Your Spouse Does Not Exist To Make You Happy

Marriage isn’t just about making each other happy, it’s about making each other better people. Eric Sentell discusses families of origin, engaging the “crazy cycle,” and navigating conflict in a marriage.

The real wonder is not how hard marriage proves to be after the honeymoon wears off, but rather that it is manageable at all. Two different constellations of backgrounds, beliefs, values, assumptions, paradigms, etc., merge into one family unit. Two different yet complementary sets of personal issues collide in the same dwelling. Of course it’s difficult.

There should be a class on marriage. Not pre-marital counseling. An entire semester (or two) on how to be married. But there isn’t such a class. So we learn how to be married from example, and our primary examples are our parents. Even if each spouse has excellent examples, they will be different and those differences will clash. And if the differences are profound enough, they may generate serious conflict.

After a long workday, my father liked to have dinner and relax in front of the television before going to bed. I followed this example in the first several weeks of my marriage, rarely lifting my voice or a broom. But my wife, Jessica, needed more interaction and expected more help around the house. I’m ashamed to say that she suffered until confronting me about my neglect. Over our years together, it has become equally clear that I need some time to my introverted self. We’ve developed a nice balance from merging our experiences and assumptions about marriage.

Besides our tacit assumptions about spousal roles, we also have basic assumptions about how a family should work—again, based mainly on our families’ examples. My family ate dinner around the TV. In Jessica’s family, dinner time was family time. Naturally, our different experiences led to different assumptions and behaviors, which then necessitated some negotiation.

Even mundane household details can become points of contention. Jessica made it clear early on that towels should be folded a certain way, toilet paper should start on the outside of the roll, and I should lock the door at night. To her puzzlement, I demanded a drawer for my wallet, watch, keys, loose change, etc. Marriage has enough major stress that these minor issues can become fairly major snowballs of conflict. If the relationship is strong, they’re easily overcome. If it’s weak, then they can foster festering resentments.

Then there are our personal issues, some of which may be a mystery even to us. I have always had some difficulty managing my emotions, and I have a fundamental need for approval and validation. In part, this means I want some leeway to make mistakes without being criticized. Jessica was raised to be fastidious and outspoken by two very fastidious and outspoken parents.

I think this type of disaster recipe is very common in marriage. We tend to marry people who are different from our families because these differences excite and attract. I try to please other people and thus win their approval, an attractive trait most of the time. Jessica’s outspokenness is part of her outgoing personality, a quality I love. Yet the same differences that attract can also generate some vicious self-feeding cycles. With my need for approval, I can be sensitive to Jessica’s fastidious and outspoken corrections. Being fastidious, she doesn’t appreciate how poorly I can respond to innocent comments. Crazy cycle engaged. Does any of this sound familiar?

Marriage is difficult, but it is also intensely rewarding when we possess the proper attitude. If we think our spouses exist to make us happy, then we’re likely to chafe at all the minor and major conflicts of our differences. But if we adopt the attitude that we can become better people thanks to our spouses, then the conflicts and differences can take on a different character.

If we nurture our love for our spouses as we grow and create a new family culture with them, then we’ll experience more joy and growth along the journey than irritation. The boy-with-a-need-for-approval can gain some self-assurance, and fastidious girl can keep things in perspective. Both can become something more than they could have ever become on their own. And whatever your unique assumptions and issues might be, the right attitude can make navigating the differences in your marriage much easier.

Eric Sentell lives in the DC-metro area with his emotionally brilliant wife. He teaches college composition and directs a writing center at Northern Virginia Community College. His short fiction has been published or is forthcoming in The Rivendell Gazette, Long Story Short, Red Ink Journal, Moon City Review, Unlikely Stories 2.0, Blink Ink Online, Short, Fast, and Deadly, and Six Minute Magazine.

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