“It was absolutely the greatest day of my life. We were on top of the world! So thrilled to be married at last, with so much love in our hearts, so much excitement for the years to come! Surely, love would conquer all!”
Summer is here and I am busy officiating weddings, happy to be doing work that I truly love. I remember feeling, at my wedding in 2001, as if I dropped into an expanded, buoyant state of grace. It lasted for about six months after the wedding. There had been an overwhelming outpouring of love and support for us at the wedding and it really did help us launch into our married life. We had lots to do and it was a blessing to feel the wedding’s afterglow as we set about merging bank accounts and making the decisions that would set our married life in motion. Temporarily gone were any doubts or worries. There was a spring in my step and a pervasive sense of optimism. I had found my wife. We were married!
A wedding is an amazing experience. It’s the biggest party we have ever thrown, the most planned, most anticipated, most expensive day of our lives. And it’s an amazing completion of a profound longing that goes back to childhood. What started for us as a child – the hope and dream of finding a mate and coming together to start a shared life and family – all that has now reached fruition. It is a big day. Leading up to our engagement, most of us have gone through times when we wondered when or even if we would ever find the right person. And now we have. It is a cause for celebration. Our friends and family join us, adding their joy to ours. Love pours in from every direction. Our parents lavish us with gifts and affection. Friends fly in from all over to add their love and best wishes to those of our family. Prayers are said for our success and happiness. Whatever doubts we may have had during our engagement are long forgotten as we soak up the ecstasy of the moment, sure that all our dreams are about to come true.
As the beautiful honeymoon period began to fade, I realized that it was one thing to get married, quite another to thrive in a marriage. I realized that I really didn’t know how to be a husband, how to be a partner in life. Every challenge was a new mystery for me. Did we want to merge bank accounts? How do people do that? And how should we split up chores and responsibilities in this post-modern world? And what about the issues we fought over? What about the big questions we faced – like if and when to start a family! There were things that I’d never considered before. I needed more information. And there were times when I felt in over my head.
The truth is that most of us enter marriage with a few unreasonable expectations and less than all the skills needed to have a harmonious, thriving relationship. Our society does not prepare us for marriage. Romance is sold to us, via books, marketing, and movies, as the answer to all our longings. But no one has taught us how to be a good partner. So we struggle to find our way as we get started.
All of us did learn relationship skills from our parents. If we’re lucky, what they modeled for us will serve us well. More often than not, what our parents taught us was a mixed bag – some good habits and practices, and some we’d rather not perpetuate. In many cases, their ways were great for them but not as appropriate for us. So we are left to find our own way. Couples facing challenges often call on their networks of friends and siblings, seeking advice, asking for counsel. Sometimes, this is all that’s needed to unlock new possibilities. One “my spouse used to do that and here’s how we worked through it” conversation can keep a bad habit from getting entrenched.
There are always challenges in marriage. In a strong, thriving marriage the couple is able to successfully navigate them, resolving them as they come up. There may be fights, there may be tension at times, but the couple has enough skill, enough tools in the toolkit, to work through things. Being connected to a network of couples who are also in thriving marriages helps too. We all need friends with whom to share our challenges (and celebrate in good times), and more connected couples have an advantage in this regard. When the challenges come too fast or are in areas where we don’t have the strongest skills – then the relationship can suffer.
A thriving relationship is flexible, flowing, and growing. There are challenges and tough days, but there are also days when you are so in tune with each other that the old post-wedding afterglow comes back, anew! There are moments of disappointment with each other, but also moments when you are happily surprised, even inspired by each other. There may be moments when worries surface, but these are balanced by a deepening sense of ease and enjoyment. There is a growing, balanced awareness of your strengths and challenges as a couple, along with a growing confidence that you can meet whatever new challenges may come.
For a more challenged relationship, the balance between ease and difficulty is tipping towards the difficult. The flexibility of a thriving marriage can slowly start to rigidify. Resentments and fears can begin to grow. There may be a sense that “we are in over our heads” or a lack of confidence that issues can be resolved. New challenges pile up on top of older challenges and the situation becomes increasingly pressurized. We may stop expecting the best from our spouse and wonder what we have to look forward to! We can start “settling” for less than we really want. If there are good friends who’ve figured out these same problems, then turning to them can be a lifesaver, but sometimes our friends are facing the same issues! What then? When neither partner has the skills and resources to forge a path forward, the future can look bleak. Sometimes, it is at about the one year anniversary that these couples realize they need help.
It is in these moments of difficulty that couples seek support from a counselor. Though most of the couples I work with come for pre-marriage counseling, I also see married couples. I know the kinds of challenges they can face. Sometimes they are the same challenges I’ve worked through in my own marriage. Whatever they are, the good news is that there is help available and that you are not alone if you are finding it hard going. Taking time to strengthen your skills in the basics: communications, conflict resolution, finances, and intimacy – will allow you to work through the challenges and get back on the road to the thriving, intimate relationship you long for. It requires time, effort and willingness to face issues, but with support you can make great progress.
If you’re facing challenges that threaten the stability and health of your relationship, it’s best to seek support from a professional who has experience helping couples with these issues. The Prepare/Enrich relationship assessment tool, followed by a series of in-person counseling sessions is a good choice. Prepare/Enrich is a great tool for developing the skills and awareness you need to thrive. Whatever you do, the most important thing is to not settle for less than you long for in your relationship. There are many resources available and with time and effort you can work through the challenges and rediscover the love that brought you together. If you’d like to work with me, I offer an initial consultation to help you find the best solution. It’s an investment in your marriage that will reward you for years to come.
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