By: M. Gary Neuman
Why we avoid the real work of marriage.
Unconscious Assumption: Our Marriage Will Run by Itself While We Deal with Everything Else
It’s the number one myth of marriage: “After you fall in love, you don’t have to work at it anymore.” Countless couples have told me, “If it takes so much energy, we must not be made for each other.” Somewhere we have been improperly taught that true love is supposed to come easy. Once we’ve committed to each other through marriage, our love will take care of itself while we get on with life. We can now focus on jobs, kids, and acquiring things.
I think many want to resist having to work so hard at love. It takes enormous energy to create and maintain a wonderful marriage. Great marriages are about a fully engaged connection that requires constant attention, a deep, soul-searching understanding of yourself and how it affects your ability to love. Giving it everything you’ve got sounds exhausting and disquieting.
Being sensitive to another human being is harder than most things we do.
We may say we want that wonderful marriage, but deep down we recognize that being sensitive to another human being is harder than most things we do. If all you’re giving your spouse is the energy left over from balancing work and family, you’re cheating your marriage.
Putting your marriage first is about a state of mind. It’s believing that everything else that you feel is important is dramatically impacted by your marriage. Whether you feel in love or lonely will affect every decision and action you take today. Marriage is a foundation for your world. With love in your heart and a sense of someone who cares deeply for you as your partner, you have greater energy and greater abilities to handle all of life’s tasks. Aren’t you a better parent on the day you feel close to your spouse than when you’ve just had a fight? Aren’t you more focused and energized at work the day after a romantic, loving evening with your spouse? Don’t you want to live more passionately when you feel loved and able to give love?
For every ounce of effort you put into your marriage, you will benefit tenfold, not only from the direct love you feel but from the energy and focus you’ll have for everything else in your life.
The idea that you need to focus more on kids, work, or friends than your marriage is an excuse for running away from having an exceptional marriage. You didn’t marry to be absorbed by everything else but your marriage. You’ll never lose from any other part of your life when you make marriage your priority. Obviously you may have less time for your kids today if you go out to dinner alone with your spouse. But you will be offering them a supremely better parent on your return, Start at the top — the love in your marriage — and allow that intense love to flow into the rest of your life.
Unconscious Assumption: If I Don’t Invest in My Marriage, I Can’t Be Blamed If It Fails
Another reason why so many people avoid the work that marriages need is that being in love demands that we be true to our spouse and give. We unconsciously hold ourselves back because if we make this ultimate commitment and fail at it, it might truly break our hearts and push us into a deeper understanding of ourselves and our shortcomings. It’s easier to simply “give love a shot” without the intensity of deep love. That way, if things go wrong you can blame it on things like, “I was young,” “I married the wrong spouse,” “We didn’t know what we were doing,” and avoid looking deeper within.
Once you open up to yourself and see some of your deeper issues and frailties, you can never pretend them away.
There is little else as hard as confronting who you are and why you act the way you do. Once you open up to yourself and see some of your deeper issues and frailties, you can never pretend them away. Too many of us deny our innermost feelings and don’t give to our spouse the way we could precisely to protect ourselves from that deeper understanding of ourselves, which can be painful. However, you can’t possibly know or truly love another human being without learning a great deal about yourself along the way. It’s a spectacular, albeit difficult, journey that takes bountiful energy and concentration.
And it isn’t even easy once you do understand yourself. Ask couples who have been genuinely happy in their marriages for 25 years or more and you won’t find one who says, “It was easy.” Sound depressing? We would prefer not having to work at it. We’d like it to just flow easily. But is there anything else worthwhile in your life that came easily? We don’t expect parenting or creating a thriving business to be easy. We don’t even treat important friendships with ease. We know that we will have to be there physically and emotionally for our dearest friends, our children, and our family if we want to reap the benefits of a loving relationship. But when it comes to our spouse, too many of us don’t believe we need to put forth the same energy. We think our relationship should be able to thrive on what’s left of us after we’ve given to everyone else.
Unconscious Assumption: Being Vulnerable Is Dangerous
Yet another reason you may shy away from putting in the daily effort to develop a wonderful marriage is that it makes you extremely vulnerable to your spouse. Your spouse knows you better than anyone else. You can hide somewhat from your children or from your parents. But your spouse will know every detail of your weaknesses and strengths. Your spouse will know what you really think about your parents, boss, friends. He or she will know the truth about who you are deep down, even when you’ve been able to fool the rest of the world.
Being close to your spouse means being an open book. Perhaps you’re not as comfortable with yourself as you think. Perhaps you’re hiding from yourself emotionally and are therefore avoiding the closeness of a loving bond, as it will force you to deal with your issues. Perhaps you’re afraid to become so close to your mate. Closeness will make both of you depend on each other. Maybe you can’t handle that, or you’re afraid you’ll disappoint your spouse. Maybe you feel deep down that you’re just not good enough to deserve a wonderful marriage. When we love deeply, we lose control, and we’re apt to get hurt and suffer deep emotional pain.
We always find time for the things we see as a priority.
I’m not suggesting any of us consciously uses these fears to sabotage our marriage. I don’t believe you get up in the morning and say, “I’ll put time and effort into every other relationship except my marriage because that closeness makes me uncomfortable.” I am merely pointing out the potential push-pull struggle of being close to your spouse. In front of your spouse you are naked, plain and simple.
People are surprised to learn that they may be shying away from the very thing they say they desire. But we are complicated beings. We say we want to work harder but find ourselves leaving the office early. We say we want a fabulous marriage but don’t do a whole lot to make that happen. You can only challenge this contradiction when you see it clearly.
When I explain to couples how much work marriage takes, they respond with comments like, “Who has the time?” You do have the time to dedicate if you want to. We always find time for the things we see as a priority. If your child had an accident that required hours of physical therapy, you’d find the time to do whatever you needed to do to care for your child. Make marriage the priority it deserves. You’re not as busy as you think.
Excerpted from Emotional Infidelity by M. Gary Neuman. Used with permission.
M. Gary Neuman
New York Times best-selling author M. Gary Neuman is a psychotherapist, rabbi, and author of seven books on the topics of marriage and divorce.