As you date and contemplate marriage or remarriage in your middle years, it is helpful to ask yourself searching questions about what makes marriages work and why they fail. It is important to be intentional in how you go about selecting a partner and, even more important, to be intentional about the way you show up in relationships.
I am a devoted listener of my friend, Dr. Jennifer Finlayson-Fife. I think anyone interested in a better marital relationship or personal development could benefit from her perspective. The issues she discusses are highly sensitive and, therefore, highly impactful. She often discusses the dynamic between a low desire partner and a high desire partner as they create a sexual relationship together. I think she does a good job of balancing this dynamic to avoid having one party feel validated while the other feels blamed.
Jennifer’s perspective often focuses on where people are getting stuck and colluding to kill desire in their partners. Much of this is not straightforward. For example, she has often talked about how sometimes getting married kills sexual desire because sex is no longer forbidden and there is little danger of rejection. So, just when you have permission to engage, you don’t care anymore. (By the way, that is a singularly unsatisfying conclusion if you can’t find a way to get beyond it.) I could list numerous other examples. But you get the idea. Some married couples have spent years without intimacy in their marriages. The average American couple only spends 35 minutes per week in conversation.
As I ponder these dynamics, I sometimes wonder if it ever occurs to people that, “this is the only marriage I’ve got.” When you become resentful of your partner, for whatever reason, where does that emotion take you? If you decide to get angry and be emotionally or otherwise withholding to teach your spouse a lesson, who is substituting for your spouse while that lesson is being administered? If you choose to shut down the sexual relationship for months or even years, what happens to the marriage—the only marriage you have? Would you be content to be married to someone who is constantly disappointed? If you are the spouse, are you content to be constantly disappointed that your marriage is not closer and more physically or emotionally intimate?
I recently learned of another long-term marriage ending at about 30 years. It is not the first and certainly won’t be the last. I have heard of dozens of people who are married 30 or 40 years to the same person and then get divorced. I don’t want to cast aspersions. I have been divorced following a long-term temple marriage too. But the recurring thought I keep having is, “why did it take 30 or 40 years to discover it wasn’t going to work?”
Our friend, Dr. Greg Baer says that, in any relationship, you have only three choices: 1. Live with it and love it; 2. Live with it and hate it; or 3. Leave. He does not include an option to work on changing your partner—because that is not loving and very rarely works in the long term. Those three choices are really all you have. I suggest considering them thoughtfully before making a commitment to marry.
Unfortunately, most people pick number 2, “Live with it and hate it.” That is, by far, the worst option. It is the “grin and bear it” approach. It makes you an unhappy martyr and an insufferable companion. It lacks either the competence to love or the courage to leave. In my case, it was both. Years later, I realize that I was not unconditionally loving to my first wife. I had expectations of what I should be getting out of marriage and the reality was far different–so I was dissatisfied and unhappy.
I wasn’t a “bad husband” to my first wife. I did my best to be kind and supportive of her (perhaps to a fault) and earn a decent living for my family. But when there is an undercurrent of dissatisfaction or even resentment, your spouse is going to figure it out. Resentment is not something we hide very well. Even if we hide it, we end up emotionally distancing out of a desire to protect ourselves from getting hurt and create pain and problems in our marriages.
So, how do mid-singles approach dating and creating new marriages that have a good chance to beat the odds? With intention. You will either govern your marriage with emotion or intention. If you govern it with emotion, you are going to have a hot mess. Emotion is the fuel of the relationship—not the steering wheel. Can you decide, in advance, to kneel and pray together when you are both upset and neither of you feels like praying? Can you decide, in advance of ever getting married, to take a time out when you are angry and flooded, and every cell in your body wants to lash out in anger and keep fighting? Can you decide to be intentional about using your sexuality to bring goodness to your partner–whatever that means in your own situation? Or will you just allow yourself to lope along in dissatisfaction, doing nothing about it except hoping your partner will change?
I hear a lot of mid-singles talk about how they are determined to marry someone they have more in common with the second time around. I hate to break it to you, but having things in common is not the answer. There is enough stuff in every marriage on the planet to create serious divisions, no matter how much you believe you have in common. Conversely, there is enough commonality in every marriage to build something beautiful. What your future marriage will look like depends less on your emotions and a lot more on your decisions. How will you decide to show up? How will you decide to bring goodness to your relationship?
In my first marriage, there were certain intolerable conditions that I accepted year after year because I loved my wife and hoped she would change. But hoping she will change is not really loving her is it? It is loving the person I hoped to remake her into—not the person she is. So, I wasn’t being as loving as I thought. I was making myself into a hero-martyr as I selflessly “put up with her.” By default, I was picking option number two, “live with it and hate it.” She was doing the same thing. However, at the time, she was the only spouse I had. How did I spend all of those years telling myself to “stick it out” and just accepting a relationship that was hurting both of us? I didn’t exactly accept it. I kicked and screamed and threw a (figurative) 15-year tantrum over it.
I am suggesting that you make a bold choice to live with it and love it. I would make leaving a last resort remedy. But I would take “live with it and hate it” completely off the table. Refuse to live in that space.
When you are married, you only have one spouse. It isn’t a situation where you can snub a spouse and then go take refuge in the arms of another one. This is your only spouse. So do your best to love him or her unconditionally and honor his or her agency; and do your half of the relationship with integrity and love. Often, it is within your power to change the dynamic of your relationship by just challenging your own thinking and changing your conduct. Maturing in your own perspective will do more than all the pressure you try to put on your partner to change – which is counter-productive.
To those who are single, pick a partner who is self-reflective and capable of being intentional. Then strive to become that kind of person yourself. This is something you can work on together with dating partners – particularly those you become serious with. Take enough time to really know the person and see him or her in a variety of situations. Spend a lot of time in each other’s homes living life together, rather than only putting on your best behavior for formal dates. Practice being intentional about communication and emotional intimacy. Don’t simply let arguments and the resulting resentments linger and fester for weeks, months, and years. Make agreements about handling conflict and hold those agreements sacred. And remember, you only get one spouse. Never objectify him or her or treat him or her as something disposable.
I conclude with this admonition from Elder F. Burton Howard:
“If you want something to last forever, you treat it differently. You shield it and protect it. You never abuse it. You don’t expose it to the elements. You don’t make it common or ordinary. If it ever becomes tarnished, you lovingly polish it until it gleams like new. It becomes special because you have made it so, and it grows more beautiful and precious as time goes by.”
Don’t ever allow yourself to be content or comfortable sitting in chronic resentment of your spouse. When you do that, you are wasting your life and your spouse’s. When you get married, you will only have one spouse. Your hopes and dreams for a happy marriage live or die with this one person. So, why would you ever be content to just live in dissatisfied resentment most of the time? It is very much a choice.
Because I have loved and lost, I treasure my marriage for the unique opportunity it is to make a beautiful life with someone who chose me. Whatever her other flaws or quirks or selfish moments (and we all have them), living in gratitude rather than dissatisfaction can make all the difference. Thinking of your relationship as something truly unique and special can make all the difference.
About the Author
Jeff Teichert and his wife Cathy Butler Teichert are the founders of “Love in Later Years,” which ministers to Latter-day Saint mid-singles seeking peace, healing, and more joyful relationships; and the authors of the Amazon bestseller Intentional Courtship: A Mid-Singles Guide to Peace, Progress and Pairing Up in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Jeff and Cathy each spent nearly a decade in the mid-singles community and draw on this experience to provide counsel and hope to mid-singles and later married couples. Jeff and Cathy are both certified life coaches and have university degrees in Family Science. They are the parents of a blended family that includes four handsome sons and one lovely daughter-in-law.
Purchase Jeff & Cathy’s book at: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B09KMXXJN7?ref_=pe_3052080_276849420
You can connect with Jeff & Cathy at:
Email: [email protected]