Several weeks ago, at a small dinner party celebrating my granddaughter’s marriage, I asked each member of the five couples attending what they thought was essential to make a marriage work. One said, “a sense of humor”, another, “communicate.” Still another said, “be patient”, followed by, “trust your partner”, “be willing to consider new ideas”, “have respect for the differences in each other”,“don’t have or make expectations for your partner.” And, the last, suggested by the bride’s husband, “I was told that if I wanted my marriage to last, when I’m wrong, admit it, and when I’m right, keep quiet.”
Each of them has some merit, but I would frame them differently. Instead of focusing on a partner, or a relationship, I believe newlyweds need to direct their attention toward themselves, because if there is anything every individual planning to marry needs to realize, it is that you cannot change your future spouse. You may be able to control or influence their behavior, but never their thoughts or feelings. This is best illustrated by a story I heard years ago, about a child in a classroom. The youngster was disruptive, refused to sit in his chair, and would move around the room despite the teacher’s repeated efforts to have him remain seated. Finally, she lost her patience, strode over to the child, grabbed him by the shoulders, marched him to his desk, and pushed him down in his seat. Then she said, “Now sit down and stay there. What do you have to say about that?” He replied, “In my head, I’m still standing.”
If you get the previous message, you will realize why you should never choose a spouse you want to change even before your wedding. No matter how benign that change may be, whether it’s that they be more agreeable; show more initiative and confidence, or be more emotionally demonstrative, you need to remember, you can’t change them. Therefore, you must either learn to live with them the way they are, or find someone else who you don’t think needs behavioral remodeling or a complete personality overhaul.
Further, I know it’s said that opposites attract, but consider a new idea that, if I had the time or space in this column, I’m sure I could convince you of: you always get who you are. If you can accept that notion on faith, it will follow that all you have to do to find the right man or woman is resolve to be who you want to get and then wait for someone of your same ilk to find you. Please take these words to heart. If you want a spouse who is loving, caring, emotional and sensitive, you need to be loving, caring, emotional and sensitive. Conversely, if you feel bad about yourself and act a victim, you will almost certainly find a partner who feels sufficiently bad about themself to be a victimizer.
Similarly, if you want a partner you can trust, you need to be able to trust yourself. You need to be able to trust that, no matter what occurs between you and your spouse, you can make it on your own because you can depend on you. You see, it is only to the degree that you are emotionally independent that you can genuinely love and trust your partner. Because of your self-sufficiency, you are able to set boundaries and limits, and, therefore, are able to interact with him/her without fear. In effect, you can trust them because you trust you.
There are several important reasons for you to “Limit the expectations you set for your spouse.” One, when or if they can’t live up to them, you’re bound to be disappointed and/or angry. Two, your expectations create anxiety and are frequently perceived as control. Either of which can undermine your partner’s ability or willingness to perform as a result of the pressure you’ve created. Think about how difficult it is to stop smoking, overeating, or pushing yourself to adhere to an exercise regimen when it’s only you setting expectations for yourself. If you fail, you only have you to blame, but when you push a spouse, they have you to blame. That’s not to say people shouldn’t have expectations and goals. Quite the contrary. But it has to be their expectations, not yours.
“Be patient.” It sounds good, but I’d have you consider the possibility that being patient isn’t always a virtue. Sometimes, it can be a way of hiding your reluctance to express yourself, because of your fears of rejection, disapproval, or confrontation. But, in spite of those fears, you need to be able to speak up. That’s essential to your wherewithal to “communicate”, still another of the behaviors necessary to establish a healthy relationship. All of which totally negates the notion that, “when you’re wrong, admit it, and when you’re right, keep quiet”, because that statement is humorous, but erroneous. In almost every instance, I would have you be able to say what you think and feel openly and honestly, but without hostility.
I’d further like for you to see that, although communicating implies two people interacting successfully, that won’t always be the case. On occasion, your spouse will limit his/her words in order to avoid confrontation, justifying their behavior on the basis of, “It’s better to run away and live to fight another day.” In some instances, this behavior may prove to be the better part of valor. More often than not, however, I believe that if your marriage is important enough to you, it’s worth fighting for. Therefore, even when your spouse won’t reply, I’d still have you express your feelings in a non-confrontational, non-critical manner, explain that their silence causes you to feel rejected, request that they respond in an equally open fashion, and recognize that it probably won’t occur. At the same time, let me stress that your interactions should never consist of you standing up to your spouse. Instead, it needs to be a case of you standing up for yourself. The reason being that, when you don’t convey what is inside you, you eventually act out of you, either overtly, in a hostile manner, or covertly, with passive-aggressive behavior. Another reason for speaking up, even if you’re unsure or confused, is that it’s far better to be, or appear to be, involved than to stay silent and imply you don’t care. Moreover, what you don’t say remains inside, ferments, and causes you to feel resentful and controlled, which can support your notion that you’re a victim when, in fact, there are no victims, only volunteers when you project yourself as an ineffectual, weak individual no one can love or lean on, because when you can’t stand up for you, it’s impossible for others to think you can stand up for them.
One last thought. Never forget that you aren’t perfect and you don’t have to be. It’s true, you will make mistakes, and fail. That’s part of being human. All you have to do is forgive yourself and learn from your mistakes. That’s where humor plays a very important role. It enables you to smile at your spouse’s failings and to laugh at your own. Even more, it mediates anger and smooths over harsh edges, allowing you to see that what you’re arguing about today will be of little consequence tomorrow.
Having said this, I’d have you realize that only emotionally healthy people are fully capable of acting in accordance with these rules of thumb. Therefore, your primary goal before you marry is to seek to be healthy yourself. That means that you see yourself for who you are and accept you with all the shortcomings, fears and insecurities you acquired by age five to six, because that part of you will never change, it’s part of your hard drive. That’s a fact supported by a statement you’ve probably heard numerous time during your life: “a leopard never changes its spots.” But, you can learn to alter your behavior by recognizing your spots and behaving in spite of them, instead of because of them. That’s the reason I strongly believe that you and your future spouse should consider going to premarital therapy. It could prove to be the most valuable gift you can ever give to yourselves and your future relationship. Be forewarned, however, that too often individuals seek advice from well-meaning, caring individuals, who are more concerned with their own values and beliefs regarding appropriate marital behavior than your individual emotional growth. Because of that, they lack the wherewithal to help you to truly look inside, to discover the wounded child that’s within you, and to love him or her despite his weaknesses, flaws, and insufficiencies. So, look for someone who can help you to, above all else, learn to love the person you are, because you’re worth loving. Unfortunately, too many of you don’t know that. You may verbalize the words, but you never realize the emotional significance of still another statement you heard in childhood: “You can’t love someone else if you don’t love yourself.” It is a rule I’d have you remember and a goal I’d have you set for yourself.
I hope you will think about the advice supplied by the five couples at the dinner table who had, between them, one hundred and eighty-six years and three months of marital experience. The three months belonged to the fifth couple, newlyweds, who still had that glow in their eyes when they looked at each other, and a passion in their hearts as they held each other’s hand. This was beautifully exemplified by the bride, who, during the course of the dinner, put her head on my shoulder and whispered in my ear, “Isn’t he handsome? I’m so happy to be married to him.” My hope for her, and for each of you is that, forty-five to sixty-three years from now, you will still share those feelings and be able to utter the same words.