Archive for the ‘Counselor Connection’ Category
The Seven-Year Itch
I recently read a report about a politician in Bavaria who has thrown scandal into her Catholic state in Germany. Gabriele Pauli told reporters she believes marriage should be a seven-year institution, and that at the end of those seven years, a couple can elect whether their marriage will extend or will be automatically dissolved.
When I do premarital counseling I often tell my clients that I have been married for 37 years. I also tell them that in those 37 years I have fallen in love with my husband six or seven times, and, if I were to be honest, there have been at least six or seven times that I have thought, “Oh my goodness—what was I thinking?” So, if I do the math, about every five or six years I might have opted out of marriage if I had been given the chance. No doubt one of those times would have fallen at the same time as the expiration date proposed by Gabriele Pauli. I have never done premarital counseling with a couple that believes their marriage will end in divorce. As a matter of fact, most of the time when I talk about common problems in marriage their eyes glaze over and they tell me, “That won’t happen to us, we’re in love!” Yet almost 50 percent of first marriages end in divorce, many of them within the first seven years.
So, is it impossible to stay happily married? I guess it depends on how you view marriage. Is marriage something you only stay in as long as you are happy? Or did you mean the vows you repeated at your wedding, promising a commitment during the easy and hard times, till death makes you part? Those are tough promises to live up to on the days when you not only don’t feel love for your spouse, but you really don’t even like him or her! I wonder how many people would still be married if they were given a legal escape every seven years.
For me, marriage is more than a contract that can be broken if I’m not happy. My commitment to marriage is more about my faithfulness to the vow I took before God than my “love” (or feelings of love) for my husband. Feelings are fleeting and dependent on circumstances. While there may be many days that I do not feel “in love” with my husband, my love for him is a decision that I act upon even when I don’t feel like it.
The Beliefs of Marriage
When we first fall in love we often look at our spouse through rose-colored glasses. We filter out any negatives and focus only on the positive. But when we are mad, we may only see our spouse through what I would call “mud-colored glasses”—we filter out anything positive and only see the negative. We are like attorneys in the discovery process: we set about looking for evidence to prove our case that our spouse is a jerk, or is selfish, or whatever conclusion we have come to in our anger. Then, when the offending spouse does something that vaguely fits our belief we think, “Ah ha! I knew s/he was a jerk!” So we add that bit of evidence in the file for the case we are building and before long we have enough “evidence” to convict them. How easy it is to build this case against our spouse when we can’t see the good!
We have all heard, and probably said, “I’ll believe it when I see it,” at some point in our lives. And that philosophy plays into our marriages when we wait to see if our spouse proves our case. The problem with that belief is that it puts things in the wrong order. The truth is that we see it because we believe it, not the other way around. What would happen in our marriages if we began to believe the best of our spouse and treat them according to our belief?
I recently read some information about The National Marriage Project, an initiative aiming to “increase marital quality and stability.”¹ One of their publications, “The Top Ten Myths of Marriage”, discusses the myth that couples who live together before marriage know each other better and have longer-lasting marriages because they are so well suited for each other.
I have found, in over 37 years of marriage, that marriage is more about commitment than feeling, and more about the decision to accept my spouse than my skill in finding someone who suits me well. The difference between living together and being married is like the difference between renting an apartment and buying a house. When I was newly married we rented an apartment. In some ways it was great—no maintenance, no lawn mowing, no long term commitment. If something broke, I only had to call the landlord. There was a downside to being a renter, however: I couldn’t paint the walls in my apartment, I didn’t get the benefit of mortgage tax deductions, and I had to wait, sometimes for weeks, for the landlord to fix things.
When couples chose to live together before marriage they are like renters. They want the benefits without the commitment. Dr. Willard Harley, Jr., Licensed Psychologist, asks:
“What, exactly, is the commitment of marriage? It is an agreement that you will take care of each other for life, regardless of life’s ups and downs. You will stick it out together through thick and thin. But the commitment of living together isn’t like that at all. It is simply a month-to-month rental agreement. As long as you behave yourself and keep me happy, I’ll stick around.
Habits are hard to break, and couples that live together before marriage get into the habit of following their month-to-month rental agreement. In fact, they often decide to marry, not because they are willing to make a lifetime commitment to each other, but because the arrangement has worked out so well that they can’t imagine breaking their lease, so to speak. They say the words of the marital agreement, but they still have the terms of their rental agreement in mind.
Couples who have not lived together before marriage, on the other hand, have not lived under the terms of the month-to-month rental agreement. They begin their relationship assuming that they are in this thing for life, and all their habits usually reflect that commitment.”²
¹The Rector and Visitors of the University of Virginia, “Mission,” The National Marriage Project, http://www.virginia.edu/marriageproject/mission.html.
²Dr. Willard Harley, Jr., “Living Together Before Marriage,” Marriage Builders, http://www.marriagebuilders.com/graphic/mbi5025_qa.html.
I recently saw a rerun episode of Oprah. She had a couple on the show who had spent the past 40 years writing love letters to each other—everyday! Their letters consisted of three parts:
Part 1: How I feel today. “Dear Alton,” Patricia once wrote after a fight. “I still feel separated from you because of last night.” One letter from Alton expressed his gratitude: “I feel honored you think I’m a great parent.”
In wedding ceremonies, we repeat vows. We pledge to love and honor each other, and we say “I do” to a lifetime commitment of this vow. In our hearts, we sincerely mean these vows, but do we understand the implications of the words we repeat?
Marriage Lessons Learned
Last month my husband and I celebrated our 37th wedding anniversary. I wish I could say that after 37 years we have arrived at “marital bliss,” but I can’t. What I can say is that the lessons I have learned in the last 37 years could not have been learned any other way. God allows us to be in relationships that are sometimes “irritating” so as to sharpen and refine us. Proverbs 27:17 says, “As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another.” Have you ever pictured iron sharpening iron? Sparks fly as the two pieces of metal collide. But it is through the collision and the heat that the sharpening takes place.
Putting Marriage First
It happened again in a counseling session this week: a woman told me her husband complained that she always put the kids first. “I get so tired of hearing that,” she said. I think she wanted me to agree with her that kids should come first, and that her husband was being unreasonable. Unfortunately I’ve seen too many marriages fail because of inattention, so we talked about how to make her marriage a priority.