S. Courtney Nathan, LCSW, is a clinical social worker and co-author of the book, When a Parent Is Seriously Ill, Practical Tips for Helping Parents and Children. Formerly coordinator of the Outreach to Intermarrieds program at Jewish Family Service, she is currently taking time off to raise her children.
If You Love Each Other Enough ... Marriage Is Still Not Easy!
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Anyone who has been married knows the real truth that marriage is hard work and, while it might get easier over time, marriage always takes effort. This is the number one thing I tell newly engaged couples in the marriage preparation class sponsored by Jewish Family Service, "I Do!"
Sure, engagement is exciting and happy and planning a wedding can be fun, even thrilling at times. But the real nitty-gritty that happens once you've said your "I do's" is what people rarely talk or think about beforehand.
The word "newlywed" conjures up images of smiling, happy couples in love, holding hands, dancing and kissing. But a couple that is newly wed is not very different from anything else that's new. A new car, for example, may look shiny on the outside and smell clean and fresh. Yet, the seat isn't quite comfortable until you've sat in it for awhile, and all of those fancy gadgets can be confusing until you learn exactly what every one does and how to use it. Same thing with a new pair of shoes. They look perfect and they go with everything in your closet, but for the first few weeks, they hurt your feet. It isn't until you wear them and they stretch a little, mold to the shape of your foot and get broken in that you realize how much you adore them and can't believe you ever lived without them. Marriage isn't any different.
Rabbi Harold Schulweis has this to say about marriage in the book, Fighting for Your Jewish Marriage:
"Love in marriage is a gift, a potentiality to be cultivated. Marital love is a subtle art that calls for sustained and sensitive appreciation ...The art of loving relies on a conscious sensibility, an awareness of the other who is not a mere extension of the self. The other is not an ear into which the 'I' can shout its wants and angers."
Marriage is about two people actively working together. It is complicated and it doesn't always feel good.
There is a great deal of pressure on newly engaged and recently married couples to be happy, even blissful. Yet, planning a wedding can be extremely stressful. Strong emotions surface, and family dynamics play out in often ugly and complicated ways. Religious feelings often become more pronounced, potentially creating difficulty for both interfaith and endogamous couples.
And that's just the beginning. Everyday married life raises all kinds of challenges as well. Suddenly you are both truly accountable to another person and must share in decision making wholeheartedly. As Einhorn and Zimmerman write in their book, In the Beginning: How to Survive Your Engagement and Build a Great Marriage (2001), "The responsibilities of giving each other emotional support, spending time together, coordinating finances, and taking care of personal health all require each partner to curtail many of his or her formerly solitary activities."
What does this mean for newly engaged and recently married couples? It means you should be aware that this is a critical time that is full of promise but also emotionally loaded. Tread carefully through this time. Talk with your partner about your feelings, fears, expectations and needs. And don't feel crazy or bad if you're not always feeling happy. Nobody feels happy all the time, and pretending like you do or pressuring yourself to feel that way only compounds normal problems and tension.
In their provocative book, Einhorn and Zimmerman suggest that at some point during engagement or early marriage every person asks him- or herself, "What did I get myself into?" The authors assure the reader that this is a normal example of marital anxiety that should be explored to determine its true source. They offer couples several questions to help evaluate the strength and health of their marriage. *Do we have similar values? *Do we respect each other? * Does each of us admire qualities in our partner? * Are we attracted to each other? * Do we feel affection for each other? * Do my trusted friends and relatives like the person I've chosen?
These are good questions to ask yourself and your partner to help identify the strengths and potential pitfalls in your relationship. But remember, feelings change regularly and a marital foundation is built over time and maintained through diligent effort.
Reknowned psychologist Judith Wallerstein, Ph.D., studied divorce for twenty-five years before she decided to focus on what factors helped happy marriages stay happy. Her research resulted in the book The Good Marriage (with Sandra Blakeslee, 1995), where she profiles four types of happy marriages: Romantic, Rescue, Companionate and Traditional. She says, "Of all human relationships, marriage is the most complex, the one you can tell the least about from the outside. In The Good Marriage, Wallerstein suggests nine tasks that form the basis of a good, lasting relationship:
*Separate emotionally from their childhood family and redefine that relationship.
*Create intimacy while each person also retains autonomy.
*Take on the role of parents while still protecting the marriage's intimacy.
*Confront the crises of life and stay close no matter how difficult.
*Feel safe expressing anger, conflict and differences of opinion.
*Create a rich sexual relationship and maintain it despite hectic lifestyles.
*Use humor to keep things in perspective and have fun.
*Comfort, support and encourage each other.
*Sustain early romantic images of falling in love with the other.
With all the media mythology about romance, soul mates, wedded bliss and the many other fallacies of marriage, how could we not get caught up in search for marital perfection? But just as the frightening movie Fatal Attraction isn't the norm, neither is soap opera passion (at least in the long term). Marriage is about finding someone you like, trust, respect and value enough to want to spend the rest of your life with, create a home and a family with and sacrifice for. That's a lot to ask for and should not be taken lightly. And despite all the work and the stress and the pressure, the payoff is tremendous. Knowing that you have found someone to love and trust and that you have made a commitment to stay together through thick and thin, to share life's challenges and triumphs together and that you are both willing to work to maintain a relationship for the rest of your lives ... that's pretty special.
That's what dreams are made of.
Books Mentioned in Article
Fighting for Your Jewish Marriage: Preserving a Lasting Promise, by Joel Crohn, Howard J. Markman, Susan L. Blumberg and Janice R. Levine; Jossey-Bass Inc., 2000.
In the Beginning: How to Survive Your Engagement and Build a Great Marriage, by Rosie Einhorn and Sherry S. Zimmerman Targum Press, Inc., 2001.
The Good Marriage: How and Why Love Lasts, by Judith S. Wallerstein and Sandra Blakeslee, Warner Books, 1995.