One of the best parts of my job as a couples therapist is that I get to deliver good news.
Couples come in fearing that their marriage is too far gone to fix, and I get to tell them it’s not.
Yes, some people are in serious trouble and if they keep going in the direction they’re headed, their worst fears will come true.
Still, most couples are simply facing normal and ordinary relationship challenges that they lack the tools to address.
But normal and ordinary isn’t the same thing as easy or inconsequential. Marriage is challenging, and at times normal and ordinary can be hard to differentiate from dire.
Spend a few hours on the Internet reading marriage advice, and you might easily conclude that the only marriage worth keeping is one with no problems; that the only partner to stay with is one who never screws up.
A spouse who raises his voice or can’t express how he feels? A wife who nags or complains? Door slamming? Temper tantrums? All of these have been cited as “sure-fire” signs that your marriage is doomed.
A couple recently told me that they hesitated to seek therapy because they feared I would tell them they really ought to divorce. Their issue? They argued a lot and couldn’t agree on how to parent their three-year-old twins.
Another couple had similar worries when they confessed to sulking and guilt-tripping each other when they don’t get their way. Same goes for the couple who’d assumed they were sunk because they were no longer having sex three times a week.
One woman, after one year of marriage, feared she’d chosen the wrong man because she was finding him “hard to adore.”
Between the frightening (and exaggerated) divorce statistics and the over-idealized notion of wedded bliss, it’s no wonder that normal marital struggles seem alarming — or worse.
Consider yourself perfectly normal if:
1. You don’t approach every conflict with a collaborative spirit.
Yep. Even the best of us don’t always use I-statements. Nor are we always reasonable or generous. Sometimes we’re tired or grumpy or selfish. Sometimes our two-year-old self just wants what she wants.
While a daily diet of this will erode the good will between you and your partner, it’s nice to know that being less-than-perfect is not a big deal.
2. You don’t feel madly in love.
Couples don’t stay head-over-heels in love with each other 24/7, for the rest of their days. Where did anyone get the idea that they should?
In love is sparkly and wonderful and a great place to start. In love grows into love, which burns more slowly and warms more deeply. Love is what stays with us, year after year.
I’ll take love over in love, hands down.
3. You want to sleep in another room when your partner is sick.
I’ve heard people say that having their spouse move into the guest room when they’re sick is a clear statement that “it’s every man for himself.”
I’m all for exchanging love and affection. Influenza? Not so much.
Chicken soup, orange juice, a brand new box of tissues? Count me in. I’ll put a cool hand or a kiss on my hubby’s forehead and then… call me in the morning.
4. You sometimes feel bored.
Finding your spouse to be a bit bland? Chances are, you have your dull moments, too.
In a marriage that spans decades, you’re bound to hear — more times than you wish — the story about how your spouse nearly froze to death snow camping, how she found a $1000 bill in the subway, how he ate that weird, jiggly fish in Japan. Never mind the joke about the dog and the psychiatrist.
Marriage can get ho-hum if we don’t bring enough fresh energy to keep things interesting. TV can replace chatting in bed. Eye contact can be something we only have with our phone.
Marriage doesn’t stay scintillating all on its own.
Things getting a bit boring? No cause for alarm. Read a good book. Talk about it. Do something surprising. Bring some pizazz.
5. You wish your spouse would change.
Even though you know this one’s out of your hands, go on. It feels good to dream.
I don’t know anyone who doesn’t have one or two things that they wouldn’t banish in an instant, given a magic wand.
6. You sometimes crave alone time.
How can this be a sign that things have gone south?
Remember — the two of you are two separate people, not two halves of a whole.
Wanting to spend the day alone at the beach, to spend time in your favorite chair reading a book, watching a movie, or chatting with an old friend is hardly a reflection on your spouse or your marriage.
7. You have some issues that never resolve.
You and every couple on earth.
When I learned that 69 percent of marital issues cannot be resolved, my first thought was, “What a relief!” I’d worried for years that my husband and I were the world’s most incompetent problem-solvers. My second thought: Thank goodness for the resolvable 31 percent.
As couples, we can endlessly struggle or we can figure out how not to go nuts. Best case scenario — we can be compassionate and flexible and even learn to laugh.
But working everything out? Not in this life. And, fortunately, not necessary.
8. Now and again you wonder, “What was I thinking?!”
Much like the magic wand fantasy of wishing your partner would change, it’s perfectly normal to wonder whether life would have been easier (more exciting, more satisfying) with somebody else.
Possibly so. But then again, maybe not.
Things that, early on, seemed charming or cute or, at a minimum, tolerable, can, in time, become grating and irksome beyond what you can bear. And the prospect of five decades of say, his whistling, or her knuckle-cracking, or the way she says, “Hmmm,” confirms that when you said, “’till death do us part,” you were out of your mind.
Some might tell you they’ve never once had thoughts like these. I, for one, find that hard to believe.
9. You don’t always feel like a team.
I like to be realistic about couples being a team. Teamwork is great. I’m totally for it.
But, like all teams, sometimes we play better than other times. Sometimes we foul out or we don’t even show up for the game. Expecting precision is a set-up for disappointment.
Many people think functioning as a team means thinking alike, agreeing, wanting all the same things. That’s not teamwork. That’s expecting your partner to be your twin.
Sometimes what’s needed is one person breaking ranks and unilaterally taking an action. Such as confronting a spouse’s overspending, or drinking, or insisting that there be a ban on texting while driving the car.
10. There are things about your spouse that you don’t understand.
No matter how much you love each other or care about each other, no matter how many anniversaries you have under your belt, there will be things about your partner that remain a mystery to you.
Why she watches TV with the sound off; why he likes to drive fast. Why he eats grapefruit and oranges and hates tangerines. Why she gets angry when you interrupt her, and she interrupts you all the time. And what makes him so “certain” when he’s not actually right?
Sometimes it can seem that we live with a stranger — someone so different from us that, try as we might, we can’t see the world through their eyes.
Marriage makes us a couple; it does not turn two people into “one.” Expecting to be perfectly known or to perfectly know is too much to ask.
Truth is, there are things about myself that I’m still trying to understand. For now, I’m content to focus on those.
My overall message: Relax. Every relationship will have it’s challenges that need to be addressed. Far too many of us assume marriage will be a smooth sail. I say it’s far better to become sailors who can safely navigate rough seas.
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