“If I knew back when we met what I know now about you and about marriage, I never would have married you.”
“You know what? I wouldn’t have, either.”
“Weird to think about that, isn’t it?”
“Yeah, it is. I gotta go to sleep now. I love you.”
“I love you, too.”
This is not a verbatim transcript of the end of a conversation I had in bed with my wife recently, but it is pretty darn close. And it tells me just how far my views of marriage have traveled in the almost-14 years since my wife and I exchanged vows.
At the time we first got married, I hadn’t ever really even thought about what a marriage was. I just assumed that the enormous momentum provided by the explosive power of falling in love was enough to propel us along a trajectory leading to happy dotage in side-by-side His and Her rocking chairs. A sort-of Relationship Big Bang. (More truthfully, I probably hadn’t even given the idea as much thought as that last sentence implies.)
The intervening years have shown that it would be hard for me to have been any wronger than I was about marriage.
For starters, I have come to see that no matter how hard I try, I just never will be Everything for my partner. My naïve view of marriage held that once you commit, you pretty much agree to forego anything you can’t get from your spouse. This seemingly romantic and idealistic misperception has turned out, in reality, to be a slow-acting poison that has done some real harm to my relationship with my wife.
Over time it has become clear to us both that we aren’t each other’s Everything. Sadly for me, it has become clearer-er that I am not able to be her Everything even more than she is not able to be my Everything.
The mechanism behind this state of affairs is one we have been long aware of in other realms of our lives together. An illustration so you’ll know what I am talking about: If the room is too cold, I will put on a sweater; Erica will tromp downstairs and turn up the heat. Another illustration: If our neighbors are being noisy while we try to sleep, I will close the window or put a pillow over my head; Erica will talk to the neighbors and get them to be quiet. A third illustration: If our yard has no fence, I will take our dog, Ginger, for a walk every time she needs to pee; Erica will call a carpenter and have him build a fence.
I change myself and my expectations to fit the situation; Erica changes the situation. In the end and after much thought about these two ways of being, I have concluded that really and truly neither approach can be deemed superior. Both have their advantages and disadvantages. Sometimes, changing yourself really is the best way to deal with dissatisfaction. Other times, changing the situation is far preferable.
Applying our individual problem-solving approaches to our relationship has been a real struggle for us. Both of us have been dissatisfied by several aspects of our marriage and we have come together with the best of intentions over and over again to try to work things out. Yet, inevitably, we find ourselves going over the same well-trodden ground every few months. Erica will say that she needs more. I will respond by trying to give more of what she needs. Over time, we both realize that what I am giving is not what she needs. She identifies the problem and tries to change the situation. I acknowledge the problem and try to change myself.
I will tell Erica that I need more. She will listen and acknowledge my needs and try to get me to have deeper and more satisfying friendships and relationships with other people so that maybe I can get what I need from them. What she suggests is that I build myself a life independent of her and invite other people and activities and interests in to give me what I want from life. All I really want is for her to adopt my approach and change herself to give me more.
But it doesn’t work. So we find ourselves several years older and no closer to a satisfactory solution to our problems.
When we are NOT focused on our dissatisfactions, we have a pretty great marriage. We love each other more deeply then we did 14 years ago. We respect each other more than we did 14 years ago—and that is no small accomplishment. We give each other something valuable. I give Erica a place that is home. She makes me want to stretch myself and grow. We are allies and cheerleaders for each other. At the end of the day, we both want to come home to each other, and that is more telling than any other detail.
So just last night, Erica came up with what seems to be a real solution to our perpetual dissatisfactions. It is a solution that both of us, with our diametrically opposed approaches to problem-solving, can live with. Erica proposes that we simply decide to be happy with the marriage that we have and forget all the ways in which we wish it were different. She can stop trying to make it different and getting frustrated when not a lot changes. I can stop trying so hard to be more like I think she wants me to be (and failing) and just be who I am.
What this means for us and what comes next are unclear. But even in the moment as she said, “What if we just stop trying so hard to change our marriage and appreciate it for what it is?” I felt a wave of relief wash over me. I don’t know what our marriage will look like, but the prospect of ending all of my trying so hard and failing so often is enough to make the experiment well worth it.