When asked about the state of their union, people often feel like they have to defer to one of two responses:
“It’s all good,” or, “It’s over.”
Yet the reality is that most marriages spend much of their time between these two extremes. Where some things are good, some areas are taut with tension and loving thoughts are interspersed with feelings of frustration or even disengagement. And by neglecting to talk about the reality of marriage, we leave those in completely-normal-and-not-always-ideal marriages feeling unsure and isolated.
Even the best marriages have bad days.
Or weeks. Even months. Whether from external pressures or changes prompted by internal struggles, there will be times when things are not good. There may be spans of silence, a lingering sense of tension in the air after a difficult conversation or nights spent lonely in separate beds.
When these bad days occur, it can be easy to catastrophize. To assume that a bad day indicates a bad marriage and that this is a sign that the end is near. One partner may be more prone towards panicking, attempting to grasp on in a desperate attempt to stop the imagined slide downhill. This often has the opposite effect, as the one who is latched upon feels increasingly trapped and becomes desperate for escape.
Some bad days pass on their own, especially if their cause is largely centered outside the marriage. Others are a cry for help, a sign that the marriage needs some attention and perhaps modification. And others are just part of the natural ebb and flow of life, expansion followed by contraction. This is one of the reasons that the first year of marriage is often deemed to be one of the most challenging – it follows after the excitement of wedding planning and establishing the relationship. The day-to-day of normal marriage simply can’t live up to that level of expectation.
Even the closest couples need time apart.
In the beginning of a relationship, the excitement and novelty leave you counting the minutes until you can be with your newfound love again. It seems impossible that there will ever be a day where you look forward to a trip that takes them out of the home for a few days. But it will happen.
I hear whispered confessions from friends, deeming me a safe receptacle for their secrets, admit to feeling guilty when they let out a little cheer when their spouse pulls out the driveway for a few days of absence. “That’s totally normal,” I reassure them and the relief is palpable.
Too much of anything – or anyone – can easily become too much. With overexposure, appreciation is easily replaced by irritation and small problems begin to accumulate. I like to relate it to ice cream. The stuff is amazing. You maybe even want some every day. But if you have a gallon of it in one sitting, your body is going to rebel. That doesn’t mean that there is anything wrong with you or the refreshing treat; it simply means that you need a break before you can enjoy it again.
Even the most compatible couples can struggle to find connection.
When my now-husband and I were first dating, we lived across town from each other. And in the Atlanta metro area, that’s quite the commute. Since we couldn’t see each other more than once or twice a week, we would spend evenings on the phone, chattering on about anything and everything.
It was easy to find things to talk about – not only did we live our days in largely separate worlds, we were still in the process of learning about the other person. Now, eight years later and sharing the same bedroom on most nights, we can go days without a meaningful conversation. The reasons are multifold. Our lives are more overlapping so there is less to share about the day-to-day. At this point, we’ve divulged and discussed our pasts, our passions and our perspectives and since we’re not yet old enough to be forgetful, there simply isn’t a need to cover the same material again. And we’re busy. The activities that were pushed to the side in those early months of the relationship have again found their place, leaving us with little time to connect during an average week.
As a result, there are times when we can feel disconnected. Like we’re crawling in bed with a virtual stranger, who both knows everything about us and yet we have nothing to talk about. And then, we carve out some time to do something new together, even if it’s as simple as dinner at an untried restaurant. The new environment inevitably sends a current through the relationship, reigniting the spark of connection.
Even the most agreeable people will have differences of opinion.
I love my husband, but there are times I think he must be a visitor from another planet. After all, surely no reasonable adult human could actually think that??? In my first marriage, I let those differences of opinion bother me. I would either take it personally (seeing an attack on my viewpoint as an attack on me), allow my mind to be changed or feel threatened by the disparate stances.
It no longer bothers me so much (Unless it’s about school; I get pretty sensitive when people who are not in the academic sphere try to tell me about modern-day school issues.) when we have opposing viewpoints. In fact, I’m more likely to find it interesting (Why do you think that way?) or humorous than threatening. I have learned that it is possible to both love and support someone even while disagreeing with them.
There are some things that are so important that dissent is a sign of trouble, but for most everything else, a difference of opinion is simply a sign that you are two different people. And that’s a good thing.
Even the strongest marriages have periods of renegotiation and transition.
There is an immense about of negotiation and compromise that occurs when a relationship first becomes serious. The amount of togetherness is determined, acceptable interactions with the opposite sex are established and relationship patterns are initiated. That period is widely accepted as a precarious one. Some relationships emerge on the other side, stronger and established, while others fail to effectively negotiate a path.
What is less discussed are the inevitable transitions that occur throughout a marriage. As children come and go, job responsibilities shift and health crises seemingly come out of nowhere, the established roles and routines may longer be appropriate. And because we’re creatures of habit and we universally fear loss, these renegotiations are often even more difficult than the initial shift into commitment.
These times of transition are stressful and we often struggle to find the words to describe them adequately. We are uncomfortable with change and with making space for the unknown, especially when our most intimate relationship is threatened. Yet those same uncertain times that scare us also provide us with the most opportunity for growth.
Even the most reasonable parters will sometime respond irrationally.
I am normally a very rational, even analytical, woman. Unless I’m poised at the top of a hill. At which point, I turn into a blubbering child. My husband knows this about me, and so he lovingly becomes extra-patient with me in those moments. My thoughts on a hilltop are not rational, but they are real. At least to me and in that moment.
Most people aren’t as afraid of downhills as I am (thank goodness, or whole industries would be wiped out), but we all have our particular triggers that cause us to behave irrationally and emotionally. And when you’re married to that overreacting person, it’s hard to suppress the urge to declare, “Just what in the hell is wrong with you?” and to respond instead with a combination of compassion and encouragement.
And here’s the hard part – unless we share the same emotional triggers as someone else, it is difficult (if not impossible) to understand where that person is coming from. And when that person is your spouse, that is a frustrating pill to swallow.
Even the most loving unions will have times where love is dormant.
Love is more about action than feeling. There will be times when you don’t feel an overwhelming sense of love or affection for your partner. Some days, irritation and annoyance speak so loudly that they drown out the soft utterances of fondness. The love isn’t gone, but it’s quiet.
It’s important how couples respond to each other in these difficult times. There can be respect even without understanding. Kindness even in the absence of fondness. Tolerance when cooperation is lacking. And above all, a willingness to listen for the sleeping love and the patience to wait for it to stir once again.