Everybody knows beyond doubt their love is real because she is so beautiful and he is so handsome. If there were any doubts, their first kiss erases them. Since their love is so great, they must get married, and we know they will live happily ever after. It’s a lovely script for a movie. It is not a guide to real life.
The words LOVE and MARRIAGE have as many meanings as there are lips to speak them. If we can agree on a working definition for each word, I’d like to rid myself and maybe at least a few readers of some mistaken ideas that keep us from loving and being loved well.
LOVE is commitment to the well-being of another person.
MARRIAGE is a contract by which people agree to be married.
THE MISTAKEN IDEAS
- The right person, your true love, will make you happy. No. You are the only person in the world who can make YOU happy. If you are an unhappy single person, you will be an unhappy married person. Your spouse, your mother, your friend, your counselor, your minister may point the way to Happiness and her more homely but more desirable sister, Contentment, but you have to find them for yourself.
- “I can’t live without you,” means that the one who says it really loves you. No. It’s a romantic thing we say to each other, but if your prospective partner shows signs of really believing it, he or she is not reality-based, and you should run as fast as possible in another direction. Love means being a whole person who doesn’t need another person but can choose freely to love that person. Love may mean carrying on alone what you and a loved one have built together. The traditional marriage vow reminds us of this in the words, “until death do us part.”
- Marriage is a bill of sale that means, “I am yours and you are mine,” and there can be no secrets between us. No. A desire to share deeply is often brought on by common marital practices like living together, having sex, having children, and staying together for the long haul. Sharing secrets can be a lovely thing, but spouses have a right to keep facts and feelings to themselves, so long as those secrets don’t have a direct effect on the relationship or on the partner. The partner who prods and pries for all facts and feelings will drive them deeper and discourage real sharing. Nobody is “yours” except you, and even that’s debatable.
- If you are married, you must live in the same house. No. You will probably want to. It may be convenient. It may be fun. It may be economical. On the other hand, you may work in different cities or have radically different styles, or one of you may be loving and charming and a pain in the butt to share a house with. Living together in marriage is the conventional plan, and most people choose it, but it is by no means a requirement for being or staying married. Separate residences have been known to save relationships. Unfortunately, people sometimes ditch an otherwise wonderful partner simply because they couldn’t live happily in the same house.
- If you are married, you must share a bedroom and sleep in the same bed. Nope. Cuddling, waking up together, and enjoying the comfort and convenience of sex in lovely privacy and darkness may be conducive to long and lasting relationships, but I favor having the option of my own space and my own bed, out of acoustic range of a snoring spouse, away from another’s clutter and sleep schedules that are out of sync with mine. Carving out a separate space can be refreshing for a marriage that is getting on someone’s nerves.
- If you are married, you must have sex. Not necessarily. I belong to a generation that thought of marriage as society’s permission to have sex, and it was kind of a fun idea, even if you were one of those who got a thrill from the danger of defying your parents and society. So my first reaction to the idea of marriage without sex is, “HUH??” However, being ALLOWED to have sex doesn’t mean you are REQUIRED to have sex. There are a few people who mutually don’t care much for it. Some people are sick or impaired. Some are too old or too tired to bother with it. As long as they agree, they can have a fine relationship without it.
- Being married is superior to being single, and staying married is always the best choice. No. Married, single, divorced or widowed people have lived good, wholesome, productive, creative lives. Or not. Being married or single is not a factor. How they lived is what made the difference.
- Divorce is always a terrible tragic choice, and it will fill your life with bitterness and strife for as long as you live. Not really. If you believe this, you will probably make it come true, but some people get post-separation life skills. They may uncover a friendship with their former partners that wasn’t possible under the pressure of living up to marriage stereotypes. Most people, whether they admit it or not, once found something attractive in their partner in addition to those youthful pheromones that convinced them they had “fallen in love.” It might have been shared faith, charm, a sense of humor, a shared passion for animals, food, art, movies, bowling, or just about anything, and, of course, if they have children, they share their love for those children. When they are relieved of the expectations for marriage, former partners sometimes see each other in a new light. Of course, there are toxic relationships that can’t be even partially salvaged. Ending a toxic relationship is not tragic, though. It is therapeutic.
- If you are happily married, you will want to have children. No. If you want to have children, you want to have children. If you partner with someone who also wants children, things can work out splendidly for all of you. Conventional marriage and children are designed to work together, but you CAN have either without the other. What is not advisable is bringing children into an unhappy marriage.
If you are married, living in the same house, sleeping in the same bed, having sex, and have kids, you don’t need to change anything, but if you are not living in the same house, or not happy about living in the same house, if sex is not that big a deal, and you don’t really want children, don’t be too quick to give up on the relationship, and don’t count yourselves as failures just because your life together doesn’t look like someone else’s.
If movie brides and grooms were real, there would be a fifty-fifty chance their fairy-tale love stories would end in divorce. Of those who didn’t divorce, an incalculable number would make each other mutually miserable until death did them part, and some of them would eventually abuse each other and maybe speed up that parting.
So, what is a good marriage? It comes back to the definition of love. It is caring about the well-being of another person as much as you care about yourself and signing a contract that promises you always will.