Stronger Marriage

For Better, For Worse

by Lynn Christine Holaday

Part I

In their latest book, the Prathers tell a chilling little story of a man who left his wife after she had had her leg amputated. "She was young, attractive, funny, intelligent, an exceptionally good mother to his two daughters from a previous marriage, and very much in love with him. He said, "All I have been dealing with for a year now is this leg thing. I need a life of my own." While this attitude may represent an extreme... He had his own healing to do.....Just because she had an unfortunate accident doesn't mean that he should sacrifice his life as well."

Well, I'm going to disagree. I don't think that healing is about getting one's needs met, and I don't think marriage is about getting one's needs met either. Instead I think marriage is a place in which we are given the opportunity to learn how to love, the opportunity to see where we most need to heal ourselves, and the opportunity to help another to heal him or herself. Our mates are not intended to be perfect, and we are not supposed to fix them so that they are or leave them if we can't fix them to our liking. In fact, it is in the very imperfections of our mates, and ourselves, that we can find the greatest opportunities for us to grow as people. It is not a lack in our mates but a hole in ourselves that most often needs filling.

This is not a popular stance today. Millions flood therapists' offices to wail that they are not getting their "needs" met, and still more millions carry through (often with the sanction of their therapist) to rid themselves of the inadequate mate. Not that I think venting one's dissatisfactions isn't important, and not that I don't think it's a step on the way to recovery, but the point is that such venting is a step. It's a step on the way to taking personal responsibility for one's lacks and finding ways to personally fill those lacks without taking them out on the unfortunate spouse.

The 'Me" Generation may have left the headlines, but it doesn't appear to be dead yet. We are still more concerned with getting than with giving. We treat our spouses as if they exist only to please us; we assume that, like our other possessions, they have to function perfectly or we will toss them out. We tend to see marriage like we see an automobile purchase: when the car develops problems, the answer is to trade it in. There are few counterparts among the married to the classic car enthusiasts who will tend their vehicles with loving care and keep them running for twenty, thirty, or fifty years. As has been noted before, our throwaway culture extends to people.

I am not advocating being a doormat, nor am I advocating staying in a relationship that is abusive. There is a difference between leaving someone who is grumpy and someone who is violent. There is nothing wrong with getting out of the path of destruction if your mate is physically or emotionally abusive. There is usually no marriage at all to a drug addict or a psychopath. But irritability or messiness or a tendency to spend too much are not abuse, despite the latest writings of the pop psych industry which suggest we should run at the sight of any unpleasant behavior on the part of our partner if we are not to be contaminated (or enabling or codependent). But most of us are not abusive nor demented. Most of us, in fact, try to be the best people we can.

Most marital problems arise out of mistakes and misunderstandings, out of childishness and self-centeredness, and then they get concretized because we polarize around them. None of us is perfect, we all say things we regret, we are all unpleasant from time to time, we all have faults. And that is the point. There is no perfect relationship - not all the time, not everywhere, not through all life situations. Children, bankruptcy, inlaws, job stress, boredom, illness - all of these can test even the most loving unions. Our spouses are not always going to be a shoulder for us to lean on, a devoted ally in times of sadness, a cheerleader, or a source of peace. Sometimes, they will get hysterical, blame us, run away from us (physically or emotionally), hate us, embarrass us, and make our lives more difficult - not necessarily because they are right, but because they too are under stress, they too are in need of a shoulder to lean on, and we are too whacked to do anything for them.

We justify our own faults:

"I was under so much stress at the office - she ought to realize that."

"What did he expect? That I'd be excited about sex after spending all day with a three kids?"

"My own mother was so suffocating, I just can't handle a woman who nags."

"He was working all the time and didn't have time for me, and I needed a real relationship with a man."

We expect our partners to take up the slack for our troubles, to be long-suffering because we are stressed out, to change their behavior so as not to remind us of our mothers, to accept a sexless marriage because we are tired. Instead of changing our lives to reduce our stress, dealing with the leftovers from our relationship with our mothers, or finding a way to cope with children and save time for a husband as well, we blame our spouses for these problems.

Part II

While we have reasons for our imperfections, we see the other person's lapses as inexcusable. "She got hysterical when I told her we'd have to move. She's so incredibly immature."

"He was rude to my mother. He knows she's old and lonely and that's why she talks so much."

"She spends a fortune on clothes. She doesn't even think about how hard I work for that money."

"He's always losing his temper over trifles. I'm sick of his shouting."

It is rare that we forgive, rare for us try to understand that our mates, too, are imperfect, rare that we see how they may be driven to behave as they do because of stress, childhood trauma, fear, guilt, or whatever. Instead, most often we righteously assert that we value ourselves too much to put up with, pick one: a slob, a narcissist, a melancholic, a codependent, a bore.

But aren't we justified in blaming our spouses for truly unreasonable behavior? Don't we have a right to demand that they change? Well, maybe. But where does it get us? When we look at our spouses as if they are responsible for making us happy and deficient if they don't , we set the stage for interminable recriminations and erase the opportunity for a real partnership in which two rather imperfect beings can find support and a little space while they struggle with their own faults. By current criteria we are all dysfunctional, wounded children, so no matter whom we pick, we are sure to end up living with one.

Ideally, I think, we should look at why we don't like what the other person is doing. (And no, it's not only because he or she is a jerk.) Are we upset by our spouse's anger because it provokes our load of internal guilt?

Do we dislike another person's silence because we equate it with the unspoken hostility a parent exuded?

Do we find it impossible to tolerate a slob because we are compulsively neat?

Maybe we could use these moments when we want to rail against our spouse to look at how we may have our internal battles to deal with first. And even if we don't have a particular personal failing, we can always develop our capacity for love. It is easy to love the devoted, the kind, the exciting, the intelligent, or the youthful, but how hard it is to love the old, the sick, the depressed, or the traumatized. Maybe we could use these difficult times to expand our range of compassion.

Many spiritual teachings tell us that to love another person is to love God - and they don't except the difficult spouse. For our partner, no matter how imperfect, is, I think, a gift to us. He or she more than anyone can hold up a mirror to us and show us who we are, good and bad. Often we hate our spouses because they do not bring out the best in us, but who else will show us our shadow sides? Perhaps if we looked at our spouses as teachers or mirrors instead of as impediments to a fun life, we might find that our relationships could blossom instead of die. If we could be tolerant of an unkind word, willing to look at ourselves when we feel aggrieved, or try to love another knowing he or she has faults, we would doubtless find him or her much more willing to do the same for us.

Even acts of God can be seen as lessons.

Maybe the man with the wife who had her leg amputated can't stand not being the center of attention, maybe he hasn't ever learned to love something that isn't perfect, maybe he needs to feel he can fix everything and he can't fix this, maybe he feels he can't weather a period when the other person is so needy, maybe he is afraid - afraid that he will not get to have fun, that he will not be able to support her for the rest of his life, that he will lose the ego trip of having a sexy wife, that he will be trapped out of guilt.

Maybe he needs to grow in one or more of these areas.

I may be wrong, of course. This world may not be a school, we may not be here to learn any lessons; but regardless of the reality, if we act as if it is, we will be more likely to grow in love and understanding and be more likely to find our relationships rewarding.

Any marriage can, and usually will, encounter disaster of one sort or another.

If the man in the Prathers' example had tried to deal with the issues his family tragedy presented to him rather than run away from them, he might have been surprised to find that he did get his needs met after all; that, feeling loved instead of abandoned, his wife would have been more easily able to open her eyes to his suffering and see the toll the accident had taken on him, to perhaps suggest that he get away for awhile or reassure him that she didn't intend to be dependent and distraught forever, or to feel safe enough to come out of what surely must have needed to be a time of self-centeredness to love him again.

Part III

We need to create space in our relationships for mistakes, for periods of drought, even for anger.

We need to have patience with each other.

We want to be appreciated for our good qualities (even if they're not always in evidence) and loved despite our failings, but why should we assume it is any easier for our spouse to do this than for us to do it? We praise those who are tolerant and kind and patient, those who can see beneath the surface to the good in others, those who can offer unconditional love, and we hunger for those qualities to manifest themselves in the person we marry. But why do we put so much effort into demanding that our spouses exhibit these traits and so little into cultivating them in ourselves? As so many have said, we need to concentrate on changing ourselves instead of on changing our mates.

I don't claim to sport any personal halo in this regard. I've been married for twenty-six years, and my husband and I have done our share of blaming. He doesn't meet all my needs, and I don't meet all of his either. Sometimes he's met so few of them that I have been tempted to throw in the towel. Sometimes he's contemplated leaving me. We've lived through serious problems and have treated each other badly while we struggled with them.

No, I'm pretty bad at loving, but I'd like to be better. I think I'd be a lot happier. The few times I've been able to get past my infantile fury at not getting my way and tried to explore why I might need to change, I have been gratified by the results. When I do assume that this world is a place for learning how to be a better, more mature, more loving person, and when I am willing to look at my husband as a teaching aid rather than as a repair project, we end up on the same side of the problem of personal growth. We function as coaches for each other. When we insist on seeing the other as the enemy, however, we end up in a perpetual zero sum game.

I think that fundamentally marriage exists to teach us how to love. When we treat our partners as precious gifts and see them as valuable in their own right (not simply as useful appendages to ourselves), we learn to get outside of ourselves and to really see the wonder of another human being. When we look at conflict as an opportunity to grow, we find an alternative to frustration and despair. When we use our marriages as places where we can learn about loving, when we are not afraid to see ourselves in all our glory and all our imperfection, then, I think, we can learn to finally grow up.


C. 1995 Lynn Holaday. Lynn teaches writing, has been married 26 years and has two grown children. She has a background in law and published a children's book, "Harry Harrison Wigglesworth the l6th and the Freedom Strain". You may contact her at: betweenus@marriagetools.com.

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