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.
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.