This essay was born of a conversation with my friend Angelina*. We chat via Skype. Her husband, Mateo*, is a minister; so he knows (and she knows) plenty of tools for relationships.
Nonetheless, they are not happily married. (*As you might expect, these are not their real names.)
My most recent conversation with Angelina was more than I can bear; so I decided to write my thoughts down, in the hope that they might help Angelina and her dear husband, and perhaps others as well.
Disclaimer: I don’t have a degree in psychology or marital counseling. If you are an abused spouse or an abuser, I cannot help you. You need professional guidance; and I urge you with all my heart to contact someone who has the training to help you. PLEASE GET PROFESSIONAL HELP. NOW.
If you are just a regular person – like Angelina and Mateo – who is good and decent and just ended up in a marital rut… I want to engage you in conversation. I’m going to assume that you started out if not crazy about your spouse, at least respectful of him or her. When you walked down the aisle, you at least liked each other, right?
“A rut is a grave with the ends kicked out.” — Earl Nightingale
Back to Angelina. “Mateo says I’m fat. He’s right. I’ve put on weight. But his disappointment in me doesn’t help me to get where I want to be – which is a few pounds lighter! We’re on the same side, but his disgust – and I’m telling you, Ruti, it’s open disgust now – makes it even worse! And he’s got his own problems that drive me crazy. Do you know what a sexual turn-off it is when a guy doesn’t brush his teeth well enough, and how unhappy it makes me when he doesn’t pay our housekeeper until she begs me for the money? But he’s my husband, for better or worse, right? I just wish he felt that way about me.”
I listen to Angelina, watch her face and feel her anguish at least once a month. We have been close friends since high school. I think sometimes we are therapy for each other. The problem has become that I cannot speak about my marriage to her anymore, because I feel guilty. I am very happy. This does not mean that my dear one and I are perfect people without flaws designed by God to test each other’s craziness quotient. We are normal people, with issues like other normal people.
But we made a pact early in our marriage to protect each other. That pact has protected our marriage.
I’ve told the story many times before. We shared a weekend getaway apartment with three other couples. The first evening, one of the couples introduced a brand-new game: Trivial Pursuit. It was designed as a test of one’s knowledge of the trivia of the day. (It’s actually educational to play the older versions with your kids, because so much of the information is dated.) We broke down into couples’ teams. Immediately, two of the teams taught the rest of us marital lessons we would never forget.
In order to make himself or herself feel intelligent, to avoid the embarrassment of feeling stupid, two of the couples would make sarcastic fun of the “dumb” spouse. “You didn’t GET that???” “I should have answered that question. I knew that one.” “Whoa. It’s good I married you for your looks, rather than your brains. Heh-heh-heh. Am I right, guys?”
It was a very difficult night. We were embarrassed for those two couples – but none of us knew at the time what to say.
That night, as my new husband and I lay cuddled in bed, we whispered to each other: “No matter what: let’s never make fun of each other. Not even in private, but for SURE not in public!”
Within a few years, both of those couples were divorced. The other two are still our longest-standing friends; and they confided to us that they had made a similar pact that fateful night. Since then, we have been able to predict, based on Shabbat lunch visits, which couples would not survive. David HaMelech – King David — was very wise. Sarcasm destroys our confidence in our religious beliefs, our friendships, and our marriages. It’s worth avoiding.
I laid awake last night thinking about Angelina and Mateo. I’d known her since high school. She is bright, funny, caring. When she met Mateo, I was so happy for her. She met him in her twenties, after several of our friends were married and she had nearly given up. We were both so grateful to God that she had finally met “the right guy,” someone she deserved. She is sweet and anxious to help her community; he is a pastor whose main goal in life is ministering to the less-fortunate. A perfect match! But they had children, got older, and became less preoccupied with their individual physical beauty. (To be honest, he’s let himself go a bit, too; but it seems that physical beauty is more a burden of the female sex.) They are like most of us I think, yes?
The bottom line: she doesn’t feel loved. Perhaps he doesn’t either. (“If he loved me, he wouldn’t care about a few extra pounds.” “If she loved me, she’d take better care of herself.” “If he loved me, he’d care about paying our worker on time.” “If she loved me, she wouldn’t forget to buy my favorite cookies.” And so on…)
Let me tell you why I’m so tired of this.
I like both of these people. Angelina is my friend. And I know that Mateo reads my blog, and likes what I have to say.
It breaks my heart that these two excellent people are not happy. And I am convinced that as long as we are not good to each other, the Mashiach (the Messiah) won’t come.
So I have a personal stake in their happiness.
To my dear friends, Angelina and Mateo: My dear one and I are not perfect. We both have a few pounds to lose. Each of us has character traits that we could improve – and our life partner is keenly aware of these.
But we have choices. I can’t “fix” him. He can’t “fix” me.
I listened to my stepfather insulting my mother for her overweight, and for her “laziness.” She was grossly overweight. But his insults did not cause her to shed a single pound. And her so-called laziness consisted of two “flaws.” She slept in until 10:00 AM. But she went to bed at 2:00 AM. She said that she could do her best housework at midnight when we were all asleep and the house was peaceful. He got up at 6:00 AM, and went to bed at 10:00 PM. Simple math: they both got eight hours’ sleep. They just worked at different times on the clock. Yet she was “lazy” because she “slept in” until 10:00 AM. His other gripe was that her house wasn’t tidy enough. Honestly, it probably wasn’t. We never would have made “House Beautiful.” Why? Because we were her focus. She spent her time with her children, doing with us and for us. We are the pretty darn terrific adults we are today because her CAREER was us, rather than her house.
A year after my parents’ marriage failed, people would come up to Mama and say, “Sandra, you look great! How’d you lose all the weight?” She would answer wryly: “I divorced it.” Once she left the environment of disappointment, she could more easily become her true self: not a super-model, but also not a person hiding her sadness inside of a layer of fat.
People often approach the Dearly Beloved and me and tell us we should give classes in How to Be Happily Married.
As we look around us and listen to more and more unhappy friends, we would agree, except for that pesky lack of credentials – we don’t have letters behind our names saying we’re qualified to teach anybody anything – and at least one of us is very shy of public speaking. Nonetheless, we feel compelled by all the unnecessary unhappiness around us to speak out.
Assuming both of you are decent, non-crazy people: Please stop doing this to each other.
- Your spouse no longer has the body image that works for you. Get over it. His or her body is really not your business. And you’re both deteriorating. Perhaps at different rates. But both of you are working your way to the grave. Physically, at least. If there is a life-after-this, don’t you want that future perfect spouse of yours to still like you? Find a way to work together to improve both of you together. It’s easier and more fun as a team.
- Any habits he has or she has that offend you are not going to go away if you complain about them or make sarcastic jokes about them or tell your friends about them. You can certainly make every effort to share your concerns. But if that doesn’t work, is it worth the relationship you created and built the foundation of your family upon to keep fighting about or being silently disgusted about these issues?
- Your world and your children’s worlds will be healthier if you just MAKE IT WORK. You don’t have to solve your problems. Perhaps you can’t, with all the therapy in the world. But if you can somehow make less of your issues rather than more, perhaps you will all be happier.
- Public airing of petty disappointments does not make anything better. If you need to talk, you have choices. One close friend you can trust to keep his or her mouth shut is fine. God is even better, because He never talks. Complain your brains out, with the intention of treating your spouse as the king or queen you first envisioned him or her as. If you keep reminding yourself how lucky you are, you will, in fact, be that lucky. It really is that simple – as long as, I stress again, actual abuse is not involved. If someone is abused/an abuser, PLEASE SEEK PROFESSIONAL COUNSELING.
I guess my main point is this: The Dearly Beloved and I want to stop feeling guilty for being happy, for being blessed with being good role models for our children’s marriages, with feeling so sorry for our friends. We want you to be happy, too. And we think it’s within your abilities to join us.
Because we see that this matter of getting along in marriage – even being absolutely delighted and madly in love in marriage! – seems not to be intuitive, we’re going to give you ten step by step recommendations.
How to become and stay happily married for (at least) thirty years in ten not-so-easy steps:
- Live mindfully. This is a good prescription for life in general, and for relationships in particular. How will what I am about to say or do affect my spouse? Does it need to be said? Am I only venting, or will it actually make a difference? In most cases, we cannot change our partner’s habits. The only thing we have the power to change is how we respond to those habits. What matters to you most? Getting him to change that habit, or being happily married? Getting her to lose those pounds, or making her feel glad that she is married to you? Most importantly: if you believe that the world will ultimately become a utopia if people will treat each other with respect, start the revolution at home. Speak about your issues respectfully. But if your spouse cannot change, you will only be happy if you learn to live with things as they are.
- Make your spouse’s happiness paramount. Do or say several things each day to make your partner’s life better. It’s not all about your happiness. If she’s happy, she is more likely to make you happy. If you say nice things about him, or rub his neck or shoulders, or compliment him, he is more likely to want to be the wonderful person you appear to see in him. People seem to like to see the Dearly Beloved and me together. We flirt with each other, have fun together, speak well of each other and to each other. This makes not only the two of us happy – it seems to make others happy as well.
- Remember that you are married to your best friend. Talk with each other about (almost) everything. We’re not talking about your complaints. We’re talking about your dreams, your aspirations, and your day-to-day experiences. And be open and warmly interested in the same sharing from your spouse. Sometimes we build whole dates around asking each other what we think about issues and places in the world, or about our religion, or about ideas. We try to minimize our discussions about people.
- Surprise your partner. Don’t wait for birthdays or anniversaries (though if your partner grew up believing that these are important, don’t ignore these occasions, either). Buy a present. Make something special for dinner. Wear a new outfit with your spouse’s tastes in mind. Take her on an adventure – especially if she’s home with the kids all day. Or if he is. Pop a love note into a lunch bag or into a briefcase… or into the instant coffee jar. The main point here is that we all like happy surprises – so initiate the game.
- Compromise on the big stuff, and the small stuff. Where you want to live; how you want to raise the kids; what are the boundaries for the in-laws – these are things you should have worked out before marriage, or at least early in your marriage. But the fact is that sometimes we fail to work things out in advance, or sometimes things change dramatically. So now what? You’re here, in this reality. What will you do to make sure that your marriage will accommodate these changes and challenges?
- Trust the person you married to be at least as smart and good a person as you are. You do not have a corner on the brains, beauty or whatever market. When you married your partner, you thought he was pretty bright. You thought she was beautiful enough for you. You were okay with her or his way of moving through life. (If you disagree with the previous statements, I feel very sorry for you, because if you married your spouse planning to change him or her, you were taking on an unrealistic and unfair project.) If you trust your partner, then you two grownup and fair people can come up with a plan that will make both of you more-or-less happy.
- Never, ever make fun of each other in public. And never suffer anyone else’s insults of your spouse, either. Unfortunately, people like to make themselves look good at other people’s expense. And people think they are funny when they’re not. You don’t have to get into fist fights with people who say clever things like “Give Ploni an extra helping of dessert. He looks like he needs it, right?” But you can take the offender aside and gently remind him that the unfunny humor is hurtful and unnecessary. I have found that people are usually receptive to gentle reminders, for they really didn’t mean to cause pain. In most cases, they really, truly thought they were being clever, and are justifiably embarrassed to realize that they were unsuccessful.
- Never let your children come between you. Kids are masters in the art of manipulating their parents. They know where Mom’s buttons are to turn her into a screaming wreck. They know exactly how to wrap Dad around their fingers, especially if they play Mom and Dad off of each other. Plan at the beginning of your relationship to “keep your backs together.” It’s better for the children, who like clear boundaries, and knowing that their parents agree on most things. And it can save your marriage. An added bonus: in a good marriage, you can rely on each other to get you out of sticky parental decisions – those times when you foolishly pop off with “You’re grounded until you’re eighteen!” This only works if you are used to covering for each other in small and large areas of compromise.
- Treat each other’s important people with respect. Her mother may be nearly intolerable. His best friend may cause your eyes to nearly roll out of their sockets. If that other person means a lot to your spouse, griping about her or his existence isn’t going to fix anything. Be gracious. The rewards are so much greater than the hassle.
- Help each other to realize your independent dreams. We only have one life as this particular person, and God gave each of us unique gifts. Help your spouse to be all he or she can be. Every time I’ve wanted to try something new – painting or writing or photography or cookery or drum instruction or – my Dearly Beloved has not only been supportive, but a bit of a groupie. And I try to do the same for him. In this way, each of us has felt the courage to try new things, some of which we’ve actually become fairly good at.
As I mentioned at the beginning of this essay, I don’t have a degree that will impress anyone. But I have, thank God, a successful marriage, which my spouse and I acknowledge takes a lot of work, every day.
Remember why you married that person across the table or across the room from you. Remember that each day is a new day. If you have not been successful in the past, you can rebuild your relationship starting today. Let these ten steps be a starting point.
If you have questions that have derived from reading this essay, please feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I may not have any clinical answers – but it would be my great pleasure to help you arrive at the answers you have within yourself.
I give you the blessing I give every new couple: May you be as happy after thirty years of marriage as are the Dearly Beloved and I. If you work hard at creating this reality, every day, you will not only make your own lives happier and richer – you will positively affect the lives of everyone around you.