By Margaret Treadwell
As in many movies, the classic romantic comedy When Harry Met Sally (1989) ends with a happily-ever-after wedding. The film tells the story of how two friends became lovers. Interspersed throughout are clips of long-married couples lovingly reminiscing about how they met, scored with soaring music. How these strong couples made it through the inevitable rough patches is left to our imagination.
Staying in marriages over the long haul is a hot topic lately. The Washington Post recently reported on the decline of U.S. divorces and ran a story about a service at the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception where an estimated 600 couples celebrated their marriages of 25-plus years. Those interviewed spoke mostly about how they met, while a few mentioned humor, teamwork, faithfulness, God and prayer.
Some of us are “born lucky” in love, but many more need a road map to develop into a strong couple. Using family systems thinking, I’ve created the following four signposts to keep marriages moving in a healthy direction:
Grow into your fullest potential in body, mind and spirit and encourage your partner to do the same.
Remember the sparks that attracted you to each other in the first place. Keep your fun and spontaneity fresh, individually and together.
Believe in something greater than you.
If you have children, defocus them and make the top three bullets your priority.
This applies regardless of your culture, race, religion, sexual identity or socio-economic group.
I believe that we can grow to our fullest potential in marriage. It may take several “marriages within a marriage” to achieve this goal – before children, with children and after children, for starters.
One young husband brought the family calendar to a counseling session and asked his wife to schedule him in. She replied, “I’ll be happy to, but I have to schedule myself in first, and then I can have more fun with you.”
Far from being selfish, she was taking a clear stand for her self-preservation. How can we love someone else when we won’t love ourselves first? List three things you love to do out- side of family and work; now consistently schedule these passions in. You’ll begin to see your life – and your marriage – in a more positive light when you take care of yourself.
In my work, I define a strong couple and marriage as the health of the whole family unit – parents and children – rather than solely the couple relationship. Stress in families can manifest with symptoms in one of three places – between the couple (from constant conflict to not speak- ing), in one or other of the couple (from headaches to serious illnesses), in one or more of their offspring (from rebellious acting out to anxiety and depression). No family ever scores 100 percent health – which would mean no symptoms at all. My favorite New Yorker cartoon shows one gentle- man sitting alone in the audience under a banner proclaiming “Conference For Normal Families.”
It is remarkable how many parents send their children off to a therapist for a symptom fix rather than taking a thoughtful look at their own relationship. These family leaders – the only ones capable of making a lasting family change – often carry levels of stress that are too big to contain between the two of them. This stress trickles down like an anxiety flu to the most vulnerable child. When people tell me about rough spots in their marriages, they usually are describing some variation of this pattern.
Bottom line: If the couple is OK, over time their children will be OK, too. When they “get” the importance of becoming a strong couple for their kids (even if they aren’t particularly interested at the moment in working on it for themselves), the symptom relief for children is swift. But here’s the paradox: techniques for strengthening a marriage are successful only to the extent that the individuals in the marriage are willing to strengthen themselves, rather than place absurdly high expectations on a spouse or partner to create their happiness.
In his homily at the April 29 Royal Wedding, the Bishop of London held up faithful and committed relationships as a door into the spiritual life: “Marriage should transform, as hus- band and wife make one another their work of art. It is possible to transform as long as we do not harbor ambitions to reform our partner. There must be no coercion if the Spirit is to flow; each must give the other space and freedom.”
Thanks to Glennon Gordon, LICSW, for our discussion about this column. Her Facebook page is Less Whine With That Marriage.
Margaret M. “Peggy” Treadwell, LICSW, is a family, individual and couples therapist and teacher in private practice.