Embracing Reality: Part 2 of the Myth of the Wonderful marriage

There are signs and then there are SIGNS.

This final premarital counseling session was a warning about disaster looming. This is the first wedding I had ever officiated or counseled someone about, and ten minutes into our time together, the bride-to-be looked at me and said, “I don’t think we should get married. This is a mistake.”

Up until that evening, they had both expressed positive feelings about getting married. Neither had voiced any real concerns about their relationship. In this session however, she pointed out a half dozen things she didn’t like about her fiance. Most of them were minor, especially the details of his personal hygiene.

At one point we heard a siren. It was the tornado warning. We trundled down to the shelter and waited until the all-clear. When we got back to the apartment, I wondered aloud if this warning was some kind of a sign. They both smiled. I went on to convince them they just had cold feet. Both of them finally agreed that despite their misgivings they still wanted to get married.

Two weeks later, we had a beautiful and uplifting ceremony. Immediately after the reception, they left on their honeymoon for two weeks. Since this was my first wedding as officiant, I wanted to know how they were doing as soon as they got back. I called the bride and casually asked how the trip went from her perspective.

“We’re getting an annulment Pastor Mike. So, I guess you could say it wasn’t a great trip.”

I could not convince her to stay married. Neither could the groom or her mother.

About a month after she applied and received the annulment, we sat down again and she went into more detail about her reasons. Surprisingly, neither her decision to get married nor her decision to annul the marriage was made hastily. The man she had intended marrying was a good man. He lived a moral and ethical life and she really liked him.

But there were several things about him she could not abide. Each day of the honeymoon, she asked herself one question repeatedly: “Could I live with this for 50 years?” Because she answered “no” too many times, she decided not to waste his time or hers on a marriage which would not work.

I asked her to list what she found objectionable about him. They were all variations of the same three categories: approach to money, their sex life, his personal hygiene. She noticed all these things before they got married (Note: don’t judge. They wanted to know if they were sexually compatible before marriage, despite the Church’s strictures against it. That was their choice). These grievances were the basis of her telling me at the premarital session she didn’t want to get married. She apologized for heeding me and going through with it even with her doubts.

At the time, I was only recently married myself, and I didn’t know her decision may have been based upon a very faulty premise. She believed these incompatibilities were insurmountable and would bother her all their married life. I wish I could have that proverbial Time Machine and go back to give her the wisdom I have garnered through time and experience. Here’s what I would tell her:

Almost every couple on earth is incompatible. It takes several years to clear a lot of that up. Many couples are very successful at doing that; some are not.

Couples endure a great deal of pain in the first year of their marriage. Most experienced couples will not tell you that hard truth. You will enjoy the first year of marriage, but not as much as you hope you will. I am not exaggerating. Even the couples who tell you they have an amazing relationship are probably smoothing over the bumps in the road. Here is what I have learned in 40 years of counseling:

  • You will fight about stupid things
  • You won’t enjoy sex as much as you hoped or expected
  • You and your partner will have emotional reactions which make no sense to either of you. But the reactions will be intense
  • There will be moments you wonder if you’ve made the biggest mistake of your life
  • You will learn how committed you actually are to your old daily routines. As a result, you will learn how much you resent this other person ruining all those routines
  • They will not smell, look, or sound as good as they used to while dating. Get ready for morning and weekend realities
  • It is not so much that your spouse’s family will bother you. It is the completely different approaches you each will want to take toward your own family which will cause marital tensions

I am going to stop here lest I hinder any of my readers from getting married. I recently made the list of incompatibilities most young married couples face, and I had a list of over 60 items. And I’m sure the list is completely incomplete.

Dr. Alex Lickerman eloquently states the problem:

Though every situation is different, though relationships are exceedingly complex, and though undoubtedly some couples shouldn’t remain together, a more likely explanation for why couples split than one or both partners actually changed (though, of course, that sometimes does happen) is that one or both partners lost their ability to tolerate their incompatibilities.

Of course, the reason I’m writing this article is to help you deal with these incompatibilities. In order to do that, let’s look at two very common ones as examples, and then I will show how you can walk through them.

(Obligatory blogger note: This section contains a mildly graphic description of marital sex. If that bothers you, please stop reading.)

Jess and Penny came back from their honeymoon so excited about making a life together. On the honeymoon, they had sex twice daily, or more. It was everything Jess hoped it would be. They had a book of sexual positions and they tried out about 20 of them. They decided on half a dozen they liked. They both enjoyed sex and had no problems with performance or orgasmic completion. So far, so good.

One thing they tried was oral sex. Neither of them had ever done it before so their inexperience hindered their pleasure. But because it was featured prominently in the book, they kept trying it. Eventually, they figured some things out and it was mildly pleasant for both of them. At least, that is what they told each other.

Penny actually had a huge problem with Jess performing oral sex on her. She felt he would think she smelled badly and she couldn’t shake that thought. The more they had oral sex, the more she resented it. She tried telling him and he assured her that he was fine with everything. And he was telling the truth.

The problem was, she didn’t really believe him.

When they came home from the honeymoon, they continued having sex most days. Jess wanted it a little more often than Penny, but they bargained together regarding frequency and settled their difference. However, Jess kept insisting that oral sex be part of their sexual menu. Penny didn’t want to cause problems so early in their marriage so she went along. But she resented Jess even more for making her do it.

In her resentment, she began coming up with excuses to avoid sex. He sensed this was happening, and he got angry. He didn’t want to argue about sex, so he nit picked her cooking, her choice of clothing in the morning, even her laugh. His passive-aggressive approach annoyed her so much she started openly refusing to have sex with him. One week, they only had sex once and Jess was sure their marriage was doomed.

By the end of the first year of marriage, they came in to see me for counseling, totally defeated and completely sure they had made a mistake marrying each other.

Tony and Brenda both loved to cook. They married later in life, yet it was the first marriage for both of them. In planning for their life together, they decided they had enough money to buy a new home. They spent a large amount of their discretionary money on the kitchen and what would go into it.

Tony loved barbecue and saw himself as a Bobby Flay clone. Brenda was a Pescatarian who loved to cook with oriental sauces and spices. Yet, even though they liked different foods, this wasn’t their problem.

Tony was a neat freak and Brenda was a slob. Before they got married, she had a cleaning woman come in twice a week to clean up after her. On the other hand, Tony scrubbed every surface after using it, keeping cleaning materials in the kitchen. He regularly seasoned his cast-iron frying pans (he owned four of them). Brenda loved her copper Calphalon pans. But she could go days without washing them out.

A few weeks after they got married, they threw a dinner party for 20 and did all the cooking themselves. The party ended at midnight and Brenda was so tired she went straight to bed. At 2 am Tony flopped into bed beside her making a lot of noise. He was supremely angry at her. She had left him to clean up the entire mess from the party. He started a fight with her and called her a bunch of names. The only word she heard was Slob. And, the war was on.

Her favorite epithet for him during the early weeks of marriage was “OCD”. Every time he took out the “409” cleaner, she winced. Every time she threw a pan into the sink, he groaned. They both ignored the other. He even tried to do all the cleaning of the pots and pans. But he worked late three nights a week, and when he came home the kitchen was a mess. He was an emotional person and didn’t hide his emotions about her sloppiness.

Many nights, one or the other went to bed in tears. After six months of this, they did a trial separation of a few weeks, but found they really did miss each other. After coming back together, they came to see me for counseling. They really did want to have a good marriage, but they were not able to overcome their incompatibility in cleanliness.

Whether it is the kitchen or the bedroom, whether the checking account or the type of perfume, whether the way anger is shown or the way love is not shown, all of these incompatibilities are hard to overcome. Every problem imaginable has ended someone’s marriage somewhere. If couples entered the first year of marriage armed with a few truths, they would do a much better job of weathering the storm.

So with Jess and Penny, Tony and Brenda, I went over these principles and both couples found, to their relief, that the knowledge helped them move forward. Both couples are still married and from what I can tell, enjoying their spouses.

Here is what I go over with couples getting married. If you are already married, read this as a couple and see if you can relate to this.

  1. Incompatibility Exists With Every Couple: There are many ways you are incompatible. Of course, there are also many ways in which you are compatible. If there weren’t items of commonality you would not have been attracted for long to each other. But the ways you differ from each other are going to make you angry and sad. They will feel insurmountable (remember the couple from the beginning of this article?). It is best to be realistic right from the start. On the honeymoon, come to an agreement that you will lower your expectations for this first year of marriage. It will take much adjusting to each other. At least weekly, you must have a meeting with each other where you address your incompatibilities. I will lay out what that meeting looks like in the next article.
  2. Resentment is The Biggest Enemy in this first year: When Penny noticed Jess discounting her shyness about intimate odor, she resented him. She acted out on her resentment regularly after that. He resented the way she acted out and carried his own resentment. The two of them ping-ponged their resentment back and forth until that is all they could focus upon. In another article in this series, we will address what to do about that.
  3. You BOTH must actively modify your old routines when entering marriage. Your daily routines are the hardest elements of your old life before marriage to change. But now you share a life together. You cannot expect your partner to just go along with your routine. This takes negotiation to figure out a compatible routine and then compromise to work it out. This will have to be done again as each child comes along, and then again in a smaller way when one of you gets a new job. We will look at the Negotiation and Compromise process in another article in this series.
  4. You Trigger Each other: All of us carry into marriage false beliefs, inaccurate ideas, and emotional hurts that have not been fully processed. These are like open wounds just waiting for our spouses to pour salt into. The three couples mentioned in this article triggered each other’s brokenness regularly. The first couple gave up long before they could help each other. The other two learned the skill of how to help the other in a triggered state. In our last article in this series, we will go through how to have the skill of working out our triggers.

By far, the most common areas of incompatibility in the first year are:

  • How money is spent
  • Sex: how often, when, where, and how.
  • Children and birth control
  • Food, its preparation and type
  • Personal hygiene
  • Expressing anger
  • Making decisions
  • Daily routines
  • Dealing with families
  • Bringing work home
  • Habits
  • Choice of friends
  • Pornography
  • Video games
  • Telling the truth

Marriage is a bold adventure. But the first few miles of this adventure can destroy you if you don’t navigate them well. Some couples don’t even last two weeks.

In the next article, we will talk about how to discuss marital differences in a format which moves toward compromises and solutions.

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