Is A Long Marriage A Happy Marriage? Or Just A Long One?

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This started life as a long comment on a post by Peggy, The Primal Parent entitled ‘When Good Health Destroys A Perfectly Decent Marriage.’

I thought I would share it with you.

I got married for the first time at 34, my husband, also for the first time, at 44. We’ve been married 13 years and have twin boys aged 11. I went Paleo a year ago, my husband did not. I’ve got healthier and slightly more energetic. I lost around 3lbs. My husband would like to lose maybe 5lbs.

But really the outward change effects of Paleo have been minimal. My husband eats my food and buys bread for himself to make PBJ sandwiches and toast. He drinks way too much caffeine for my liking but that’s his choice.

My point is the change hasn’t been dramatic or fundamental. One of us hasn’t lost a hundred pounds.

In my experience of seeing friends go through this kind of seismic change, typically a fundamental review of the relationship takes place and it is finally resolved one way or the other – either by a split, the dieter regaining the weight, the other partner embarking on a similar change or a deep review of values and an acknowledgement of what keeps the relationship going. Balance has to be restored one way or another.

It is a universal principle.

I’m afraid my own views on marriage are rather dull and pragmatic. I think as a culture we way over-romanticize love and marriage which is unfortunate because expectations are much too high and huge disappointment ensues.

Walt Disney has a lot of answer for!

After we become disillusioned, we often think if we switch out our partner for someone else, we will change our outcome.  But often we end up in the same relationship just with a different face on the pillow next to us.

And even if we do end up with a better relationship, we continue to evolve and after a while, if we look to another person to fulfill our needs, will need a new model. Again.

Such is life.

I truly feel looking for happiness with one person for life is unrealistic especially when choices are made early. I am very glad that I traveled and had what I considered an exciting life before I settled down. When things get dull, this knowledge comforts me and helps me appreciate what I have now which is a different kind of normal, not less or more stressful or challenging.

Different.

I believe it is usually necessary to keep working on the relationship and look outside it for personally fulfilling activities to keep the soul alive and thriving. As a society, we put way too much responsibility on our ‘other half’ to meet our needs and that puts pressure on them that they can rarely, or are willing to meet.

Marriage (or a stable relationship, married or not) becomes most important when children are involved. At this point happiness isn’t about the individual self it is about the larger unit. The more children one has, the more important the marriage becomes.

There is no doubt in my mind our children benefit from our family unit (a unit that has been carefully and consciously crafted by my husband and I.) It provides them with stability, rituals, opportunities, and life lessons that wouldn’t be available if the unit weren’t intact. When times are tough I see how much sustenance they get from this family even if, at times, me or my husband want to run away from our responsibilities.

(And each other ;-))

Wildly differing values or relationships where there is abuse will not work, and if children are already present, that is unfortunate. In those circumstances, I think it is best (and probably inevitable) to separate and live independently while doing the best possible job of co-parenting.

But it shouldn’t be taken lightly and it definitely shouldn’t be a decision based on pleasure hormone withdrawal, misinformation, without plenty of forethought or a belief that someone out there is ‘The One.’

(Please let me spread the word – there is no ‘One’, people.)

Love is really about pleasure points in the brain being activated and as such is a biochemical reaction. There are many ways to get those chemicals set off and it is important to make sure the balance between our stress and positive feeling hormones is right if we are to keep our relationships going. Marriage is a sum of many parts and when the pros outweigh the cons, I think you are doing well.

Realistically, as unpopular as the idea is, the best most of us can expect to achieve is a ‘good enough’ marriage yet we teach our children, especially our girls, that it is the ultimate goal. Is it not surprising then that the divorce rate is so high and that most of them are initiated by women.

I’m not for or against divorce (or marriage, for that matter) – who am I to say who should stay in their marriage and who should leave? Too many variables. Only the individuals concerned can answer that.

But I do think we are unrealistic in our expectations and would all do well to be much more informed about our bodies, about relationship dynamics, our relationship skills and our values so that we can make informed choices instead of knee jerk ones.

Some marriages need tweaking, others need major surgery. And some, amputation.

Only the individual can decide what is worth how much.

And so what are your thoughts? Have I deconstructed marriage too far? Taken out the life and joy of it? Let me know in the comments. I would love to hear your thoughts.

{ 20 comments… read them below or add one }

Mary Bennett October 25, 2011 at 11:12 am

I got married at 18, only a few months after graduating high school and I couldn’t disagree with you more. My husband was 19, and as you can imagine we hadn’t lived seperate lives of traveling, excitement, career, etc.

We grew up TOGETHER. We BONDED. We are a unit.

In a week we will celebrate our 32nd anniversary.

In those 32 years we have had 6 kids and fostered one for 6 years. We traveled to Niagra, Virginia, South Carolina. We moved to South Carolina and Connecticut. We’ve had one American Bulldog and a fabulous Labrador, numerous cats, bunnies, fish and an awful snake.

We’ve grown crickets and raised chickens for eggs.

We’ve been tenants and after a long long time, we owned a houses, including a house in the Hamptons.

My husband has gotten his high school diploma, then went on and on. He can operate heavy machines, and now even a tractor trailer.

We’ve weathered broken bones, bulging discs, children becoming independent and moving out, and lastly my being diagnosed with stage 4 cancer, and being in a near coma for a month. He’s been with me as a relearned how to walk, cried with me over my mortality, and bossed me into being strong and refusing to give up.

But that’s just us!!

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Alison Golden October 25, 2011 at 12:55 pm

Hi Mary:

Thanks for your comment, I appreciate your taking the time to write. I agree I have a rather unusual approach – but that’s just me 😉 I’m glad you were able to find such a perfect partner for yourself and at such a young age. Kudos to both of you for making it through 32 years.

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Peggy The Primal Parent October 25, 2011 at 2:58 pm

Alison, I think that what you are saying is absolutely true for a certain personality type. But I think the word to spread is not that all marriages turn out “good enough” but that some of them do and that is ok.

Personally, a humdrum marriage would not make me happy, a humdrum man by my side would be stifling to me, and that would not be good for my kids. Being a single mom I really can’t even say for sure that the family unit is the best thing for kids. My daughter is marvelously well adjusted, happy, and smart. Just maybe our situation is fine for her.

We are all different and no one way will ever be THE way in relationships. The best thing for any person is to be honest with themselves and in their relationships and things will work out no matter what road they choose.

It takes a deep retrospective person, though, to answer these questions wisely and not influenced by Disney and the media in general.
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Alison Golden October 25, 2011 at 4:22 pm

Thanks for your reply, Peggy. I agree we are all different. There is no one way for anybody and I would fight strongly against any kind of dogma over what makes an acceptable relationship. What works for you, works for you. ‘Good enough’ means whatever is ‘good enough’ for you and that will also vary from person to person.

However, I also feel that circumstances do play a large part in the freedom and responsibility we have to consider just our own happiness. Money, children, support networks, etc. etc. The more or less and type we have of any of these will have a bearing on the path we follow. And again each path will be different. No-one can, or should, judge. We make the decisions we make, and we move on. The key is not the type of decision we make but to think critically and intelligently, not with a jerk of the knee. Cool heads and all that.

The idea that love and relationships are made up of tripping the light fantastic, handsome princes and beautiful princesses is a fairy tale we have been sold since the crib but perhaps we have to live it to understand that it is just that, a fairy tale.

I do think that people evolve and change, in different directions and in different ways. That lifelong partnerships aren’t realistic for many, possibly most. We live so long! And yet, I also feel that this romantic acculturation gives us impossibly high ideals that we are bound to be disappointed and reject the reality in comparison to the fairytale when with perhaps some more realistic expectations we could direct our energies in different ways to different ends.

Personally I shielded my kids from Disney movies when they were young and even some fairy tales. They make me cringe but really it the girls who are most at risk from their messages, IMO.

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Lauren October 25, 2011 at 3:17 pm

I agree with your analysis of marriage, Alison: western culture makes it out to be a be-all and end-all, and it can’t be. Mind you, I may be biased by having come to it in much the same way you did 😉
I will say that it has been – and continues to be – a test of my convictions on the meaning of marriage that we are now living in my husband’s home culture, which I do not share. I became inevitably, and then habitually, dependant – it’s an uncomfortable position to be in, but it really throws one’s philosophy of personal relationships into sharp relief!

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Alison Golden October 25, 2011 at 4:32 pm

Is your husband’s home culture vastly different to your own, Lauren? The greater the difference, the greater the imbalance in parts of the relationship which need to be counteracted in other areas of the relationship. You are right, it is inevitable there will be dependency, you are having to learn things anew while to your husband it is as easy as walking. It takes time and a lot of consciousness to resist staying in that dependent state and grow, all the while managing a relationship. Which is hard enough.

It’s been 15 years now for me, and I am still working on it. I expect I always will be because he’ll always be years ahead. But put me in my home culture and it’s a waaaayyyy different matter. 😉

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Lauren October 26, 2011 at 2:50 am

Funny that 2 Laurens posted back to back!
The cultural differences still surprise me sometimes, but it is broadly similar. Language is different though, which is huge. (When my naturopath asked if I was under any kind of stress [implying that I should eliminate it], I had to laugh; people have no idea of the low-level, chronic drag of being foreign.) And we arrived just after finding out that I was pregnant, so I’ve never worked here – our whole dynamic went topsy-turvy and, 3 years later, it’s still not quite balanced again. I blogged about it (the entry is called Get Up, Stand Up) and got a few interesting comments from people I didn’t realise were in the same boat. I’m finding it to be an under-observed topic.
Your feelings about being on home turf are true for us also. I think it’s a big part of why I do everything possible to get home once a year for a month at a time; I can watch myself be effective, feel myself stand straighter and move faster, and the wonder and satisfaction stays with me for a while afterwards. My husband enjoys the relative lack of responsibility too. For a while there, we fly, neither one of us dragging the other.
And to me that’s the key: the image of a marriage as an oak and a vine is poetic, but burdens the relationship with impossible expectations. We’d rather enjoy each other as people and try to leave some stuff at the door to do it.

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Lauren October 25, 2011 at 5:42 pm

Interesting write-up (I always enjoy reading your blog!)

In this case, it’s challenging for me to relate to what you’ve written, either regarding the home in which I was raised or the one in which we now raise our child. I do think the underlying premise that “unrealistic expectations are harmful” is true, but believe that there are vastly more deeply-happy marriages than your comments acknowledge. I also agree that looking to one’s partner (exclusively) for fulfillment is precarious at best. In fact, I agree with most of the individual ideas you’ve presented, but not the overall message or tone, which feels oddly clinical, for some reason, with an undercurrent of acceptance and of a sadness that I can’t quite define.

I did patently disagree with one sentence, in which you wrote that the more children a couple has, the more important the marriage becomes. Based on my experience as a child, in which all of my closest friends’ parents divorced, it seemed to me that the ones who fared the worst had only one sibling or none at all. There was a comfort in the larger groups of siblings, and a sense that the family unit had its own life and strength separate from the parents’ relationship or home…

As always, you’ve provided some interesting and thought-provoking commentary. I think the question rests in the definition of a “good enough” marriage. Does a fabulous, fulfilling, deeply satisfying marriage involve the Hollywood/Disney wine and roses every night? Perfect-looking people who never disagree? A lifetime of that swept-off-your-feet feeling? Of course not. So any expectations of that sort should be tossed out forthwith. But anyone who grew up — as I was fortunate enough to do — in the midst of a profoundly happy marriage, could never imagine setting up children to aim for something merely “good enough.” My parents’ 40+ years of romantic, mutually-supportive, deeply-fulfilling marriage isn’t theoretical, it’s just a few miles down highway 280. And it’s really not THAT rare.

Non-Hollywood, Un-Disney, realistic goals are easier to reach if (as you wrote) people seek out their life partners much later in their own life journey. What’s realistic? Finding someone you love to the core of your being who loves you back… someone who will strive to be the best person for you, and try their hardest to bring out the best in you. Someone who will stand by you throughout a serious illness. Someone who won’t close their heart to you, even in the most difficult times. Someone who loves you because of your unique qualities and not in spite of them. Someone you genuinely enjoy talking to and laughing with. Someone whom you can rediscover in new ways as you grow old together — who you can’t imagine being without. So if you’re saying that “good enough” means these profound things that don’t quite rate up to a Prince Charming happily-ever-after story, then I’m in full agreement.

On a separate (but related) note, you’ve raised a very interesting issue: it’s one thing to settle into something over the years and accept it as “good enough,” but what happens when a person simply hopes for “good enough” from the start? There may not be a single answer to that question. For some, the marriage might exceed “good enough,” and be wildly satisfying as a result (even when it never reaches fairytale quality.) But for others, aiming so low — for only a “good enough” marriage — might mean that, years down the road, it inevitably settles into “less than good enough.” In Maureen Dowd’s words, “The minute you settle for less than you deserve, you get even less than you settled for.”

Anyway, as always, thanks for an intriguing post! Always a pleasure to read your writings.

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Alison Golden October 25, 2011 at 7:02 pm

Hi Lauren! It *is* an unusual perspective and analysis which I think if I didn’t know it before (I did) the comments would clue me in. 🙂

What I mean by more children = marriage more important, is that a person with many children is more compelled to stay in an unhappy marriage simply by virtue of the burden of single parenting would present. That’s not to say they would stay in such a marriage but when people consider leaving their marriage, these types of factors play into their decision making. I didn’t mean that the number of children inherently made the family more or less unstable or fulfilling. I don’t think I expressed myself well there so thanks for allowing me to clarify that.

I think that what constitutes ‘good enough’ is a HUGE topic and I’m not sure there is an online forum extensive enough to discuss it adequately. As I said to Peggy above, what is good enough for one is not good enough for another plus it has to be combined with the circumstances faced so the situation is unique to every relationship. But it is all about balance. Each individual needs to feel OK with the balance in the relationship even if it means she ignores the signs of an affair in order to protect her worldview of the relationship. Or perhaps he travels for work all the time so that they don’t have to spend much time together. Those relationships ‘work’ at some level even if we may look at them in askance. Others will be healthier but the degree will vary a lot. There are many types of relationship out there.

I think these expectations are very personal and individual. And I don’t think there is a right answer. If we think of a relationship as a fire, some will need a raging roar, for someone else that would be too hot. Another relationship might consist of glowing embers right now but with some work, could get a decent flame going but that not might be enough for some. And a single relationship might go through all stages, maybe several times, and get very close to going out altogether. I think the answer is, it depends.

Settling from the beginning, now’s there’s a notion to juggle with. Does anyone admit that to themselves even? I’m not sure. Hmmmm. Thanks for your thoughtful comment! 🙂

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Mary E. Ulrich
Twitter:
October 25, 2011 at 7:21 pm

Wow, such thoughtful comments. Guess love and marriage still make hot copy. Good thing too.

I thought you made some great points Alison. The media hype has penetrated our culture, religions, politics…everything.

I agree with you. I don’t think it’s any of my business who marries who. That goes from Prince Edward to celebrities to my brothers and sisters.

My husband and I are going on 42 years. This morning, I watched from the window as he was taking the frost blankets off the petunias. We both look for beauty and try to change the world against hopeless odds. Who else protects their petunias in late Oct? That’s nuts, and special and why I love him.
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Alison Golden October 30, 2011 at 4:24 pm

That is a very heartwarming image, Mary. Thank you. ((Hugs))

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Lori
Twitter:
October 26, 2011 at 12:47 pm

I’m glad you wrote this, Alison. It does make one think. I fell in love in college – it wasn’t my goal, but it happened. 😉 We celebrated 15 years this summer. We have been through our ups and downs, and thankfully feel as strongly in love as ever. My daughter seems quite sensitive to relationships, and I pay particular attention to the questions she asks about love and marriage. (At age 9, she is presently opposed to marriage for fear that marriage necessitates a baby “bursting out of her tummy.” No matter my explanations, she’s locked onto this idea. Time will iron that out in its own way.) She asked me once about love and “happily ever after” and while I try to afford my kids every security about my and my hubby’s love for each other, I want my kids to understand that relationships are WORK. When you are both putting good work into it, then it can FEEL like a fairy tale. But happiness takes choice and work – it doesn’t just “happen” to you, and no one person can “make” you happy. The success you find in a relationship is often based on choices – choosing the mate, choosing to accept or not accept certain behaviors, choosing to see the glass as half full, etc. We also, in stark contrast to others’ norms, disagree (ahem – argue) in front of our kids. I don’t save it for later when they are asleep or not home. They get to see the real deal every time. But here is what I think is so important for them: they get to see us resolve the matter too! I make sure that they see HOW we handle disagreements. I don’t want my kids thinking that every mate is a perfect angel (not even me!) and then grow up to think they got a bad deal. But I want them to know how to respectfully make their points in relationships, and that if you love that other person, then the fact that you’re arguing over whether or not to repaint the den is not a deal-breaker. And I think it is equally important that they see that even though we may be ready to spit nails, their father and I are never disrespectful, and we keep the arguments focused on the issue at hand. We never hit below the belt, so to speak. That’s just how we have always rolled.
All that being said (sorry!) I feel that if two people share common core values, and those values lend themselves toward a loving relationship, then the couple will have it in spades!! But it is, essentially, all about choices.
Lordy, how’s that for rambling????

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Alison Golden October 30, 2011 at 4:23 pm

Hi Lori: I’ve read many times that it is the way disagreements are handled that makes the difference and, like you say, shows kids that disagreements happen and that they needn’t be the end of the world. In fact they make *progress* happen. And so they are a good thing. I also think it is terribly important for girls to see a mom making her point with dad and having it respectfully received.

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SuzRocks October 28, 2011 at 11:22 am

Where did you get the info about women initiating most of the divorces? That’s super interesting, and probably is because of the importance placed on marriage in our culture- sort of like you were talking about. All little girls just think about getting married when they grow up, like it’s going to magically make them happy and cure their lives of sadness forever.
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Alison Golden October 28, 2011 at 11:45 am

Hey Suz, you’re back from your trip! How was it?

The majority of divorces being initiated by women is a pretty established fact now. This is a link to a Shine article with a link to research. Shine isn’t generally a super intellectual source but this article also talks about the fairytale ending which I found interesting. It was the first article that came up when I googled ‘women initiating divorce.’
http://shine.yahoo.com/channel/sex/women-initiate-divorce-66-of-the-time-why-do-they-want-to-get-married-567068

Wikipedia mentions it’s *90%* of women who initiate among college educated couples.
“According to a study published in the American Law and Economics Review, women currently file slightly more than two-thirds of divorce cases in the United States.[64] There is some variation among states, and the numbers have also varied over time, with about 60% of filings by women in most of the 19th century, and over 70% by women in some states just after no-fault divorce was introduced, according to the paper. Evidence is given that among college-educated couples, the percentages of divorces initiated by women is approximately 90%.”
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Divorce

I was struck recently by a picture posted on Facebook of two little girls watching the Royal Wedding on TV in April. It was a cute picture of them laying on the bed, head propped in their hands, glued to the picture, but my, it also gave me shivers. A prince and a princess, a Disney movie come to life. There was even a couple of ugly sisters (guests.)

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Karen Gordon October 28, 2011 at 11:00 pm

Alison, I agree with everything you wrote a 100 %.
Reading this little piece: “Wildly differing values or relationships where there is abuse will not work, and if children are already present, that is unfortunate”, I thought you wrote it for me.

You are totally right about the imbalance when there are differences.
I am brazilian, my husband is American, we didn’t plan a baby, marriage or anything else that happened to us, and that unplanned future plus the differences we have give us a completely dysfunctional relationship.
Your post made me thought a lot, it made me wonder, imagine.
Thank you for your writting.

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Alison Golden October 30, 2011 at 4:20 pm

Hi Karen:

Although you’re in a tough spot, I am so glad this gave you food for thought. Thought is what often leads us to make better decisions. Good luck in whatever you decide. ((Hugs))

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Shay
Twitter:
November 19, 2011 at 3:16 pm

A-frickin’-MEN! I love this! This is an awesome post, Alison. As you know, I’m a huge advocate for a woman empowering herself and being the best she can possibly be–not expecting her man to fulfill her in every aspect. Which is why second marriage divorce rates are higher than first marriage divorce rates. Different face, same shit. 🙂 And “good enough” is marvelous considering some peeps are just miserably “hanging in there” until the kids get 18….
Shay recently posted..Do You Have Your Own Back?My Profile

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Alison Golden November 29, 2011 at 5:26 pm

“Different face, same shit.” I love that! I may even put it in my quotes collection. So, so true. And don’t even get me started on the parents who wait until the kids go to college to separate. Why is that a good idea – to demolish the harbor when they’ve just launched? They get a few feet out and get scared, turn around and see their safe and secure base…gone. Then what? Can someone tell me? One of the worst ideas. Ever.

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Ethel December 12, 2011 at 6:32 pm

interesting post! Success in marriage does not come merely through finding the right mate, but through being the right mate.
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