What Makes Marriage Work?
Divorce is in the air. Not mine, thank G-d. However, in the last few weeks I've heard from three good friends of mine, all of whom I assumed had rock-solid marriages, who have filed for divorce.
I'm feeling a bit guilty about the whole thing, because these are long-term girlfriends who are back in the States, and as part of the Circle of Friends, I'm not doing my "part" by being there to support them: taking out for coffee, for Sunday brunch, for an afternoon walk around the Civic Center Pond--all the things you do for your girlfriends because you're A Girlfriend yourself, and this is what you would expect or have already received from them.
What makes marriage work? I dunno.....I never expected to get married. An unusual attitude, I know, but I was coming of age in the 70s when divorce rates were sky-high, having a career was a plus, and I had parents who essentially told me I was unmarriageable, so I'd better go get that career.
My marriage was a surprise to me probably more than to everyone else. I married a cop (nonprofessional) who was divorced (gasp!) and had children from his first marriage (oy vey!) and who was blond.
Blond was the big issue for me. In my experience, with very few exceptions, blond guys with muscles from Los Angeles were usually brainless jocks interested in Only One Thing. So when he repeatedly asked me out, I repeatedly made excuses to not go out. I didn't even understand why he was asking me out until I talked to a mutual friend, another cop of Italian extraction.
"Oh, yeah, I told him he should ask you," our friend confided. "He told me his last girlfriend was a self-centered disaster who didn't like kids and wasn't Jewish, so it was a problem. I told him, 'hey, ask her (pointing to me outside the courtroom) -- she's Jewish and she's single.' So he followed my advice, huh? He's a nice guy--you should go out with him."
So we met for lunch. I was expecting an hour of jock-and-cop talk, and instead I got several hours of Jewish history, his experience on kibbutz, what we think G-d wants from us, the role of Israel (people and nation) in history, how the world would be different without WWII.....I found him fascinating. He was funny, too -- not only self-deprecating humor, but more like Jay Leno humor, and he saw a lot of joy in life. He is and was an optimist.
We've had our ups and downs. We came close to divorce once and survived it. I've learned a lot from him, and I also had some fairly conservative, straight un-Sixties values drummed into me from my parents and grandparents that have probably helped us along.
These are the guidelines I've found useful in marriage:
(1) It's NEVER okay to call the other person names; if you don't like his/her behavior, criticize the behavior, not the person.
(2) It's NEVER okay to bad-mouth your partner to others; if you have issues, take it up with your spouse, and don't denigrate your spouse because you think 'victimhood' makes you a martyr. It doesn't. It just makes you look bad.
(3) Adultery is never okay. No excuses, no explanations, no nothing! If you don't have sexual fidelity, you don't have a relationship. If you can't bring sexual fidelity to your marriage, you need to figure out what's wrong with you before you marry anyone.
(4) Never use sex to manipulate.
(5) Never use money to control.
(6) Never be a doormat. If your spouse yells at you, or denigrates you, or ignores you so you feel abandoned, TALK about it. Don't suffer in silence, and complain to your girlfriends/drinking buddies. Talk to the person perpetrating the bad behavior...chances are, he/she isn't aware of it (assuming workaholicism here) or is angry and channeling the anger.
A friend's wife didn't talk to him for 10 days, and he mentioned it to me. "What's she angry about?" I asked. "Oh, she's not angry," he said confidently, "She just isn't talking to me, so I'm ignoring it."
I told him to go talk nicely to his wife. I told him that when women turn on the silent treatment, it is usually because we're trained to be "nice girls" and not make a fuss, and rage just makes us silent.
"You think?" he asked, clearly puzzled by my explanation. I saw him a couple of days later and things were great between them. "You were right!!" he exclaimed, clearly much happier. "She was angry because I wouldn't do something with her family, so we talked about it. I told her I couldn't go but there was no reason she and the kids couldn't go---and that's all she wanted. She didn't feel she could go without me, and thought I was being unreasonable, but now that she knows she can go and take the children, she's happy and everything is fine!"
(7) Make each day a good day. It's hard to stay in sync over long periods of time, but one thing I learned from the Husband is that marriage is like a necklace--it consists of a long string of days. If the good days outnumber the bad days, then the marriage will last. When the bad days outnumber the good days, then one if not both partners will reach the point where he/she concludes that staying married is no longer worthwhile. Work on making each individual day a "good day" for both of you.
(8) Grow together. If he's all about work, and you're all about your career (or kids, or hobbies, or friends, etc), and you don't find things in common to do and share, you will eventually grow apart.
(9) Talk. This is, surprisingly, just as hard for women as it is for men. Men assume we're chatterboxes who can talk at the drop of a pin. Guess what, guys -- it's just as difficult for us to talk to our spouses as it is for you. It's hard to bring up sore points, and even harder if we expect our male counterpart to be (a) angry, (b) dismissive, (c) sarcastic etc......so if your wife brings up a sore point, take the time to sit down with a cup of coffee and listen, really listen. Then talk about solutions. Ditto for when the husband mentions-in-passing something significant to him but he isn't making a big deal of it--listen up, ladies. He's only bringing it up because its a big deal to him--otherwise he'd be talking about the NFL, right?
(10) Never be dependent. Yes, we depend upon each other, but don't be dependent on the other person to meet each and every need of yours. You're an adult. Depend on yourself. Bring your strengths to the relationship, not just your needs and wants.
(11) Cut your losses. If its a minor issue, for example, he is a television addict (speaks the Voice of Experience) don't insist on a losing battle--modify the television hours and have your own escape-from-TV-Land plans. On the other hand, if he's an alcoholic who verbally abuses you and constantly puts you down, LEAVE! There is no excuse for staying in a toxic relationship--and don't talk to me about "the children" -- they don't need an alcoholic abusive parent as a role model.
To one extent or another, my friends have perfectly valid reasons for filing for divorce. All of them have children. None of them take this step lightly. In two cases, I know my friends kept hoping things would change for the better---there was an element of "If-I-just-try-harder-I-can-make-everything-okay" until it became apparent that things were never going to get any better.
The big surprise in regard to two of my friends was that their husbands, who've had a lot of notice of these issues, are completely surprised and devastated by their wives decisions to divorce. These are basically good men who did not take their wives' issues seriously, and in their arrogance, assumed "she will never leave me."
A third friend has a different issue--the man she married changed profoundly over the years and he himself declared that the parameters of their marriage had changed, as far as he was concerned. She talked at length to him about this, and he refused to change--so she left. The parameters he laid out were not acceptable to her, and she saw no point in staying with a man who considered himself free to indulge in things no marriage should tolerate.
I wish I could be there in person to help my friends. I also wish I could say to their husbands, "You should have listened."