How Do You Get a Happier Marriage?
Reading about long-term relationships isn't always fun. Facebook fuels divorce. Tiger Woods and Jesse James are serial-cheating douchebags. Squeaky-clean Jon and Kate Gosselin turned out to be not-so-happy, not-so-in-love-with-their lives, fame-seeking trainwrecks. And, oh, man -- Melissa and Tammy just split after seven years. Everywhere I look in the media, I see lives actually torn asunder by the break-up of marriage or long-term cohabitation. And I ask myself: Is this what could happen to my beautiful life? Is that heartbreak inevitable in today's culture?
An Inconvenient Truth
The fact is that I can't see the future. I learned a long time ago that you don't just say "I do" and it's done. I'm a different person than I was when I got married eight years ago, and so is my husband. We have to wake up every single morning and -- without so much as coffee -- choose each other again. And when I choose him, I'm not choosing the man I married when we were 28. I'm choosing the man he is now.
I find myself reading incessantly about Sandra Bullock and Jesse James lately. How she gushed at the Oscars -- standing there looking kissed by the hand of God in her luminescent dress with her perfect red lips -- that the man who would turn out to have cheated on her with at least six women was the love of her life. And I do wonder -- how could that happen? And if it could happen to her, with an Oscar, with all the money she needs, with her stunning looks, could it happen to anyone? Could it happen to me?
Of course it could. It could, but could is not the same as will.
Watching people's relationships fall apart scares me, which is why I had a lightning-bolt moment while watching the video of BlogHer CEO Lisa Stone interviewing author Stacy Morrison about her book on divorce (Falling Apart in One Piece). I was struck by Stacy's comment to those who asked rude questions about her divorce: "That question is about you and your marriage ... not about mine."
Examining the Glass House
After hearing Stacy's comment, I stopped the video and nearly cried. I have anxiety issues. I constantly think of how to exit the house in case of a fire or which would be the fastest route to the hospital if my daughter broke her leg. Stacy nailed my fear about marriage -- that there is some sign in every marriage indicating that it will end, and I might miss it.
Why would Brad leave Jen? Why would Friend A leave Friend B? Will I ever be the one left?
Is there an insurance policy I can buy?
Is there a psychic who can reassure me I'll die in the arms of my husband after a long, happy life together?
Will vitamins help?
I know I'm not the only one who thinks this way. Catherine Connors of Her Bad Mother writes:
It seems such a rare thing these days, couple staying together forever. My husband sometimes remarks, when we hear that yet another relationship – a relationship of someone close to us, or someone not close to us, or someone that we only know through People magazine – has foundered on the rocks of infidelity or irreconcilable differences, that it seems that everything, everything these days is stacked against lasting love. What that everything is, he’s not sure, but it worries him, sometimes. What if it comes after us, he asks? What if it sneaks up on us when we’re not looking and consumes us before we even know what’s happened?
If picking apart other people's marriages doesn't teach you how to be happy, then what does? I personally had to learn the hard way that nobody can "make" me happy. I either am, or I'm not. When I'm happy, people seem to want to be around me. When I'm not, I make living with me pretty hard. We all do. Most of the "work" in marriage is actually learning to live with another human being who is not you.
Meagan from The Happiest Mom, who remarried the same man she divorced and with whom she has two kids, writes:
What I’m talking about here is overhauling the way you look at yourself within a marriage, and the way you interact with your spouse. It’s not always comfortable, and sometimes it means letting go of your pride. But honey, it’s better than the alternative.
"What Can I Do Right Now to Make Your Day Better?"
That phrase is one my husband and I have learned to say to each other when we sense stress, instead of getting pissed that the other person is in a bad mood. We didn't come out of the box like this. No relationship does. Being honest with myself and with my husband about my hopes, my expectations, my pet peeves, my panic buttons and my favorite things about him made me realize how much we have adjusted for and enjoy each other's company and how inevitable frustration is in any relationship between two individuals. (Read: Nobody is perfect.)
It takes a lifetime for two people to learn to balance self-preservation and compassion. And that lifetime is also filled with deadlines, living expenses, housework, family commitments, friends and maybe kids -- all competing for attention. Maybe if everyone lived on a desert island with only their partner, this would be easier. Or maybe we'd just be fighting over coconuts.
So Let's Talk About It
I was talking to some friends over dinner the other day about this post -- this series of posts that I want to write for BlogHer -- and I kept saying, "I don't know how to write what I'm thinking without sounding like a glossy generalization of something so important." And they laughed at me, and they said, "Write what you just told us." And so I have.
Over the next month, I invite you pull back your own curtains. I invite you to share what you've learned and what you still question. Even though, as Stacy wrote in her book, " ... no army of friends was going to be able to meet me here in my alone," I hear friends' words in my head when I'm feeling haughty or irritated or tired and alone. And they help. Because, as one friend said recently, "Staying together isn't the goal. Being happy is."
Next week, I'll tell you about my conversation with Gretchen Rubin, best-selling author of The Happiness Project and keynote speaker this past winter at Mom 2.0. She had a lot to say about front-loading long-term relationships, and I've played our conversation back in my head about as many times as I have that interview between Lisa and Stacy. I don't want to read about what went wrong. I want to find out what "right" looks like.
What do you want to know about marriage?
This is the first post in our How to Get a Happier Marriage Series. If you've missed one, check out the archive.