Today my husband Mark and I celebrate our silver wedding anniversary. We are very happy, a little stunned, and rather proud of what we have accomplished: Creating a relationship that nourishes, comforts, excites, and reflects us. Our marriage may not work for everyone. It is a relationship created to support who we are and who we want to become. The stability of our marriage helped us create an environment for raising our daughter to adulthood, but also for raising ourselves.
Too often in a marriage or committed relationship, partners are focused on changing one another. This is a recipe for futility. While it is normal for partners to ask one another to stop or start certain behaviors, expecting someone to change their personality to conform to your own demonstrates misunderstanding of what a committed relationship is really about.
Unfortunately, many people come into a marriage with a fragile sense of self. There exists a myth that a partner will “complete me,” filling in one’s gaps and weaknesses with their strengths. And in a partnership, it is true that individuals can balance one another. But unless we were raised in a functional household (party of one?) with parents who understood how to respect one another (as opposed to one partner caving in to the other), most of us come to a relationship with gaps that need more than spackle: They need drywall, stucco, and paint, too.
Marriage isn’t the endpoint of adulthood. It is the beginning. In marriage, we come face to face not just with our partner but ourselves. Our weaknesses emerge in bas relief, demonstrating that we indeed possess some not very attractive qualities that need to be remedied. Jealousy, resentment, fear, anger and rage, pettiness, rigidity, righteousness—reads like a compendium of qualities we generally thought we gave up when we graduated high school or college.
But no. We have crummy, unwanted, unattractive parts of ourselves. If we are able to deal with them, to own them and work on them, we can become not just a better person, but also a better partner. If we ignore them and they burble around, we can end up projecting them onto our partner, blaming him or her for making us feel bad. But remember the old sticks and stones rhyme? No one can make you feel bad. Or, as we used to say in the old days, no one should be able to push your buttons, and you should not be pushing anyone else’s either. It’s the old “I’m okay, you’re not,” except really, guess what? You’re not okay, either, just in case you haven’t noticed.
So the task is to engage in a program of rather continual self-examination. If you have a fight with your partner, the idea is not to sit and stew
When we were young—my husband was only 23 when we met, I was a little older—we fought a lot. Fragile self-concepts made us each certain we were right. As an only child (my husband) and a first-born (me), we entered into many a power struggle. (One fight was so bad that we missed an event. When someone asked us where we were, I looked at her and said, “We were fighting. Didn’t you hear us?”) Fighting wore us down and made our marriage not one of pleasure and delight, but a battlefield littered with insults, epithets, and barbs, and a few pieces of broken dishes thrown in just for dramatic effect.
I guess the turning point was the birth of our daughter. I certainly didn’t want to replicate my parents’ marriage. (Their arguments were so predictable they had one I named “the Sunday pancake fight.” My father would want to make pancakes, which made a mess, which for my mother symbolized being shackled to the sink and domesticity. It would devolve from there into slinging onto one another ever sort of injury, imagined and real. As for me, I could have pulled up a chair to the kitchen at the same time each week to see the show if it wasn’t so draining to watch. Unfortunately, living in a tiny apartment in Brooklyn, there was no place to escape.) And we were both tired of our stupid partner tricks. So we stopped. Well, mostly. It took time to figure out how to resolve our conflicts by sitting down in the middle of a Saturday morning to talk them out without throwing gasoline and a match between us.
Today we rarely argue. I don’t have to prove myself, either in principal or in my worth as a human being, and I don’t need this from my husband. The goal is to live in harmony, two separate people with needs and wants that may not always match up—but we do the best we can. There simply any issue that’s big enough for a fight, or should I say, big enough to disrupt the equilibrium of our peaceful household. Yes, we have disagreements, but they don’t escalate into attacks on each other’s character. We accept one another as being different, and we create “word arounds” to accommodate to that.
Twenty-five years is a long time. Long enough for six presidencies. Long enough for a second generation to be born. Enough time, ultimately, for two people to get to know each other well, to accept one another, and in that knowledge, remain deeply and firmly in love. It takes time for a marriage or committed relationship to grow, because it takes time for the partners to grow. Again, marriage isn’t the endpoint of adulthood. It is just the beginning. And when you get to year 5, or 15, or 25, then perhaps you can say, “Great! I made it to adulthood. Not only do I love myself, but I love my partner, too.”
It is futile to plant an acorn in the morning and expect that afternoon to sit in the shade of an oak.
--Antoine St. Exupery