Lessons on marriage

It seems reasonable to say that most people who talk about marriage do so under a choice-supportive bias, saying all kinds of things in support of marriage and getting married simply because it sounds good, regardless of whether it is actually true. So it’s no surprise that someone would pen an entire article on the matter and perpetuate still longer the cutesy ideas.

About the only thing that Seth Adam Smith gets right about marriage is that it’s not about you. Marriage isn’t really "about" anything. Marriage just is. Why do people feel the need to continually manufacture all kinds of crap to say about marriage? Has no one outgrown all the lovey-dovey fairy tales of marriage that we hear when we’re little and that only get perpetuated when we’re adults?

Seriously, let’s take a step back and just look at things with a clear mind.

In determining whether to propose to his then-girlfriend, Seth had a conversation with his father about whether he’d be making the right decision. How he remembers exactly what his father told him is beyond me, given the paragraph he reproduced, but allegedly his father started with this:

Seth, you’re being totally selfish. So I’m going to make this really simple: marriage isn’t for you. You don’t marry to make yourself happy, you marry to make someone else happy.

While true that you don’t marry to make yourself happy, you don’t marry to make someone else happy either. Isn’t it amazing the kinds of things people say about marriage simply because it sounds good? And the idea that marriage has anything to do with happiness is one that’s been getting tossed around a lot.

Let’s look at reality. Life is full of ups and downs, meetings and partings, being able to fulfill long-held wishes and nearly losing everything. Marriage is just a part of life. You can experience all of this whether you are married or not. And within the years before getting officially married, my wife and I went through all of this. It tested our relationship like nothing.

My wife and I met while in college. She was the roommate of an ex-girlfriend, and we met formally while I was in a relationship with another woman. We would get together after another breakup and be together for a short time before I graduated from college. That turned our relationship long distance until she moved in with me in early 2006, a few months after I proposed to her, as she chose to leave school so she could re-evaluate what she really wanted to do.

The summer of that year, I would take her back to meet my family on the east coast. It was the first time in nearly eight years I’d seen any of my extended family. It would be the only time my wife would meet my grandfather, as he died several weeks later.

The next year my wife and I would take another vacation back to the east coast, but one purely for us. The spring following that vacation, I lost my job, putting us on a financial rollercoaster on an increasingly downward trend until I got my current job approaching five years ago. We’re still digging out of that hole, and we’d probably be out of it by now if we opted for financially castrating ourselves and cutting of any and all luxuries until we were out of debt, but then we would also have been miserable during that time, too.

Thanksgiving in 2010 saw the loss of my wife’s cousin at the age of 23. She was to be one of my wife’s bridesmaids had we kept with our original thoughts of having a more traditional wedding, an idea we would scrap in favor of eloping a little over a week before Christmas in 2011. In July 2010 my wife’s grandfather would pass away in his late 70s a week after I met him for the only time, while he was in the hospital.

Our life together has been a rollercoaster. And people wonder why I take a cynical point of view whenever someone says marriage and happiness in the same sentence. It sounds good to say that marriage is about making someone happy, and that you marry to make someone else happy, as Seth’s father allegedly did.

But it isn’t true.

You don’t marry to make someone else happy. If anything you marry because you already are happy, just like you don’t marry to commit but marry because you already are committed. Once you get married, it’s very difficult to untie that legal bind, which is something you need to consider before you get married. So if you’re married or getting married, or considering proposing to your significant other, ask yourself this: could you go through all of what my wife and I have experienced, and more, go through the trials and tribulations that would come with it, and still want your spouse or significant other to still be standing there with you at the end of it?

Most won’t know the answer to this question until they actually experience what is necessary to answer it.

I know a couple who has been through arguably worse than what my wife and I, and they went through much of it before they got married as well. And my parents have been through significantly worse as well. And in the case of both couples, they’ve so far lived to tell the tales.

Now could you? And more importantly, could your relationship survive such tribulations? This is what you need to consider, and if you haven’t yet, then you need to start putting some serious thought into it.

* * * * *

Seth’s father continued:

More than that, your marriage isn’t for yourself,you’re marrying for a family. Not just for the in-laws and all of that nonsense, but for your future children. Who do you want to help you raise them? Who do you want to influence them? Marriage isn’t for you. It’s not about you. Marriage is about the person you married.

It’s almost as if Seth’s father is justifying to his son why he got married decades after the fact, a kind of choice-supportive bias like I mentioned earlier. That is something I’ve seen numerous, numerous times in articles discussing marriage. It seems to be the grand delusion.

Marriage is about family. Marriage is about children. Marriage is sanctioned and licensed by the State because society wants people to procreate… These all sound great, don’t they? Why do people keep perpetuating such nonsense?

You can get a family without being married. My wife’s family got to know me quite well for the several years before we got officially married. I mourned with them when we were burying the aforementioned 23 year-old woman who died much, much too young. I celebrated with them the following summer when that young woman’s sister married, and again this past summer when that same sister received her PhD.

Sounds a lot like family, right? And my parents considered my wife their daughter-in-law a long while before it was official.

Again, marriage just is. You don’t marry for a family. You don’t marry to make someone else happy. You don’t marry so someone else can make you happy. Because you don’t need marriage for any of that. And to hedge off another common, fallacious argument I’ve seen made countless times, I’ll repeat a notion I said earlier: you don’t marry for commitment either, but because you already are committed.

Marriage is more individual than anything else. Why paint it with a wide brush? Why speak of something that is unique to every couple as if every occurrence of it is the same?

About the only thing that is universal across every marriage is the continuance of mutual gain.

Marriage should be a win-win situation. Individuals do things in the hope of gaining something or, at the very least, to avoid losing something. The same is true with marriage. So what do you hope to gain with marriage? And I mean more than just a spouse and a sex partner. I also mean more than the lovey-dovey notions of "I want someone to grow old with" and "I want him/her to be the father/mother of my children". What are you hoping to gain by marrying or being married to your significant other that you cannot get anywhere else, or at least not anywhere else that is convenient and/or desirable?

Your marriage should always be for mutual gain. And not just in the beginning, but throughout. And keeping it about mutual gain requires becoming good at compromise and negotiation. It also requires one other thing that always seems strangely absent in articles discussing marriage, and is also absent in Seth’s article.

What is that one thing? I really hope this doesn’t come as a surprise.


* * * * *

It was in that very moment that I knew that Kim was the right person to marry. I realized that I wanted to make her happy; to see her smile every day, to make her laugh every day. I wanted to be a part of her family, and my family wanted her to be a part of ours. And thinking back on all the times I had seen her play with my nieces, I knew that she was the one with whom I wanted to build our own family.

It’s great that you want to make her happy and see her smile every day and make her laugh every day. You don’t need to get married to do that. These sound like great reasons to get married, but they should not be all on which you focus. And if you and I were having a conversation where you were saying these things, I’d be saying right back, "Well that’s all well and good, but why do you want to get married?"

And I have a feeling, given the nature of the article, that I’d be saying that a lot.

Again, marriage is for mutual gain. Virtually every relationship should be for mutual gain to some degree. What are you hoping to gain by marrying your significant other that you cannot gain in any other way or with any other person? It is in the examination of limiting questions such as that where you will talk yourself either into or out of marriage. It is in the examination of such limiting questions that force you to confront the negatives as well as the positives and determine whether you can put up with the negatives.

Because there are negatives. Guaranteed. As much as we try to bullshit ourselves into thinking there aren’t, they’re there. And if you try to tell me there are no negatives to being married, I’ve got to wonder what kind of fantasy occupies our perceptions.

* * * * *

My father’s advice was both shocking and revelatory. It went against the grain of today’s “Walmart philosophy”, which is if it doesn’t make you happy, you can take it back and get a new one.

Not quite, Seth.

Again, a lot of people have very lofty ideas of marriage and how it should be, as opposed to what it actually is. The ideas of "happily ever after", "two kids and a picket fence", and the like still permeate our society, and they’re still fed to little kids from a young age. It’s how the government was able to buy the American people and society on the idea of home ownership and trash our economy at the same time.

Today people still want all of the lofty dreams that come along with the idea of being married. They just don’t want to work for it.

And with life, marriage included, you’re working more to maintain what you’ve gained and accomplished as opposed to conquering new territory. In marriage you’re working to keep it working for mutual gain, knowing at times you will fall short. And when marriage starts getting difficult is when you’ll find out just how much effort you’re willing to expend to maintain what you have. But then you don’t need to be married to experience difficulties as they can arise in any relationship, even a committed, exclusive relationship that just isn’t legally called a marriage.

It goes back to the idea of marriage and happiness. Marriage is not perpetual happiness, but it seems many expect it to be. You will piss off your spouse at times, and your spouse will piss you off at times. It’s how you react that matters. There will also be some rather trying difficulties as well. What will you do when when those difficulties arise? And yes, I do mean when, not if.

* * * * *

No, a true marriage (and true love) is never about you. It’s about the person you love—their wants, their needs, their hopes, and their dreams.

This is only partly true.

In a marriage you need to align your dreams, hopes, wants and needs into a similar path. All of your dreams, hopes, wants and needs still come into play. They have to, otherwise things are going to seem purely one-sided. Again, the marriage should be for mutual gain, and setting aside your wants, needs, hopes and dreams will not accomplish this.

Compromise and negotiation are necessary as well. Both of you must be willing to compromise on things. But more importantly you must also recognize when compromise is not an option. A question to ask is whether your needs are true needs or a combination of true needs and wants you misinterpret as needs? True needs aren’t up for negotiation, while wants and desires are.

Beyond that, you need to keep an eye on whether you’re bending over backwards as opposed to just compromising.

But again, this requires communication.

* * * * *

For many months, my heart had been hardening with a mixture of fear and resentment. Then, after the pressure had built up to where neither of us could stand it, emotions erupted. I was callous. I was selfish.

Fear and resentment? Fear I can understand, given that you’ve been married for only a year and a half according to the article. Society puts a lot of pressure on people to get married, and once they are married, they put more pressure still on them to meet some standard of being a "good husband". Isn’t it odd how we always seem to be chasing compliance with unspoken societal "standards" but always seem to fall short while also always being judged by others on how well we are complying with those "standards"?

And something tells me you’ve questioned whether you’re living up to that standard. Congratulations, that means you’re human. And expectedly this can lead to feelings of fear – if you let it. People will judge you and your marriage in an attempt to make themselves look better in comparison. Just ignore those attempts and live your life.

But, resentment? In a discussion with NBC’s Today, you apparently elaborated on this:

As Smith explained to TODAY.com, he began to struggle as Kim became ever more dedicated to her graduate studies in theater, which led the couple to relocate to Florida. Feeling isolated, Smith said he began to push Kim away.

Looking back, Smith knows his behavior was defensive, but he couldn’t help it when the tension culminated in an argument. Smith had been expecting this "ticking time bomb," anticipating a blowout with Kim mustering just as much anger and frustration as he felt.

Question: how often do you actually communicate with your wife? I mean long, back and forth conversations where you talk about a lot of different things including your own feelings. And how many such conversations have you had since you got married? And before you got married?

Remember how I said that marriage is for mutual gain? About the only way you can keep it that way, along with being able to properly negotiate and compromise, is by regularly communicating.

And by regularly I mean however often is practical.

Given the summarization above, it sounds like there was a communication breakdown. A major communication breakdown.

My wife and I have never had an argument. Even when I was unemployed, losing hope with each passing week about whether I’d be able to find something, and arguably escaping more and more into side work, hobbies and games, we never had an argument. We’ve never had a fight. And that is due to how well my wife and I know each other, and that is due to how often we communicate: whenever practical.

* * * * *

I realized that I had forgotten my dad’s advice. While Kim’s side of the marriage had been to love me, my side of the marriage had become all about me.

If the summarization above is accurate, you didn’t become selfish. Your "side" of the marriage didn’t become all about you – setting aside the fact that even using the word "sides" in describing marriage gives the impression that you see marriage as adversarial, at least subconsciously.

You did, however, react to your feelings of isolation only by making yourself more isolated. Instead of reaching out to your wife to see if you can resolve or at least reconcile what was going on, you chose to do the opposite. Is it no surprise then that your feelings of isolation evolved into fear and resentment, and that the cauldron continued to boil until the brew steaming within erupted into a fight? I’d call it predictable. And you cannot solve a problem until you first acknowledge it, preferably under peaceful circumstances.

You need to be communicating with your wife. Not just talking, as any couple can just talk. You need to communicate. That is the key to determining whether your marriage is viable and remaining so.

And given what you’d been saying in your article and to NBC Today, you cannot have been doing a very good job of communicating. You’re coming up on your second anniversary, so make that a resolution for your third year of marriage, or a resolution for 2014 – to become a better communicator with your wife. But your wife also needs to be a good communicator with you. So make it a mutual resolution.

A solid foundation of trust is what is necessary to keep really any relationship going, marriage or not, and trust requires communication and honesty. Sounds like you’ve been a little deficient on both. But, don’t despair, as most couples are.

In becoming a better and more honest communicator, and with that a better and more honest husband, some things will likely come out that will be offensive and/or angering to one or both of you. The truth at times hurts. But sometimes the pain is necessary to excise the negatives from your relationship.