Today marks twelve years in my marriage. If practicing something for 10,000 hours makes you an expert at something, I guess that makes me an expert at marriage. Well, it makes me an expert at my marriage at least.
After twelve years, however, I am still practicing. And in this practice, I have discovered a few key elements and beliefs that have led to a place of contentment and satisfaction after twelve years. The following confessions are lovingly whispered to any and all people who have chosen a partner to love inside a marriage. Certainly much of this applies to all long-term relationships, but there is something special about taking legal action to bind yourself to another–a right all people deserve.
Confession One: Marriage consists of two living beings.
A marriage is alive. As with all living things there is continuous growth. Think of two plants side by side. Neither one will grow in the same way or even in the same direction. Even if the two plants are the same type of plant, they will not look or behave the same way all the time. One may need more water for a time, one might need a different set of nourishment or to be turned a different direction.
To think of marriage as a “thing,” as an inanimate state, is poison. That thinking prevents the possibility of movement that would allow each participant to grow in the healthiest way. Recognizing marriage as a living organism prevents resentment when one individual starts to grow in a new direction or requires different care.
Confession Two: Support is more important than happiness.
“Happiness” is a loaded notion. The very expectation of “happy” can ruin actual contentment. People feel like if their level of happiness isn’t dripping with honey, if they aren’t jumping out of their seats and dancing in the street, that they aren’t truly happy, or that something needs to be fixed. Happiness is also a very personal feeling. It is a mistake to think of a relationship as happy.
Think about phrases you often hear: the happy couple, wedded bliss, happily married. People have asked me many times over the year, “Are you happy in your marriage?” It’s the wrong question. My happiness is my own. My husband’s happiness belongs to, and is controlled by, him. We can be two happy people in a loving marriage or we can be unhappy people in a loving marriage. Support is the essential in marriage. Support is a verb–actionable. Support is something you can do or give your partner. You cannot give your partner happiness.
This has become increasingly clear to me as I come to understand my own emotional landscape as I age. How could I ever expect my partner to make me happy? It is an unfair expectation. I can expect support. It is a more concrete thing to ask for and to receive. I make my own happiness; I am supported in searching for and sustaining that happiness.
Confession Three: Supporting your partner takes courage.
It can be scary to support your love when you don’t know where the path might lead. What if you support your partner on a new journey and that path takes him away from you? What if supporting her dreams means years of financial uncertainty for both of you? Yes…it could…it might. But what kind of support is support that is not freely given? Crappy support.
Here’s what support means:
1. a. To bear the weight of, especially from below; keep from falling, sinking, or slipping: Pillars support the roof.
b. To bear or hold up (an amount of weight): The bridge supports 10 tons.
2. a. To keep from weakening or failing; give confidence or comfort to: The letter supported him in his grief.
b. To keep from falling in value, as by government purchases: a program to support the price of wheat.
3. To provide for or maintain by supplying with money or necessities: The homeless shelter is supported solely by donations.
4. To furnish corroborating evidence for: New facts supported her story.
5. a. To aid the cause, policy, or interests of: supported her in her election campaign.
b. To argue in favor of; advocate: supported lower taxes.
c. To have an enthusiastic interest in (a sports team).
6. To endure; tolerate: “At supper there was such a conflux of company that I could scarcely support the tumult” (Samuel Johnson).
7. To act in a secondary or subordinate role to (a leading performer).
8. To offer help or advice regarding (a product or service).
It is scary to support someone in all those ways. It is frightening to hold someone up when they are crumbling around you (especially if they don’t know why). It is difficult for our ego to let someone else be the lead and exhausting to carry a partner in need.
Madonna said it best, “Life is a mystery.” When you link your life to another person, you are not only unraveling your own mystery, but you are unraveling theirs too. Where will it lead? You absolutely do. not. know. You must be willing to continue down the rabbit hole, through the fire, to make it to the other side.
But…if you can make it to the end…it is magic.
Confession Four: You have to ask for the support you need. And when you don’t know what you need, you need to say that too.
I can remember watching my parents in disagreement. My mother would often be mad if my dad didn’t “know why” she was mad, “I’m not going to tell him. He should know.” Impossible. That tactic never worked. It is also a problem that my dad never seemed to notice my mother’s feelings or ask about them. There is always more than one issue at play when you are dealing with two people.
Being honest is scary, especially when you aren’t sure what’s going on with your own self. Sometimes, asking for support is as simple as asking for time or help around the house. Sometimes you might be feeling uncertain or confused and not know what you need. You have to let your partner know. You also have to support your partner while she supports you. This is especially true of drastic changes like an infidelity or separation.
Confession Five: Patience is more important than passion.
I realize that doesn’t sound glamorous, but there it is. Twelve years down the road, and another twelve years after that, it is patience that will keep us together. Passion ebbs and flows (and flickers with every hormone fluctuation and vitamin D deficiency).
Once I believed that giving great effort to nurturing romantic passion was key in maintaining “marital happiness.” Every article I read on maintaining a relationship included a section about actively working to schedule date nights, being open to your partners fantasies, keeping yourself in a romantic mindset, etc. While all of those things are good and important, if we spent a fraction of that time cultivating patience, we’d all have more contentment in our lives.
In supporting your partner, you will automatically have the date nights you need to have, try the things you need to try, and spend the time flirting you need to spend. It is my husband’s patience for me, however, that fills my heart to overflowing. It is patience I need to practice when I feel those moments of discomfort or questioning. Instead of immediately pressuring your partner to address, “What’s wrong? What can I do? How can we fix this?”, what if we just…waited. What if we just held our partner’s hand for a second, breathed together, and allowed the moment to pass or morph into words? Sometimes, not asking your partner to verbalize what is happening is the best support you can give. It takes patience to allow for that.
May these confessions from my heart serve yours. May you feel supported and loved in your ugliest moments, so that you can have the courage and patience required to love someone back.