Someone once told me that the key to a good marriage is understanding that it is a long journey, and it’s something that ebbs and flows, like waves on a beach. Sometimes things are very good, sometimes things are very difficult, and it’s about waiting out the hard times and knowing it’s part of the cycle of things. That person had been married for twenty-five years and was divorced one year later.
I don’t know what the key is to a good marriage. I’m not even necessarily convinced there is a key. I tend to think of it more as something that depends on the relationship, which depends on the two people who are actually in the relationship.
That said, I’ve observed enough to know a few things that don’t work (and by don’t work, I don’t necessarily mean result in divorce – I know several highly dysfunctional marriages that are technically still intact). Side note: more and more, I’ve started to realize I am an observer, at least when I’m not completely and totally oblivious. I didn’t always think of myself that way, and maybe it’s something that’s changed, but when I think back about people and experiences over the years, I remember a lot more than most people seem to, and I think it’s mostly because I was paying attention. I’m not sure what that means, or whether it’s good or bad, whether it means I was fully present during those times, or not present because I was too busy processing.
Anyway, some things that don’t work:
- Relationships that lack respect.
- Relationships that lack love.
- Relationships that lack commitment.
- Relationships that lack communication.
Actually, all of those really fall under the first one, because any marriage that is truly respectful necessarily includes love, commitment, and communication, but it makes more sense to break it up this way for my own thought process to work itself out.
Any relationship that lacks respect is doomed. I’m not talking about putting the toilet seat down or not leaving dishes by the sink (please not that again), I’m talking about the kind of respect that matters, which can be demonstrated by acts of consideration (like putting the toilet seat down).
Now that I’m thinking about it, I think respect can be broken down into two parts. The first is the sort of basic, deep, difficult to control piece. It’s sort of an instinctual, “Do I respect this person?” and “Do I respect this person as my spouse?” Let’s call that “Fundamental Respect.” The second is the more surface-level kind of respect that I think can fluctuate more easily, depending on immediate circumstances. We can call that “Daily Respect.” Fundamental Respect is the more important of the two, because you can choose to show Daily Respect by effort and attention, while Fundamental Respect is either there or not. You can show Daily Respect to someone, as a courtesy or kindness, even if you don’t Fundamentally respect them.
On the other hand, Fundamental Respect is a long-term consideration, developing or depleting over the years. I don’t think it’s the kind of thing that is easily changed. It takes a lot of time, a lot of effort, a lot of experience. Daily Respect, which I should say is really only slightly less important, is both a product of, and a contributor to, Fundamental Respect. Over a period of time, Daily Respect can nurture the development of Fundamental Respect, just as a relationship without consistent evidence of Daily Respect will erode even the deepest Fundamental Respect.
Partially because of this belief, I am probably on the more sensitive side about feeling respected (when I’m not completely oblivious to it, which is a completely different discussion), and I admit to being more sensitive than usual lately, about this and other things. I don’t know if my hormones are just now reaching some sort of level ground, or if my body is gearing up to have another baby (because it’s about that time, as people who are far too familiar keep telling me), or if it’s stress, or what, but I am definitely more sensitive than I would normally be, which is far more sensitive than I would like. And you know what, dammit, I’m allowed to be, at least for one solid month.
Discussing one of our daughters last night, HW said, “She’s fragile,” and I laughed, because although true, she doesn’t often seem, on the surface, to be. He laughed too and added, “No, she is fragile. Fragile like nitroglycerine.” And that’s about right. “What about me?” I asked, partially out of vanity, partially out of pure curiosity. “You are more like an old-fashioned barrel of gunpowder.” Interesting. (For those concerned, I did not immediately stab his eyes out.)
I spend most of my days with toddlers, who don’t respect me at all, at least in those surface-level ways discussed above. They are toddlers, that’s the way it’s supposed to be, and this is a developmental milestone, they are finding their independence, blah blah blah. I get it. This is not my first rodeo. Still, it can be difficult to spend most of your waking hours with a small human who screams, “NO!” and ignores simple requests and throws food and poops and uses your body as a jungle-gym and your sleeves as tissues and has no consideration for your needs or your feelings or your personal space of privacy. It can be even more difficult with two of them. This is not to say I don’t love it, or I’m not grateful for the time I have with them, or that I won’t miss it terribly when it’s over. No no no. I love it, I adore them, I’m so thankful I can be home with them, and I’m going to think about these days in five, ten, and twenty years, while quietly sobbing, I’m sure.
And also, right now, right now at this very moment, sometimes it feels like a lot. I’m still in the processing of developing friendships here, my friends who are far away are doing their own thing, working, dealing with their own toddlers, saving the world, whatever. I am close with my mom, but she’s also my mom, and things on that front are often complicated by issues with other family members. That pretty much leaves my husband.
And really, that’s not a fair burden for him to carry. He has a lot of other things going on. Work is crazy, he’s building his own relationships here and keeping up the ones he already has. It’s a lot.
I’ve become involved in a couple of volunteer organizations, and I’ve even started selling books. I’ve joined a couple of different local groups to get to know other people. (But I just spent a ton of time (well, some time) studying for the bar, so the little “free time” I did have was spent bent over books learning about the bad things people are and are not permitted to do.) Things are going to get easier, they really are, but now that I have a moment to breathe, to think about the past couple of weeks and months, it’s clear that some things have to change. Change is probably too strong of a word. Some things need tweaking.
Unfortunately the first real moment I had to myself, the first real moment I had to breathe, came while getting a breath of fresh air during a wedding I was really looking forward to and really wanted to enjoy. Not the ideal moment, but better then than never.
As I wrote before, my relationship with my husband needs some attention. We have this amazing, once-in-a-lifetime connection (that sounds like such a cliche, but it’s true), something we’ve had since the very beginning, and something, I think, we’ve both started to take for granted. I don’t want to do that. I don’t want that life. I don’t want to be zombie people, obsessed with social climbing and accumulating wealth and whatever else zombie people care about. I want to love my husband, I want to feel in love with my husband every day, I want to love my children the same way, and without any reservations or restrictions. I want to feel happy and safe and secure and loved and loving. I don’t to watch television or eat or ride bicycles to “escape” my life. This is not to say I expect every day to be filled with sunshine and strawberries (although, we do live in Florida…), only that, we have been blessed with many things, but it would be a huge waste not to make appreciating those things a priority.
There was kind of a big jump in there between “we have this great connection” and all of the things I don’t want to do. The missing piece, probably, is that I’ve known a lot of couples who, I presume, once felt they had a great connection, but now can barely stand the sight of each other. I’m not sure how they got from Point A (great connection) to Point B (zombie misery), but frankly, I don’t want to find out.
HW and I, we have this great connection, this great mutual respect, but we have to nurture it. We can’t just both do our own thing and expect that, in ten years (twenty? thirty?), when things eventually slow down for us, that connection will still be the same. These things don’t just happen every day, and while I understand that a connection like that doesn’t disappear overnight, the things we do today become our habits tomorrow, and habits can be hard to change. I think Aristotle had a few helpful things to say on that point.
I was hoping to end this post with some kind of resolution, like, “Aha, I got it! Now, if I do A, B, C, and D, everything will be perfect!” But that’s not real life. I don’t want or need perfection. I want to love my husband as perfectly as I possibly can, and I want him to love me the same way. I want that to be a priority for both of us. Figuring out exactly how to do that, that might take some work, but the respect, love, commitment, and communication* are there, so that’s a pretty great start.
*I’ll call communication a work in progress, but the ability is certainly there, and we’re getting all of the practice we can.