A man in his late thirties sits across from me in my New York office, tapping a nervous drumroll on the glass coffee table between us with his fingertips. “We used to think we were the world’s greatest couple. Our friends would tell us they envied us. But now” — he sighs and slaps the tabletop — “this isn’t what I signed on for.”
Familiar words for any marriage counselor. If you’re engaged to be married, here’s a word of caution: the beloved person you have promised to spend your life with — the one who will stand smiling beside you among the hydrangeas and peonies, who will hold you so close as you cross the floor to “What a Wonderful World” — will one day frustrate you more than you can imagine.
People seeking marriage counseling come to my Manhattan office every day with the same story: For years they were amazed at how blessed or how lucky they were to have found “The One,” a spouse who shared their hopes and dreams and values, who loved scuba diving or the opera or church as much as they do, who finished their sentences.
Gone are those fairy-tale days. Mealtimes are strained, date nights have disappeared, sex is a distant memory. “He’s changed,” they tell me. “This is not the person I fell in love with.” “If I had to choose her all over again, I wouldn’t.” “The One” now seems selfish, dull, annoying or all of the above at the same time. Too wrapped up with the children, too busy going out with friends, too involved with career. Too needy.
When that day comes, you have hit The Wall. Maybe you start coming home late, going to bed early, anything to avoid each other. Hurtful things you never believed you could utter will come out of your mouth. You may be tempted to get involved with someone else, or just to give up.
What if, instead, you were to trust that hitting The Wall means your relationship is on the brink of something wonderful? Change is inevitable. “Like any living organism, a relationship must grow or it dies,” I tell people who fear that the best days of their marriage are behind them. Or I offer another metaphor: “You didn’t marry a snapshot, you married a movie.” When we fall in love, the usual walls that separate us from other people go down. We’re all tangled up with one another, like the sheets and blankets around our legs the morning after, and nothing could feel more delicious or amazing. It seems as though this blissful time could last forever.
But it’s only a moment. In the course of a lifelong relationship, we need to come untangled, to define ourselves as separate individuals while remaining in loving connection. For most of us, that’s quite a trick. My partner is not me. We are two different people. Sounds obvious in theory, doesn’t it? There’s nothing like banging your head against The Wall to learn it in practice. Letting those walls down once felt so good. But The Wall is too high to climb over, too thick to knock down, and so painful we suspect it’s guarded with barbed wire. When we finally stop the head-banging we discover that The Wall has its pluses: it gives us privacy and freedom, as well as space to reflect on what’s really important to us and on the kind of marriage we wish to create.
Those lessons are the hardest part. Happily — although wistful single people often believe the stars will need to align before they find “The One” — fixing a marriage isn’t very mysterious or magical. It requires that we learn a few important skills — or take skills we already have plenty of practice with, at work and with friends, and start to use them with the person who knows our tender spots better than anyone.
Listening is one of these skills. Even though it scares us half to death, we need to start paying close attention when our partner talks, without interrupting. (How else will we find out what’s happening on the other side of The Wall?)
Perspective-taking and negotiating are other essential skills. We need to start looking at our relationship from a broader perspective, moving past our own frustrations and thinking in terms of how to nurture the marriage with time and tenderness and artful negotiation.
In using these skills, we create a richer marriage. No longer all tangled up with each other; we’re two strong, interdependent people consciously creating a relationship that, in turn, nurtures the two of us.
Now, that’s what I call happy ever after.
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