What does it really mean to “work” in a marriage?

With all of the news about the Ashley Madison site breach I’ve been thinking about why we commit to marriage and why we cheat.  All of this thinking brought me to the reality of how much work it actually takes to make a marriage successful.  Popular culture has set us up to believe if things don’t come easy, they aren’t meant to be.  In my own marriage and in the couples that I’ve counseled through the years this concept doesn’t paint an accurate picture.

I’ve been married for 16 years this November and my perspective on working in a marriage has changed over time.  My husband and I initially had some difficulty with who was in charge….being two really independent people both of us struggled with the idea of a “we”.  The work in the beginning of our relationship was to get to know one another and to accept that doing things differently didn’t mean one of us was wrong.  My idea of compromise was often thinking I could convince my husband to agree with me.  His idea was often to just pretend that we were doing it his way and that eventually I’d just catch on…no discussion necessary.  So often in relationships we come out of the “honeymoon” phase where we are so in love with the person that we do go along with what the other person wants/needs.  After this wears off, we start to assert our independence and this is where the conflict enters.

Throughout the early part of our marriage my husband and I utilized a lot of support.  We talked with friends, did couples counseling, read books, etc.  And through this process we made numerous strides.  What I learned from this period of my marriage was:

1.  You don’t always have to be right
2.  Marriage isn’t about “fairness”
3.  Believing your partner has good intentions goes a long way
4.  Knowing when you’re arguing about something that is your old baggage, and not really     about the current situation is helpful
5.  Not throwing in the towel the minute (or months) things get difficult

Currently we have two middle school age daughters and the work looks more like making time for one another when we are both tired from parenting and working full time.  I often describe it as being in the “thick of it”. When we are running around taking our kids places, organizing their lives and our own.  The work we both have done shows up by each of us trying to step out of arguments when we can. It shows up when we truly give each other space and room to be individuals.  The work surfaces when we disagree on a parenting issue (or any issue) and rather than avoiding conflict we attempt to work through it and find common ground.   I see it when one of us steps out of our own self to really be there for the other person.  I’ve seen my husband try to use humor when I get fixated on something rather than anger.  I try to give my husband the benefit of the doubt rather than assuming he hasn’t thought about something, which changes my tone and the way I approach a topic.  We’ll have to adjust  the work in a different manner when our kids leave home and we are Empty Nesters.  The challenges don’t go away, they change over time and it is the “work” that allows us to adapt to those changes.

Clearly there is a lot of infidelity in marriages, as the Ashley Madison scandal has highlighted.  In my practice, in social media and numerous other places we hear about people being unfaithful.  I believe that this idea of “work” plays a part in infidelity.  It is work to let someone know you aren’t connected with them anymore, or you’re unhappy with something they are doing. It is also work to look at your own stuff, easier to just assume it is showing up because your partner is bringing it out in you.  How easy to just open another door.  That door will always seem shiny and new.  In comparison it will appear easier and less work.  However, all intimacy involves vulnerability and effort (aka – work).

I’m not opposed to divorce.  If both parties aren’t willing to do the work, then often things won’t improve.  However, I do believe that we sometimes throw out the institution without putting energy into looking at our own part in the problem.  The work that I have done over the past 16 years has been profound.  I’ve had to look at how my anxiety impacts others around me, how my mood and attitude isn’t dependent on someone else, how to agree to disagree, how to let someone in even when it scares me, how to soften and be open to others, how to deal with loneliness in a marriage when it comes up.  All of this work could have only happened in relationship.  The work is really about getting through tough times to get to a new place.

My marriage isn’t perfect and it won’t ever be perfect.  We still fight and sometimes things don’t get resolved.  We have days that I’m pretty sure we don’t even like one another.  However, the “work” we’ve done and continue to do shapes how we move forward.