Destroying Your Marriage 101: How to do Everything Right and Still Get it Wrong

My husband and I went out to dinner recently, and as we were deciding where to go, it became clear that he had dined at nearly every restaurant in the city at some point in the past 14 years of entertaining clients and co-workers. In spite of my desire to believe that working full time to support a family is demanding and stressful, I started to feel concern that maybe his life really is more fun than mine.

My husband and I spend a lot of time working side by side around the house, rearing kids, going places as a family, but rarely do we sit across from one another and wait for directionless conversation to guide us. I had my husband’s undivided attention, and my first instinct was to use the time to point out that he has an easier life and that I never get to be alone, not in the car, not  in the bathroom, not when I’m asleep. Even as we spoke, the baby was nursing discretely under a blanket draped over my shoulder. “Each kid we have just stakes me in deeper and deeper…” I was saying as I made a hammering motion over my head. I always bring the party.

Of course, you can’t blame the man for having a job that keeps a roof over our heads and food on our table, and he insisted that it really is all just “work.” But it just felt so cosmically unfair.

There have been some articles going around recently about how to destroy your marriage–the Single Dad Laughing wrote one, and then Kat Fernandez wrote one specifically for women–and maybe it wasn’t stated explicitly in either, but acting like a pathetic dishrag on the one night in months you get to go out together without all the kids struck me as not being a smart move. I didn’t even have “a win” in mind. We were out to have fun, and pity parties–especially those that focus on not having enough fun in one’s life–are not fun.

So I sublimated the feelings of self-pity. I was the change I wanted to see: I was fun! I quit counting up the totals on our bill as I ordered glasses of wine, and the initial coldness I felt as we started our evening melted into something warmer, hand-holding, laughs, and the pleasure of enjoying one another’s company. It was the icing.

But I knew it wasn’t always going to be so lovely. He’d go back to work on Monday, and I’d have to find a way to be happy without so much fun going on. We’d have to keep loving each other when I act like a jerk sometimes, or when he does, and there would still be a house to clean and children to care for, and the occasional vomiting person at our bedside in the middle of the night.

Back when my husband and I were engaged, my mom tried giving us marital advice. “There’s a difference,” she said, “Between being in a relationship, and being in relationship. Your father and I are in relationship.” She said this while leaning luxuriously into my father as they sat on the couch, both of them greying at the temples, and slightly more wrinkled than they were five years ago. Forever since, being “in relationship” has sounded to me like a smarmy, lubricious mess.

Nevertheless, I think she was right. You can, after all, be two people living in the same house doing everything right, never annoying one another or saying unkind things, and still be at a relational disconnect.

This is one of the reasons those lists about how to destroy your marriage sort of rub me the wrong way. They may be useful to an extant. It’s good to think occasionally about how annoying you really are and to consider the possibilities of snapping out of it. But they don’t exactly build relationship.

The Single Dad Laughing took his list further by noting some positive things he might have done in addition to the negative things he should not have done– for instance, rather than never holding her hand, he would have held it all the time (though I have a feeling so much hand holding would eventually get old for his significant other as well).

But being in relationship, is the fruit of years of mutual effort on the part of two people. It involves the choices, temperaments, material circumstances, moods and mental health of disparate parts and the moulding of two into one. Sometimes one person has to be strong while the other is weak for the union of the two to survive.

It’s challenging stuff, and a list of behavioral do’s and dont’s only goes so far. After that, it takes a solid and binding commitment to take the good and the bad, the misfires and malfunctions, the disease, the hurts, as well as the pleasures and delights, and keep bringing them back to the altar, again and again for blessing and purification.

There’s a point in every marriage where good behavior isn’t quite enough. The relationship needs grace.

There was an older couple sitting behind us at Mass last week, talking all the way through it. My husband and I exchanged irritated glances–didn’t they realize they were being disruptive?

When they went up for communion, the woman received the host and said, “Thank you!” and then she went to the cup. “OOooh! Another one!” she said, like a child chasing samples in a grocery store. After receiving the wine, she stood there looking lost until her husband had received, and then he took her arm, patting it and smiling apologetically to people around them as they walked back to their seats. I realized then–she has Alzheimer’s. He’s taking care of her.

She wasn’t following all the rules for not destroying her marriage. She wasn’t trying to be attractive or cooking good meals or building her husband up in public. And she was definitely having more fun than he was, even if she didn’t realize it.

I think one way to avoid destroying your marriage is to think of marriage as indestructible. It’s a mystery, something bigger even than the two people involved.

I know there are sometimes abusive relationships that must end, and/or one spouse who refuses to stay in the marriage, but for the majority of relationships that slowly, mutually fizzle out of love, seeing it as a no-exit commitment might be the most important thing you can do to save your marriage. There are other good things you can do to make it a more enjoyable lifetime for you both (see the lists). But good behavior does not guarantee you rewards and happiness in marriage, except for the satisfaction of being a decent and mature human being.

Beyond that, you can expect there to be some times in marriage that aren’t much fun.

Take it to the altar. Ask for the the grace to be not just two people in a relationship, but to be in relationship– an image of the Holy Trinity–a permanent and irrevocable binding of two into one.

“Go On”: Interview with Jack Baumgartner, Part III
Litany of Days
“Hunger”: Interview with Jack Baumgartner, Part IV
My New Favorite Folk Album: Interview with Jack Baumgartner, Part I
About Elizabeth Duffy
  • Sherry

    I love this! Thank you for writing it.

  • TheodoreSeeber

    On that last bit- best little thing that affected my marriage- the priest that married us told me that Christ was in our relationship.

    God is there. God’s with you when every child is conceived. When every fight happens. In sickness and in health, God’s still there. And He will give you the strength to get through it, together.

    • emac604

      I think that’s one aspect that people tend to forget shortly after the wedding ceremony. Perfect example is all these 2-part wedding rings. It’s all about joining the 2 people. My husband & I got trinity rings. There should be 3 persons in a marriage, and remembering it daily makes the good parts sweeter & the tough parts easier.

      • TheodoreSeeber

        Celtic or Cartier?

        Never heard of those before. Mine is a pretty simple band with a cross on it, makes it kind of hard to forget Christ. I asked her if she wanted the big diamond on the wedding ring or on the engagement ring- she said the wedding ring- so I got her a cheap double heart with diamond chips for the engagement. After the wedding she wore both, and they fit together so nicely we got them welded a number a years back.

  • Richard

    This is nicely said:
    “… but for the majority of relationships that slowly, mutually fizzle out of love, seeing it as a no-exit commitment might be the most important thing you can do to save your marriage.”
    I’m beginning to wonder if Christians should start working as hard to overturn no-fault divorce as vigorously as we do abortion. Can we handle such battles in support of the common good?

    • Karen

      Making no-fault divorce illegal would also make it harder and more expensive for people to get at-fault divorces because they’d need to prove that one partner was at-fault. Speaking as a Protestant, I’ll argue that it would be wiser for churches to offer free (and comprehensive) premarital counseling to all couples, or for them to require it of any couples that get married in their church.

  • Nancy

    What a reminder that older couple was — about sacrificial love, about being charitable because we don’t know another’s circumstance, about long-suffering. And I think so many of us haven’t seen many examples of relationship-building . . . I know I was flying blind in my first 5 or so years of marriage. Glad we’re a little older and wiser in this, our 16th year.

  • Sarah H

    Thank you for writing this! Sincerely thanks. It really helped me sort out some things that have been roaming around my head of late.

    I linked to this post on my blog.

  • Jessica

    What does being “in relationship” mean exactly? What does that look like? What would it look like in a mixed-faith relationship where one partner was not a believer? How does this tangibly differ from being “in a relationship”?

  • TheReluctantWidow

    Elizabeth, I really like the distinction your mother (and you) make between being “in a relationship” and being “in relationship.” There was a brief period of time in my marriage where my husband and I were in a relationship, but our relationship was one that was more like being roommates than husband/wife/lovers. It was an incredibly stressful time in our marriage, not because of the external circumstances that were pressing in on us, but because we weren’t in relationship. We were two individuals instead of one union. And though we went to Mass, my husband almost daily, God wasn’t in relationship with us either. It was absolutely horrible. I am so thankful that the year before he died, the 11th year of our marriage, was probably the second best year of our marriage (our first year was pretty darn awesome). I think if I could have gone back to that terrible year and said to myself, “think about life without this man? Is this what you want?” I never really thought he wouldn’t be here with me until he wasn’t. While I don’t have a lot of regrets in my marriage, I’d like to have a “do-over” on those six months.

  • Hiding Out from Love and Life

    Pretty scary. It sounds kind of intimate, or intertwined, to be “in relationship.” I get that it’s the goal, and we look to the Trinity for a model, but my “self,” my emotions? RUN!!! RUN AND HIDE!!! So I do some of the “good wife” actions; not many. My husband does almost all of the “good husband” actions, and we both know he is the one carrying this home and family, and not just financially. I have fear and shame about my decades-long marriage and the way I avoid truly loving him in it.

    This morning at Mass we sang, “Will you care for cruel and kind, if I but call your name?” and it struck me that even when he is mean and scary, I am still called to love him. The song says to “care for cruel and kind,” and that’s about *everyone,* not to mention one’s husband! This guy really loves me. He is handsome, faithful, totally dedicated to the kids and me, doesn’t drink or gamble or run around. He does have a bit of a temper. If I died, he would be SWARMED by women wanting to marry him. I read what Reluctant Widow said above, , and it makes me think about my own marriage, as it is now.

    Most Sacred Heart of Jesus, have mercy on us.
    Jesus, I trust in you.