Sign up for Meridian’s Free Newsletter, please CLICK HERE
Editor’s note: This is the fourth article in a series of 9 on the Myths of Marriage. They are drawn partially from the Eyres’ forthcoming book by the same name and are intended as a preview of the book for our readers. The Myths are eight erroneous beliefs that are discouraging and undermining marriages throughout the world and particularly within the Church. Today’s article is on the fourth myth. The four previous articles in this series can be read at these links: Intro, Myth 1, Myth 2, Myth 3.
MYTH: I can find (or create) a perfect match for myself and then I will be happy.
TRUTH: Some married couples are better matched than others, and there are even those who believe they have found their soul mate. But most marriages are about accommodation and adjustment—and more about changing our own minds than about fixing our spouse’s.
- SUB-MYTH: I can fix my spouse.
TRUTH: You can’t. And you might not like the result if you did. Better to work harder at changing yourself than at changing your partner.
- SUB-MYTH: Your job is to love yourself; and you are responsible for your own happiness, not anyone else’s.
TRUTH: It is important to accept and love yourself, but caring more about another whom you love more than yourself is the surest way to receive joy as well as to give it.
- SUB-MYTH: If you settle (or have settled) for someone who seems less than perfect, you will never be really happy.
TRUTH: Marriage is not a game of perfect. It’s about adjusting and improving and getting happier by supporting each other.
- SUB-MYTH: Your marriage is going to turn out to be pretty much like your parents’ marriage.
TRUTH: Many who have bad memories of their parents’ marriage are motivated by those memories to fashion a very different kind of marriage for themselves.
Linda: On that fateful snowy night fifty Februarys ago when Richard totally surprised me with a diamond engagement ring at the top of the Old Main Tower, the central historic old building at Utah State University, I was stunned! I had worries about our relationship. I felt that there were things he needed to change about himself. He was so strong-willed, “out of the box,” and flamboyant, and I was a quiet (but driven) rule-keeper. He had even broken the rules to get us to the top of that tower, which had been condemned. He had worked his magic and found a “cohort in crime”—a night watchman who provided a key and a warning that we needed “to be quick up there.”
My whole life passed before me as I watched the snowflakes fall and considered whether or not I could live with this guy forever. After a long wait, a peace came over me and I decided that my deep love for him trumped all of his faults. Not only that, I was really convinced that I could fix him! So I said yes! And though the poor security guard who had provided our secret rendezvous was wringing his hands at the bottom of the stairs for almost an hour as we soaked in the joy of the moment, I gradually realized that it was the best decision of my life!
The years that followed were full of so much fun and joyful happiness, but they were also mixed with dark days and long discussions about things I was not happy about or things that Richard needed to change. It took many years for me to discover that Richard was good at modifying things about himself that he could see troubled me. I began to realize that he was who he was and that I too had some things that I needed to change but probably never would. I learned to relish his uniqueness and support him in his wild adventures. I think I became more adventurous and surprised him with some of my own changes to try to be more like him in the ways that I admired. Slowly and steadily, both of us began making little changes that edged us a little further down the long, impossible road to perfection!
We know a young man who really struggled to find a perfect soul mate. Going through relationship after relationship, he always found something that made his current person of interest not quite right. During one relationship, he decided that it really bothered him when his girlfriend kind of dragged her feet when she walked. He is now in his forties and not yet married (and probably wishing that he had let that and some other little imperfections go).
There are so many young adults out there looking for soul mates and perfection. With the perspective of shared values and with real love and genuine appreciation for the uniqueness of our partners, we may find that the things we thought needed to be fixed may in fact be just the things that we need most or that make our spouse endearing. Sometimes the very things that bother us most about a partner are just another version of the things that we liked most about them when we were falling in love.
On the other hand, making changes within ourselves is one the hardest things we attempt in life. Working to change things that are obvious obstacles to a happy relationship may be the most important work you will ever do.
THE HARDEST LESSON OF MARRIAGE
It is natural, in a marriage relationship, to think about what you need from your spouse, about what you expected and wanted from your spouse when you married, and to worry about how much of your expectations have come to pass. It’s human to be highly conscious of how many of your needs are being met. And with these thoughts come all kinds of feelings about the ways you wish that your spouse would change.
- Why can’t he see what I need?
- Why can’t she be more like me (or like my mom)?
- Why doesn’t he try harder to make me happy?
- Why doesn’t she like more of the things I like or at least support me on things I like that she doesn’t?
- Why isn’t he the soul mate I thought he would be?
Many of us go into marriage thinking we are going to be able to change our spouse into the person we want him or her to be—into the person who will fulfill our needs and give us all the things we want.
When it doesn’t happen quite like that, we feel disappointed and even resentful. Some of us do this silently and let the things he does or the things she doesn’t do build up inside of us, gradually deepening our resentment and pulling us further and further apart. Others get aggressive in telling their spouse the ways he is letting them down or the things she ought to be doing for them. The suffering in silence can turn us into a moping sad sack; the criticizing and complaining can turn us into a nag.
A hard lesson of marriage is that our partners gradually start living up to whatever reputation we give them. If they are thought of as inconsiderate, they become more so. If we label them as sloppy, they start to fit that image. If we put them in an “impulsive” box, they start to fit in that box. The more they feel that they can’t live up to our expectations, the less they try and the more they feel like failures. The more we tell them they are not meeting our needs, the less confident they feel and the more likely they are to keep disappointing us. When we tell our spouse that he or she is not meeting our needs, it becomes proof of failure and he or she will either push back and fight or withdraw and give up.
Richard: At one particularly stressful and busy stage of our marriage—I was traveling with business almost constantly and Linda was trying to keep up with her music and string quartet while she managed and taxied five kids all over town—we slipped into an unusually critical-of-each-other period. Without getting into the painful details, let me just say that she pointed out at every opportunity—and there were a lot of them—that I was controlling, manipulative, and couldn’t meet her needs. I retaliated with how judgmental and self-righteous and unsupportive she sounded. Those labels started to stick, and, more frighteningly, they started to fit. It was a period when, no matter what else went well, everything felt like failure and frustration because we felt so deeply our dissatisfaction with each other. The hidden blessing in it was that we began to realize how much we needed each other’s approval, how much power we had over the other’s sense of well-being, and how overwhelmingly important we were to one another.
Constant dissatisfaction and criticism, when expressed or even when held in, can emasculate a man and emotionally abuse a woman. The fact is that we actually have more influence and power over our spouse’s happiness and well-being than we do over our own, and when we are negative and down on each other we can both spiral down in very dark and difficult ways.
But there is another way!
How about instead of thinking so much about what he isn’t doing for you, you start focusing on what you can do for him? How about instead of trying to make her into what you thought you wanted her to be, you start focusing on helping her become the best of what she really is?
There is a wonderful truth that, when learned and implemented, can inject a wonderful and simple kind of happiness into our marriages. It goes like this: “Strive to understand and focus on your spouse’s needs, and gradually—magically—your needs will also be met.”
Again, it is so natural to want your spouse to be more like you, to want the same things you want, to like the same things you like, to think the same way you think, and to have the same love language that you do. But in actual fact, as mentioned earlier, few of us would like to be married to a clone of ourselves. It would end up being a little boring and there would be little opportunity for synergy or for learning from each other. Instead, we need to learn to celebrate our differences; love the things about our spouse that are different from us; and support, encourage, and build on the interests, talents, gifts, and strengths that our spouse has.
The simplest but hardest lesson of marriage is this: Your spouse is not you. Your spouse is not your mom or your dad. Your spouse is not the dreamed-up, idealized vision you may have had in your mind. Your spouse is a unique, talented, quirky, potentially wonder- ful person who is better at a whole host of things than you will ever be, and your job is to love that uniqueness, recognize and support those talents, appreciate and love those quirks, and magnify that potential—shifting your focus from yourself to your spouse.
Nothing is harder, but nothing is better!
Just available on Amazon: The 8 Myths of Marriaging. To get your copy, CLICK HERE.