When I was in graduate school a wonderful mentor (Marc Rathbun, Ph.D.) told me "marriage isn't about being happy, it's about growing up." At the time I thought he was just a cynic and figured that when I found my prince charming all would be different (!)
Here I am 20 years later and married for 16 of those and I now whole-heartedly agree. It's not that I don't have fun in my marriage. I took the advice of my best childhood friend seriously-- she said "never marry anyone who does not make you laugh." So I married someone who I find very funny and we definitely laugh together. And he makes me laugh. And it's still a lot of hard work and part of that work has been me really, truly and deeply "growing up." Learning to put another person first even when I don't feel like it. Making sure to consider my partner in ALL of my decisions and actions, even those he may never know about. Learning to forgive AND forget.
All of this has made me a much more mature person and I am thankful for it. And I am relatively sure none of that would have happened without marriage.
That may not be true for everyone. I am stubborn and I think if I had not had a marriage at stake I would have just ejected partners who did not see eye-to-eye with me. Or been by myself so that I did not have to compromise. For those of you who are able to grow without the threat of your partner leaving, I applaud you. I know for me it took my husband being that dreaded mirror, reflecting back my shortcomings in order for me to grow.
One big part of growing up around relationships was learning what they are and what they are not. Dr. Stan Tatkin, author of Your Brain On Love and other great books, taught me these 10 "unfortunate truths" that I would like to pass on to you and yours:
1. There are no low-maintenance people. All people are high maintenance because all people have needs and all people are imperfect and no one sees the world exactly the same way you do all of the time. This will make people seem "high maintenance". If someone seems low maintenance you just don't know them well enough.
2. To your brain and nervous system there is nothing more complex than another human being. On the one hand this is why we crave relationships. On the other hand it's why we sometimes would rather watch Netflix than talk to our partner. Try to remember that the human brain, as great as it is, makes mistakes. It may misunderstand a facial expression, a tone of voice, a gesture or a comment. Human's are actually terrible at communication, despite thinking the inverse! So remember that your poor brain is trying to understand the most complex organism in the known universe and be patient with yourself and your partner.
3. Love relationships are burdensome. That's kind of the point. We need another person to help us with the things we cannot do for ourselves. And not just holding up the other side of the shelf while we put the screw in. We need someone else to take care of us when we are sick, to hear our secrets, to deal with the spider we are afraid of. To help us because humans are PACK ANIMALS. We are not designed to be alone or be fully autonomous. The reason that this burdensome quality is not a problem in love relationships is because it is supposed to cut both ways. My husband deals with the spiders I am scared of and I cook for him because he burns toast. We both "win". But we are each other's burdens in the process. Thinking that loving someone is not going to be a pain in the neck some of the time is naive and leads to feeling frustrated and disappointed. So be prepared for the burden aspect and don't forget you are a burden too!
4. In love relationships no one comes pre-trained. He does not know that she needs to be held when she's feeling angry. She does not know that it drives him crazy when she leaves the house without saying goodbye, even if she is only going to be gone briefly. We don't know what our partner's need and so we have to work hard on finding that out. And we should not expect them to know what we need either. We need to "train" each other in the relationship to take good care of each other.
5. Romantic partners are responsible for each other's past. If I marry someone who was neglected, I am going to need to take extra good care of them to help them feel nurtured and to heal that wound. It's not fair to complain about that, to think "why should I have to pay for his parent's mistakes?". Because honestly, who else is going to do it? That's what you are there for, to heal what was hurt when your partner was small and vulnerable. And they are there to do the same for you.
6. What we don't know we confabulate. Human's are actually pretty terrible at communicating. We also want to feel that we know what the heck is going on, so we fill in any blanks without even realizing it. Sometimes the blank we fill in is in the direction of "I know what that look means" (which you may not!) and sometimes it is in the direction of trying to explain why you did something (when in reality most of the time we are operating on autopilot during the day). Don't assume you can trust your brain. Be open to being curious about what you may have gotten wrong. Assume that your partner is also filling in a lot of blanks and don't take it personally if s/eh comes to the wrong conclusion.
7. Our brains are built more for war than love. Mother nature cares more about survival than courtship. If you are dead you simply cannot reproduce. So as much as courtship and mating is important to the survival of the species, not dying is even more important. So our brains literally have more circuitry designed to keep us alive than to help us communicate, bond, negotiate, take another person's perspective or even understand people. So biology is stacked against us. That's why you have to put EFFORT into keeping you brains from going to war with each other. The fact that it requires effort does not mean you have picked the wrong person, or that you are not cut out for relationships, or that this relationship has run its course. It only means that you are dealing with brains that are predisposed to see threat and respond defensively.
8. All people are annoying. This includes you. I know, I know, you honestly believe that other people are MORE annoying than you. But that's subjective. Realistically we are all annoying and probably about the same amount. So stop thinking that you are easy to get along with, or "low maintenance", or that your partner is more annoying than most people. Our neurobiology has set us up to only see the world from our perspective, colored with our own unique history, and reacted to through our own unique nervous system. What are the odds that with everyone being fundamentally different things are always going to go smoothly? Get over it and cut people, especially your partner, some slack. And spend some time making a list of the way that YOU are probably annoying to other people, too. Especially your sweetie. Because I promise you, you are.
9. Most of the time we don't really know what we are doing or why. Again this goes back to brain science. Our brains automate as much as they can to free up processing power for other stuff. If you had to really fully be aware of moving your legs and maintaining your balance whie walking while you also were aware of taking in visual stimuli to make sure you did not get hit by a car while crossing the street while at the same time thinking about decoding the words coming through your cell phone so that you can respond to the person on the other end you would never get anything done. We automate walking, driving, brief responses ("How are you? Fine, how are you?"), navigating getting places, scratching our ear when it itches, etc. We also start to automate our partners, assuming we know what that expression means or how they will respond to a certain request. Of course sometimes we are right but sometimes we can also be WRONG. And then we may be asked to explain ourselves, and we can't. Because we weren't even aware of what we were doing. So don't assume that your partner knows why they are doing what they are doing. They may be on autopilot. You may be as well. Don't get so invested in theories about WHY people do what they do. Be willing to accept that they may not know and if you press them they may just make stuff up.
10. The need to be re-parented never ends. Parenting involved a lot of things. Help when you are hurting. Kind words when you are down. Advice when you have to make a big decision. Cheerleading when you are anxious about doing something new or hard. And on and on. We don't stop needing these things when we get to be 18. We all need parenting all of our lives. Marriage is great in this regard because once again we get to live with someone who can do all of this for us. They are available much of the time. They know us deeply. They can do for us what our friends or colleagues really can't. So I find it curious when people act as though they "should" not have to do this! Being parented is such a wonderful thing (if done properly), why would you want to do without it? Or force your partner to do without it? When my partner rotates my tires he is parenting me. When I make him breakfast I am parenting him. We can benefit from continuing to do what good, loving parents should do, even if (and especially!) we never got that in our own childhoods. Don't miss out on this opportunity to give something wonderful to your person and to receive it in kind.
I hope that when you read this list you see the theme. That love heals. That it's also hard and takes effort. And that it may not come naturally to all of us but that does not mean that we can't learn it. And it is worth it. Love can revolutionize your life. Physically. Emotionally. Spiritually. So suit up and roll up your sleeves and get to work on it. I can promise it won't be easy but I can also promise that if done well it makes all the work worthwhile!
Wishing you the best in your relationships,
Krista Jordan, Ph.D.
Dr. Jordan has been in private practice for 20 years in Texas. She is passionate about helping people to overcome hurts and obstacles from their past to find more happiness and health in their current lives.