When my husband told his coworkers last week that we had been married 19 years, people were taken aback. Maybe because it doesn’t seem people in the secular world stay married that long? Dh said that people seemed to almost look at it as a negative – as if we must have a stale and dull relationship after being together so long.
Movies and contemporary music glorify the very exciting but short stage of the initial stage of a relationship as the ideal – when everything is exciting and new, when a person is ‘walking on air’. Hearts are aflutter, a person feels like the luckiest person in the world, and a rosy glow seems to permeates everything. That’s a special time – but it’s also a very short lasting period that reality soon encroaches upon. And what happens next? Music and movies don’t really give any clues – at least not any positive ones!
Several years ago I was at the gym, and was chatting with the young lady on the treadmill next to me – she told me she had been married 2 months, and when I made a comment regarding the challenge of that stage, she began to confide in me me how hard it was. She was one of the first of her friends to get married, and her friends looked at her as the lucky one, she had it made! So she didn’t have anyone to talk about the reality of learning to live with a very different person, and was so relieved to hear that she was normal. It’s tough learning to live with someone else, someone who isn’t nearly as perfect and wonderful as we initially thought, and who does things that frustrate and irritate us.
As time goes on, every couple is faced with bigger challenges that go beyond learning to manage basic personality conflicts. These provide opportunities to grow as a couple, but these opportunities just as easily can pull a couple apart. My husband and I have faced our share of difficulties – no one is promised a free ride in this world – but I feel that going through all the good and tough times together, sticking it out and committing to making it work (even when it really hasn’t been fun), has strengthened our marital glue. Though most years I look back and think how good the year was (with a couple of notably difficult years, that I was just happy to be finished with), this year feels like a big jump forward. My husband and I have always tried to be respectful of one another, even when we disagree, but that’s not the same as being truly accepting of a person. Don’t we often wish our spouses would just be the way we want them to be?! And this year, we both feel we’ve moved to a new level of deeper acceptance and therefore appreciation of one another. And far from being dull and hum drum, it’s a deep and satisfying feeling to have a relationship based on really knowing and valuing one another.
When I’ve been asked about what I attribute the strength of my marriage to (particularly since my parents were divorced and there was a lot of conflict, so I didn’t grow up with an in-house model) , I always say that I picked a great guy. And I really, really did. But I was reflecting on this, and thinking that I really do a disservice to leave it at this – it could leave someone concluding that marital happiness is almost like the luck of the draw.
Marrying a good person definitely the most important first step. I made a very conscious decision at the age of 17 that I would have a good marriage and my children would grow up with the stability of a loving home, and when I began dating, my criteria for a spouse was based on this – not just on what looked appealing. Many people in the short term look good, but as husbands and fathers they are lousy.
But once you marry the wonderful person you’ve met, it doesn’t end there – a lot of conscious effort goes into overcoming your unproductive tendencies, into learning to see things from someone else’s viewpoint, into looking for the strengths of someone else and being willing to forgive mistakes and frustrations. It’s not like you’ve got it made once you choose wisely. Dr. Laura Schlessinger in one of her books wrote her formula for a successful marriage that was brilliant in it’s simplicity and accuracy: Choose wisely, treat kindly. Once you’re married, you have to treat your spouse nicely. This is one of those things that is so obvious before you get married that you can’t imagine what kind of people would need that advice, and then after marriage becomes something you have to work to remember and internalize.
My husband and I have worked a lot on ourselves as individuals, as well as on our marriage – every way that we’ve grown as individuals has been positive for our marriage (though it’s sometimes required adjusting). Though it might seem that personal growth is always positive, good changes can also be hard on a marriage, when it means one spouse is seeking a different level of interaction than the other is comfortable with, and both people have to be willing to grow in the same direction to accomodate that.
My husband and I have had to expand our comfort zones a number of times in the last 19 years. And it’s been worth it. It’s in large part thanks to our relationship that we feel we can tackle a huge move to Israel at this stage of our life, doing something that very few people do. (I don’t just mean moving to Israel with a large family that includes older teen children, but with constraints and lack of support that new olim aren’t faced with. As time allows I hope to share more about our plans and my feelings about the process.) We’ve both felt our share of fear regarding this move, giving up our familiar life to start over in another country. It requires a lot of trust, not just in Hashem (G-d), but in each other, and with Hashem’s help, I very much hope that this will be another stepping stone to growth in our relationship.