engaged in an escalating fight. Again, least said, soonest mended. If there is an ongoing issue happening here, discussion later when everyone has cooled down should help. Maybe there is something really bothering your partner, and later in the calm, you can find out what it is.
Is your partner “taking shots” at you? This would include thinly-disguised aggression manifesting itself by ridicule of everything from your values, opinions and ideas to your friends and family. This is serious, and one or both of you may need counseling. It is assumed that you would never sink to this level, and would have aired any problems before this kind of cold war began.
Speaking of airing problems, do you have a dispute resolution system in place? Before undergoing all of life’s little trials, not the least of which are the arrival of children, you need to work out a neutral system for dealing with frustration, anger, reactions to the stresses of child-rearing, etc. This may seem an elaborate thing to do while still in the flush of romance, but as long as you two are getting along so well…
Endless arguments? No compromise possible? What to do? If you have gone round and round on an issue and there seems no compromise possible (and you have been very clear about your position), there are a variety of possibilities. Are you involved in a power struggle? Are you being asked to do something against your own value system? This could be one of those situations when outside help is required. In no way would compromising your own values be of any help, and might in fact cause a crucial shift in the balance of your relationship. Does your partner just enjoy a good argument? Does he or she like to debate issues endlessly? (Might want to go into Law and get paid for it.) Putting off the argument by changing the subject is one workable tactic. If you are confronted by the arguer who wants to continue, simply say that you will come back to it later. If the issue is over really basic things, such as whether or not to have a child, it is widely thought that the person who says “no,” should prevail. Do not take on anything pivotal or basic if the two of you do not agree. Of course, if argument becomes a way of life, crowding out all other means of exchange, obviously this requires counseling or it is one of the ways you could wind up sitting across the desk of a divorce lawyer.
Last but not least, it helps to remember to keep God in your marriage. Whether you attend church, whether you are Protestant, Unitarian, Buddhist, or (shudder) Presbyterian, you need to acknowledge the Spirit which permeates the portion of the Universe which is knows to us. Besides the comfort to be found in this, it helps keep you in perspective: you are two equally beloved children of God entering into a union, equally thankful for the privelege of being here, having found each other, and for the gifts of your lives. (Thou Shalt Have No Other Gods Before Me is a good commandment to keep in mind if one or the other of you is tempted to assume an unwarranted position of authority over the other.) True partnership is only achieved by separate and whole beings who retain uniqueness even as they unite. God always enters into equal partnerships.
But what if I don’t believe? I have certainly heard all the arguments against faith. Even if all these arguments were true, faith is still worthwhile. Even if it is all just a product of our imaginations, what a great way to use your imagination. How wonderful it is to have a means of tapping into what is best, whether it is already a part of yourself, or whether it is the Great Spirit of the Universe.
Remember to pray every day. Turn over your problems, and ask for guidance. Remember, God loves you, warts and all, and that is the way you should be loving each other. If you pray diligently, you might even get rid of the warts! God does transform us, if we allow it. I hope you get your relationship with God firmly in place before life’s disasters occur. Of course you cannot make anyone else have that relationship, but you can have it yourself.
Be your best self because each of you will rub off on the other. While you can’t actively change another person, we pick things up, one from another. We tend to copy behavior we find charming in another. A man I know and like very much said recently that he is who he is today because he was very much influenced by who his wife is. I have been lucky enough to learn from EdEx, and even more from Ed, from his support, his friendship, his generous spirit. He both leads and pushes me, sometimes where I think at first I do not want to go, but because it is done kindly and with humor and never with harsh words, I can try. There is no failure, just differences. I think we are both better people than when we met. I have definitely grown from being with him, and sometimes I even think I see something of me in his behavior. (This is hugely flattering, because I have not made any conscious effot to get him to do anything “my way.”)
Remember, patience is a virtue. Do not be quick to take offense. When disaster strikes, your partner may respond in ways that dismay you. They may not seem to support or comfort you. Be patient. Try to remember that it may be all that he or she can do right at the moment. They may be running extremely low on generosity and self-possession, and your unkind words will not help.
My prayer, my hope, my wish, my toast to you is that you ma have no unresolvable disputes, no grief that will not heal, and no words that you wish you could take back.