“The Happy Marriage is the ‘Me’ Marriage” was the title of the recent New York Times piece. My hackles were immediately raised. I knew it couldn’t be true. I was (am!) so clear that the happy marriage is the one that is other-focused, the 'you' marriage. But Ms. Tara Parker-Pope was not making the expected point. So I read on.
The article was exploring "sustainable marriages," defined as long-lasting relationships that are meaningful and satisfying.
Ms. Pope refers to a study at Monmouth University in New Jersey, “Research shows that the more self-expansion people experience from their partner, the more committed and satisfied they are in the relationship.”
Okay, we’re back to sounding me-focused. But I actually think the authors are pointing out a profound idea, even if they are approaching in a slightly back-handed fashion. We thrive in marriage where our partner works to support our growth. And vice versa. It can actually be you-focused. Not only do I want you (my spouse) to realize your dreams and potential but I am going to give you the benefit of my wisdom and experience in getting you there. You are not limited by your self. My “self” is part of the process too.
We become expanded versions of ourselves as we incorporate the ideas, wisdom, and knowledge gleaned from our spouse.
We become bigger, more expanded versions of ourselves as we incorporate the ideas, wisdom, and knowledge gleaned from our spouse. Their sharing has enlarged our capacity.
As our spouse continues to grow, so do we. It is a mutually beneficial and rewarding dynamic.
It is true that frequently “opposites attract.” Part of this may be, as many therapists have posited, that we are looking for character traits we don’t have, the qualities that will complete us, will make us a greater whole.
But that doesn’t happen magically with marriage. It requires work. We need to appreciate what our partner has to offer, the ways in which we can learn from them. We need to accept that alternate viewpoints and traits are not inferior but rather opportunities for growth. What we do NOT want to do is try to impose our strengths (i.e. “superior” qualities) on our spouse. We need to wait to be asked. Otherwise we risk becoming nagging and critical or pompous and obnoxious, definitely not the “you-focused” position.
We need to really look at our partner. We need to demonstrate our respect for the abilities, experience and information that we don’t ourselves possess. And figure out how we can learn from it, how we can improve ourselves.
We don’t need to become our husband. We don’t need to imitate our wife. But we don’t want to miss the chance for what the article deems “self-expansion” because we are limited by our narrow perspective.
We have a friend whose wife loves to climb mountains. She is in great shape and it not only connects her with the Almighty, it re-energizes her when she goes for a quick climb (what most of us would call an arduous trek). Don’t ask me; I don’t get it. But I have observed how her husband learns from her – about awe, about pushing your limits, about recognizing your needs, about drawing nourishment from the beauty of nature. I see how the experience has become integrated into his sense of self.
I have another friend whose husband reads non-stop. Everything and anything interests him – trivial information (he’s great at those games) and profound, philosophical ideas. Her reading taste runs more to best-selling novels. But he shares his ideas with her and she learns from him. They discuss the questions raised by his reading, and, in so doing, grow together. I think their marriage would be considered “sustainable.”
I remember when I returned to school to get my Masters in Psychology. The students were a little young so the class discussions were not that stimulating but my husband and I discussed the concepts for hours. It aided him in his rabbinic duties and deepened our understanding of the human psyche and family dynamics. It wasn’t "my" thing; it was “ours” (which made it much easier when the bills for my student loans became due).
It may require a shifting of gears. Maybe you’re not used to discussing the details of your business life at home. Maybe you don’t usually share the experiences of your day. Maybe you talk about the chores and the children but not the newspaper article you read, the interesting person you met for lunch, or your unrealized goals. No detail is too small or too big. Once you begin, you will create a habit and you will both grow – not in information but in ways of being, in ways of looking at the world, in ways of understanding.
Having a “sustainable marriage” isn’t a very sexy goal, but the research cited by Ms. Pope suggests it’s a worthwhile one. My one bone to pick with her is that I don’t think what she’s describing is a ‘Me’ marriage after all.