Our heat is broken and it's quite chilly in my house in not-so-sunny southern California. In an effort to distract myself from the fact that my fingers and toes are numb, I have curled up with The Yale Book of Quotations. But it is cold (no pun intended) comfort. A brief survey of the famous remarks on the topic of marriage reveals widespread cynicism and disappointment. Although some of the lines are clever (I confess a preference for Dorothy Parker), the sentiments behind them are painful to contemplate.
What's going on? Why are all these authors and politicians and playwrights and actors and philosophers unable to sustain healthy relationships? Why is their experience with members of the opposite sex so frustrating and unfulfilling? Why do so many of their marriages end in disaster?
Although the reasons are as individual as the speakers, I'm willing to hazard a guess that they all share one common mistaken perspective. They (and they're not alone here) think marriage is about them, about the satisfaction of their goals, their desires, their needs. Although famous people whose egos are constantly massage and stroked may be more prone to this erroneous assumption, it is not limited to the rich and famous.
Many of us are too focused on the "me" in the equation.
Many of us have the same character flaw. Many of us are too focused on the "me" in the equation and our marriages suffer because of it.
I remember reading the story of a bright young man who was constantly being set up on dates with equally intelligent young women. He met girl after girl yet he couldn't find his match. No one was smart enough for him; no one was able to keep up. Finally, in a moment of desperation or folly, a friend mentioned a girl who excelled in her character traits but wasn't known for her intellectual achievements. Amazingly, despite the girl's ostensibly lower IQ, it was a successful date and eventually the couple got married. Puzzled, the matchmaker requested more information. "She's actually very smart," the boy innocently revealed. "She agreed with all my opinions."
This was a boy who was very caught up with himself. Luckily he seems to have found a girl who was also willing to focus solely on him. And we can only hope that he always appreciates that.
But I am not optimistic about their future happiness because he appears unable to step out of himself and consider the needs of his wife. In fact, he doesn't seem to see her as a real person.
Although we say that when a couple marries they become a new, unified entity, this does not mean that one side represses their identity to serve the other. It means a full participatory merging from both parties.
If it is unilateral, a new entity is not created. Marriage is not meant to be a self-serving instrument, a tool to bolster our egos. In a healthy relationship, the positive feedback we get may serve that purpose, but that is only a side benefit.
It is easy to look at actors as the personification of self-centeredness. It is harder to turn a magnifying glass on ourselves and take an honest look at our own behavior. Are we giving or taking? Are we focused on the satisfaction of our expectations or are we instead thinking about promoting the growth of our partner?
We are all ego-driven. It's only with conscious effort that we are able to take seriously the needs of another human being, especially another adult.
What can I do today to make my spouse feel loved and respected?
But in order to have a successful marriage, in order to have a marriage that will be the source of the greatest pleasure, the somewhat paradoxical solution is to focus on your spouse. What can I do today to make him feel loved and respected? To ease his burden? To show my support? What can I do today to show her how much I value her efforts? To enable her growth? To relieve her load?
These are the questions of givers. They are not the questions found on the page of People magazine or O or in The Yale Book of Quotations.
These are the questions of people who care for those outside themselves, who see others as real, who recognize the needs of those they care about and want to help satisfy them.
These are the questions of people willing to put in the tough work required to make a successful marriage, who really care about the best interests of others.
These are the questions that, if answered properly, will really keep us warm at night, even when the heater is broken.