This should be one of the easiest concepts to understand. “Marriage”, “agreement” – isn’t that what a marriage should be about? Sure, there are millions of married couples out there who will swear otherwise – once they got married, they could no longer agree on anything.
But this caricature of marriage is humorous much because it runs contrary to the idea of finding your soul mate – a partner with whom you can be yourself and yet blend your life with in a way that brings joy to a household. When people decide to get married, or even when they are seeking out a person they might want to marry, their goal is to find much agreement and harmony between them - a degree of independence, yes, but agreement on the important things in life.
Actually, that’s the easy part. Nearly everyone who meets at the end of the aisle sees that moment as a moment of consummate agreement. It’s the person you’re willing to give your entire life to – and you’ll never make a bigger commitment. Or at least that’s the thought. But given that roughly half of all marriages end in divorce, what meets at the end of the aisle as commitment, often walks away from that moment and at some point begins to drift apart.
There’s no magic bullet to prevent this. People do change and nothing you do before the wedding will guarantee you will stay together and be happy for the rest of your life. But would it help if you made it clear to each other what you intended your marriage to be about? What it is for you – for the two of you? Or here’s another question - could it hurt?
Fifty or sixty years ago, when an American couple would say, “till death do us part”, there was a general expectation that it was all that needed to be said. Getting married meant spending the rest of your lives together. There were other vows, but there were no other terms. Spending their lives together was the entire point of the marriage – rich, poor, healthy, ill – whatever the conditions or circumstances, man and wife would stay together. That was the agreement.
But couples today do not go to the altar with the same expectations their parents or grandparents may have had for marriage. The roles of both women and men have changed, thoughts on having children differ considerably between couples – the picture of a marriage relationship is more dynamic, intriguing and unique than in past generations, but it is also more complex, and filled with challenges earlier generations never felt the need to consider.
Think about this carefully. Today, as many couples write or find unique vows as those who rely on traditional vows. This alone suggests that there is something in the mystery at work within a couple’s bond that makes their “agreement” something that uniquely defines the love and commitment they share.
In essence, male and female are coming together through their feelings, desires and intentions, and in the words of their vows, expressing, expanding and clarifying what they mean by their commitment.
Yet no one really expects to express everything they intend for their marriage in a 30 minute ceremony with five minutes of vows. That isn’t the purpose of the ceremony at all. The effect is merely a residual. The ceremony itself is the public symbol and seal of the commitment. It is sharing the blessing of your union with people you love, and making it “official”.
So now you’re married. Both of you have great jobs, decide you want to have a baby, get pregnant, and then, bang – somebody loses a job. Maybe it’s not the job you planned on going away, or maybe you didn’t plan on either going away. Now what?
Job losses with new family members on the way aren’t the only issues you’ll deal with, by the way. How are things with the extended family? If they were great before the wedding, what happens when someone’s Mom or Dad gets ill. Or a brother comes and overstays his welcome?
Finances take many twists and turns as well. Maybe you’re blessed to come into your marriage and find nothing afterward but an upward trending income stream. Most couples aren’t so fortunate – at least not every year of their marriage. What do you do when times get really tough?
What do you do if one of you wants to pursue a career change? Go back to school? Have an extended period of travel when you may be apart? Do you think none of these things will ever happen? You may be right – they may not.
But here is one of the most important bits of data everyone can take with them into a marriage – people change. As little as we like to see our perfect mates change from who they are, we aren’t likely to like the changes we see when they take place. Why would you want the ideal mate for you to become any different?
At the same time, however, you are changing too. So your mate has to put with changes they may not want to see either. The funny thing is that if you’re patient, if you wait just long enough, the changes that come about will make that person even more ideal as your mate. After all, one of the main reasons he or she will change is because of you. People have to adjust in time to their mates.
The changes and challenges that occur in a marriage aren’t necessarily either “good” or “bad”, they are just inevitable. Everything in your lives will begin to change the minute your honeymoon ends. The honeymoon will end, but you still want to be happy.
As a couple, have you spent any time talking about what you really want your marriage to be like? It couldn’t hurt, could it? Surely each of you has your own picture in mind of what that is. Don’t you want to share that with each other as much as you want to share everything else in your life?
Good – that’s a good start. Share it with each other. You may be surprised. Surprised both at things you will gain that you didn’t expect, and about things your new lifemate holds truly sacred. You may have thought you never everything about her/him before.
But maybe there are a few things that still don’t come out. I can tell you from experience that until you are willing to make a bold statement like, “whatever we write down as our own covenant to each other, these are the things I really hold sacred and don’t ever want to give up. Everything else is negotiable.”
Until you actually see those things memorialized that aren’t negotiable, it is reasonable for your partner to assume they actually are negotiable.
For example, maybe she is convinced that the 2000 mile trip every Christmas to the cold, Winter environment where her parents now reside is without question non-negotiable, while he is equally sure that she that she understand that once you have kids, Santa delivers the presents at home, not to Grandma and Grandpa. Then comes that first Christmas with a little one in the house – and suddenly the emotions are more reminiscent of the Fourth of July than Yuletide.
Granted, these “little” differences are each likely to be relatively unimportant to most couples. But it’s an example of a flashpoint – and no matter how well they get along, no matter how much they see eye-to-eye, every couple has its own little flashpoints where conflict turns into standoff – every couple.
So what can you do about these unexpected points of conflict? No matter how honest you are with each other, no matter how carefully you think through your challenges, there will be things that will come up that you cannot anticipate – that much you can anticipate.
Hearkening back to what I said earlier, remember, unless you’ve written it down as a non-negotiable, it is negotiable. And this principal itself should be non-negotiable, so it should be written down. Now we’re getting to the heart of the matter.