My daughter was married last month, which, in sitting down to write this blog, made me think: what advice could I offer her (and her partner) about committing to a long-term relationship and being married? What have I learned from the 40-plus years that I’ve been married? What have I learned from studying psychology and relationships, as well as from other people’s experiences of marriage? My advice is certainly humble, but I am offering it with the sincerest wishes for her and her partner’s shared happiness over the years to come.
First off, I would point out that we all seem to have unrealistic expectations of marriage. These are fueled by the many idealized images of love that surround us. Everywhere we look there are ads with couples gazing adoringly into each other’s eyes. We’ve been raised on romantic stories and movies with happily-ever-after endings. With all of society’s glamorized images, it’s hard not to assume that this is what love should be like.
In addition, we often look to a romantic relationship to mend hurts and disappointments that are left over from our childhood. We want our partner to love us enough to heal our old wounds or to fill up our leftover emptiness. Often, rather than facing the pain of our unresolved wants and desires and then moving on, we bring them into our new relationship with the hope of resolving them there.
I would counsel that she come to recognize how these expectations might be negatively influencing her experience of marriage. Are they making her feel like she’s falling short or isn’t measuring up in some way? Are they influencing her to take a critical view of her partner? Are they causing her to overlook actual intimate moments and exchanges between her and her partner because they don’t fit a conventional model of what love looks like?
I would encourage her to see her marriage as a partnership that is unique to her and her partner. Ideally, rather being guided by external expectations, she would experience the relationship with her husband as a highly personal enterprise shaped by the distinct qualities and values that they both bring to the union. In this type of endeavor, each person is able to thrive as an individual and grow as a partner.
I would also suggest they both develop some specific skills that can help with personal development and in strengthening a relationship. These include:
Adopting a compassionate attitude toward yourself and toward your partner. According to Dr. Kristin Neff, self-compassion involves “being open to and moved by one’s own suffering, experiencing feelings of caring and kindness toward oneself, taking an understanding, non-judgmental attitude toward one’s inadequacies and failures, and recognizing that one’s experience is part of the common human experience.” Self-compassion allows us to look at ourselves, including our shortcomings, with empathy. It allows us to extend this empathy to our partner and to have compassion for them in their life with their struggles.
Learn more about self-compassion here.
Getting to know your attachment style. Attachment theorists have studied the dynamics in long-term interpersonal relationships, both those formed in early childhood and in adulthood. They have observed the different ways in which children go about establishing emotional and physical attachments to their principal caregivers. They have found that early patterns of attachment continue relatively unaltered into adulthood and largely determine a person’s specific style of interacting in new relationships. Understanding the attachment style that we developed in childhood will help us have compassion for any adaptations that we made then. Recognizing the impact of that style in our life today will enable us to recognize ways it is limiting us in our current relationship.
Learn more about styles of attachment here.
Becoming aware of your critical inner voice and how it impacts your relationship. To varying degrees, we all have an enemy within, a part of ourselves that operates inside our heads in much the same way a malicious coach would, criticizing us and offering up bad advice. The critical inner voice does not support our loving, vulnerable self, but rather our destructive attitudes and behavior. It comments negatively on our lives and condemns our actions; picking us apart and destroying our confidence and self-esteem. It undermines our romantic relationships by criticizing those we love and running us down for loving them.
Learn more about how your critical inner voice may be getting in the way of love here.
Maintaining your individuality and respecting your partner’s.
In addition to being part of a couple, it is important to maintain a strong sense of independence and autonomy and a well-developed point of view. With this ongoing goal, we can continue to both cultivate and strengthen our unique traits as well as to pursue the activities that reflect our interests and ideals. This is only possible if we also respect our partner’s individuality. This means encouraging their unique interests and personal goals, independent of our own. Being sensitive to their wants, desires, and feelings, and placing as much value on them as we do on our own. This type of interest in and feeling for our partner is altruistic and goes beyond any selfish or self-serving concerns we may have. When we understand our partner in this deeply empathetic manner, we are aware of what we have in common, but we also recognize and value our differences.
Learn more about preserving your and your partner’s individuality here.
Honing your communication skills.
One major guideline for successful communication is to refrain from seeing a conversation as a battle that needs to be won. It is necessary to give up the need to be right. We don’t have anything to prove. Working things out between members of a couple can be messy, and both people are bound to have reactions. We may feel angry and frustrated, or something our partner says may provoke us. But through it all, it’s important to respect the fact that our partner may have something to say that is worth listening to and thinking about.
Learn more about communication skills here.
One of the biggest challenges is learning how to deal with anger so that it will not have a destructive impact on our relationship. This applies to expressing our own anger as well as hearing and responding to our partner’s anger. Anger is a natural part of everyday life, no matter how emotionally mature or psychologically developed a person may be. There are two fundamental guidelines for dealing with anger: first, angry feelings don’t hurt anyone. No matter how outlandish, they are acceptable and should be allowed free reign in your consciousness. Second, this same freedom does not apply to your actions – even a sarcastic tone can be hurtful to another, so taking power over how you express your anger is paramount.
Learn more about dealing with anger here.
Finally, I would remind my daughter that love is more than a noun, it is also an active verb. That it is important to engage in loving actions. The act of loving is more gratifying for both the lover and the beloved than the more passive state of being in love, which can easily dissolve into an internal fantasy with little personal interaction. A relationship cannot exist in such a vacuum. The act of loving involves various types of tangible behavior, such as offering emotional and physical affection; expressing tenderness and sensitivity to your partner’s needs; sharing activities and interests; maintaining honest exchanges of personal thoughts and feelings; keeping a sense of humor, and any number of other actions that allow a couple to share life more fully and, when possible, to lighten each other’s load.
These are the pieces of advice that I have to offer my daughter to support her in keeping this most intimate of relationships alive and vital ... for as long as they both shall live.