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.

The Myth of the Wonderful Marriage – Overview,

I have told almost a dozen couples over the past month the same thing: There is no such thing as a wonderful marriage.

I don’t tell them this because I am a marital skeptic. I have been married for 38 years. I have a good marriage. But it is not a wonderful marriage.

I believe that the idea of a wonderful marriage is a myth. It is theoretically possible, and I have had many people seek to prove to me that it exists. But the many ways a marriage can be scuttled and disassembled are greater than the ways it can be wonderful. Do the math.

In light of that, I can’t decide how to start this article.

Do I tell you, the reader, about the pastor’s wife who smokes weed every week to cope with the mania of dealing with her husband who constantly changes his vision for ministry and for their family?

Do I tell you about the woman who admits to me her husband’s violent behavior, and his use of prostitutes, and then goes on Facebook to tell the world how wonderful their marriage is?

Do I tell you about the man who came home to find his wife using cocaine minutes before his arrival, a woman who the very next day was leaving on a 20-day tour to speak to Christian Women about their prayer life?

Or do I tell you about the missionary who, after losing a child to a mysterious fever, decided he and his wife should have an Open Marriage to deal with their pain?

I have permission to share their stories, as long as I leave out the kind of details which would identify them to others. They all know they are broken people. They all know if they told anyone about how broken they are–other than a counselor–the world would reject them and look for another shining example of marital bliss.

They are debris from the explosion of the Myth of the Wonderful Marriage. Though good marriages do exist, and I will explain how they get that way, the wonderful marriage does not exist often or for very long. And I don’t say that to discourage you. I don’t believe the goal is to have a wonderful marriage.

I believe the goal is to have a marriage of mutual respect and appreciation of one another. If a couple also develops feelings of affection, Continue reading “The Myth of the Wonderful Marriage – Overview,”

An Alternative Approach to Marriage Counseling

I won’t bother giving them fake names to protect their identities. I don’t have permission to share the details of their story and I’ve lost touch with them. But it really doesn’t matter; their story is universal these days. He worked too much and distanced himself from his wife over many years of being married. Every year, she grew more angry at him. She let that anger color her decisions and, as a result, she easily entered into another relationship. Her husband found out she was cheating on him and she freely admitted it.

I do know the details of that initial fight and I don’t really have to share them here. It wasn’t any more dramatic than the confrontations in a million other relationships. Both of them spent a sleepless night wondering if they should contact a divorce lawyer. They both cried. They spent that night in different places, both physically and emotionally. But for some very unusual reasons, their story did not turn out like millions of others.Though each of them did go for counseling at some point, they never went together for marriage counseling. And they never got a divorce. They eventually solved the problems in their marriage (for the most part) even though they both unveiled other secret sins.

By telling their story I am not saying they are better than other people. But their choices do shed light on an alternative approach to marriage counseling. Continue reading “An Alternative Approach to Marriage Counseling”

What Works In Marriage Counseling

I won’t bother giving them fake names to protect their identities. I don’t have permission to share the details of their story and I’ve lost touch with them. But it really doesn’t matter; their story is universal these days. He worked too much and distanced himself from his wife over many years of being married. Every year, she grew more angry at him. She let that anger color her decisions and, as a result, she easily entered into another relationship. Her husband found out she was cheating on him and she freely admitted it. I do know the details of that initial fight and I don’t really have to share them here. It wasn’t any more dramatic than the confrontations in a million other relationships. Both of them spent a sleepless night wondering if they should contact a divorce lawyer. They both cried. They spent that night in different places, both physically and emotionally. But for some very unusual reasons, their story did not turn out like millions of others.

Though each of them did go for counseling at some point, they never went together for marriage counseling. And they never got a divorce. They eventually solved the problems in their marriage (for the most part) even though they both unveiled other secret sins. By telling their story I am not saying they are better than other people. But their choices do shed light on an alternative approach to marriage counseling.

I can just picture many of you waiting breathlessly for the formula to their solution. I want to be cautious at this point. Though they stayed married, it cost them way more than either would have  agreed to pay that first “fight night”. The rest of this article is not for the faint of heart. There: You have been warned.

I don’t remember if they practiced all these principles in their desire to change, but I know they at least embraced the first two. These are five things I see in  marriages that overcome problems like abuse, adultery, neglect, hatred and substance abuse. I list them in order of importance and the first ones are the most difficult.

[Disclosure: Other than from the Bible, I learned most of these principles from a series of books by William Glasser on the subject of “Choice Theory”. I mention this because several readers of this blog are MFTs and could really benefit from Dr. Glasser’s observations and practice. I am also beholding to Dr. Ed Smith and the therapy method taught in “Healing Life’s Hurts” and the practice of TPM.]

Here then are five principles that will yield the healthiest motivations to preserve a marriage:

1. Choose THIS marriage. The most poignant question Dr. Glasser asks in his first counseling session is “Do you really want to be married to your spouse?” If either spouse hedges on their answer – or comes out and says “no” – he ends the counseling relationship. He contends that no one will convince a person to be married to a particular person if they really don’t want to be. Here is what I add to that. Many people who don’t want to be married to a particular person still want to be married. They like the thought of marriage: the comfort and companionship that it can have, the intimacy it seems to promise, the stability of a family. God created the first marriage and said it was not good for man to be alone. But he also knew that once a couple are joined for any length of time in marriage, they form bonds that only death can truly separate. Therefore, people may like the idea of being married, but loathe the thought of being  married to THIS person. That has to change if the marriage will work.

In the Bible, when Jesus talks about divorce, his primary concern is remarriage. His teaching on marriage goes right back to Genesis. He recalls for them that a man is to leave behind his birth family (father and mother) and cling to his wife. In our traditional marriage vows, we say “forsaking all others”. The “all others” means mentally dismissing the idea of a future spouse as well.

Divorces happen…there are many people who decide they cannot live with that person any longer. But would people change their approach and attitude if they believed this was their only opportunity to get married? What if this is your only chance and there are no real alternatives? Would that make a difference at how you worked at solving the problems in this marriage? Of course it would. But that is not how most people live. We live in a world of “alternatives”. If you don’t like what you have, there is always an alternative.

The couple I referenced at the beginning of this article decided if they didn’t make this marriage work they weren’t going to get married again. Waking up to that reality motivated them to get things fixed. For those who accept a biblical format for marriage, the best motivation for working on marriage problems is a choice to stay married to THIS person…not just a commitment to marriage as an institution.

2. Soften the Hard Heart: In a recent article, I mentioned the pastor who used our counseling appointment to announce his intention to divorce. After I reined in my anger, I asked him to explain his motivations. He cited chapter and verse to justify his biblical grounds for divorce. That’s when I told him: “Those are reasons you want a divorce. But as far as the Bible is concerned, there is only one ground for divorce. You have hardened your heart”. Jesus teaches us why Moses allowed the people of Israel to get a divorce. As far as we know from historical documents, the nation of Israel was the first culture to develop a concept of divorce. Why? Jesus explains: “Because of the hardness of men’s hearts, Moses permitted divorce”. That’s it in a nutshell. There are many things that break a covenant between a man and a woman. Adultery, violence, molestation of children, lying, abuse, neglect, abandonment, yelling, belittlement, substance abuse, eating disorders, withdrawal of sex, lack of passion, workaholism – they all contribute to huge rifts in marital closeness. But with all that, there still is only one reason people divorce: Hardness of heart.

I can give examples of every one of the above problems that people have endured only to stay married and to prosper. I know a woman whose husband molested their two oldest daughters. He went to state prison for his actions and her church insisted she divorce him to protect the kids. She did not want to. She refused to hate him or to give up on him. He even filed for divorce at one point, but she resisted. Her oldest daughter refused to speak to mom again unless she divorced her dad. Was she being an idiot? Some people think so. But she had compassion, love and acceptance of him. She wasn’t denying his crime or his sin. He paid for what he did and he still carries the weight of how he hurt his girls. My point in mentioning this is that no one could fault her for getting a divorce. And she really isn’t a co-dependent person or weak-willed. She just didn’t want to harden her heart that far.

(Note: Neither she nor I are advocating a person stay married to an abuser. In most cases, this would be a very bad idea. She came to her conclusion after several years of soul-searching. Her decision is the exception, not the rule).

How do you deal with a hard heart? You soften it with two decisions. These are what I spend most time working on with counselees. First, let go of the bitterness for how you have been treated. Stop reserving the right to feel wounded, victimized and in emotional pain. Let go of the right to enact emotional revenge. Second, forgive the person. This does not mean  you excuse them. You simply choose to say they do not have to “make up for” their failures and sins.

3. Confront your own story: We all have aspects of our marriage story that focus on how we have been hurt. But if that is all you can see when the marriage is failing, then you are missing the other part of the story. Don’t rely on your spouse to tell you either. They are carrying their own hurt, so they will not be all that accurate in describing your problem. No one wants to hear the statement, “do you know what your problem is?” But we all need to hear what our problem is. As a counselor I have great hope for the person who comes to me during marital difficulty and says “I need to fix me”. Those people are the ones who stay married. The ones who say “I want you to fix my partner” do not stay married very much longer.

4. Give Yourself Time to Reconcile: As with most “solutions” in life, we spend way too much time causing the problems and allocate so little time to solving them. Remembering the disastrous Gulf Oil Spill, recall that everyone legitimately wanted the oil to stop flowing that second. British Petroleum’s stock was plummeting because people expected the flow to be capped overnight. Revelations began coming out about how many things went wrong to cause this disaster. This wasn’t cured for several years.  By that time, most of us had mentally moved on to the next disaster and the next one after that. That is often how we treat marriage counseling. We want it fixed today!

If you have 20 years of problems, it won’t get fixed today. We vastly overestimate what can change in a week. But conversely, we completely underestimate what can change in a year. I even recommend in the most serious marital problems that people creatively separate and start dating from scratch. I highly commend the book “Reconcilable Differences” and the suggested time chart of putting a marriage back on the right track. Don’t rush things and don’t despair. Rushing and despair only muddy the waters more.

5. Ask God for “perspective”, not “rescue”. God cannot save your marriage. That is your job. But if you want God to partner with you in this, you must let him do what God does best. God sees the inner heart of every person. That includes our own heart. Just as in the third step we must see what attitudes and beliefs have caused us to act improperly, so we also need to see our spouse as God sees them. Why does God forgive them? Why does God appreciate them? Why does God spend time with them? What does God see in them? This is so crucial at that point where you cannot say anything good about your marriage partner.

My wife and I have times of struggle like every couple. This is not the venue to give examples of that. But one solution we have found is when we are feeling stymied by the bad course our marriage takes, we sit down separately and ask God to show us the good qualities of the other person. I do remember that horrible day when Kat came up with 20 things and I only had five. That only meant she was listening with more conviction than I was. I was still bitter and used my time to tell God how rotten she was being to me. God didn’t agree, so I wasted my time. But if you come to counseling with the attitude of hearing God about your spouse, things will change. They really will.

The couple who saved their own marriage at the beginning of this article did so over a period of several years. I don’t know all the details and I don’t have any idea how many times they wanted to give up. But now they both help other couples find the same path. These principles work much more effectively than the confusing and ineffective process of three-way counseling.