Marriage advice: stop trying so hard

I read those articles all the time.  The articles with five tips for a lasting, successful marriage.  I’ve read the blog posts too, including the one with that cute deceptive title about the man who discovered that “marriage was not for him.”  Spoiler alert: it was for his wife.  Haha.

In the traditional post about making a marriage work, you’re basically given a list of ways to be less selfish and there’s a bit of a moral imperative attached.  You’ll have a successful marriage if you realize it’s about her and not about you.  You’ll have a successful marriage if you bite your tongue more and think before you launch into a criticism.  You’ll have a successful marriage if you publicly brag about your spouse.  But, I think in most of these posts, it’s actually the other way around.  You publicly brag about your spouse if you have a successful marriage.  You make your marriage about your wife if you have a successful marriage.  I know you’re skeptical, but hear me out.

If you’re the type of person that enjoys criticizing others, especially those you love, and enjoys being selfish, then, okay most those blog posts will help you.  Maybe if you read about that, you’ll be enlightened, your eyes will open, and you’ll recognize for the first time that it’s not virtuous to be a jerk to your husband.  But, most of us already know we should be selfless in our marriage.  It’s just that we’re selfish and reading a blog post about it really won’t change that.  We might have a little more self-control for a few weeks, but it won’t change us.

The reason the blog post won’t change us is because most of us are already good people.  Good, imperfect, people.  Most people have needs and wants that they think they shouldn’t have.  Most people have traits they think they shouldn’t have.  Most people are more selfish than they think they should be.  And most people spend most of their lives chastising themselves for their imperfections and trying to hide that from the world, themselves, and their spouse. Maybe they are able to focus on being a better person for a little while and go two weeks without criticizing their spouse when they normally would have.

But, to have a lasting great marriage, I think the better route is actually to become comfortable with all your imperfections. Work to improve them, but if you’re feeling selfish, just admit it. I’ll frequently tell A that I’m having a selfish day and I’m going to buy myself a pair of shoes. Or, I’m feeling needy, could you bring home some flowers and chocolate? Yes, I’m willing to ask for that stuff. You know why? Because we all need some irrational things. And if we can’t get comfortable with that, then we spend all our time dropping hints and having passive-aggressive interactions until our partner “figures it out.” We’re upset that our spouse isn’t spending enough time doing things we like, so we cancel on an activity our spouse likes and so on and so on until we all get things figured out and cater to each other’s needs without having to explicitly mention what that need is. But, maybe, if instead of reading relationship posts about how we can be better people, we decided that we’re generally imperfect, but pretty good people, and we became comfortable enough with our idiosyncratic nature that we were able to just communicate it, then we’d get more of what we needed in relationships and that would, in turn, make us less critical spouses.

Let's be real.  Marriage is no lazy stroll in the park.

Let’s be real. Marriage is no perfect stroll in the park.

This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t constantly try to be a kinder, better person all the time. That strengthens all of our relationships. But, assuming we’re all good people and we’re generally making efforts to be a kind person, I think the real changes in relationships actually come from tearing down all our ideas of moral perfection, accepting the reality that we aren’t perfect spouses, and then working together to navigate a marriage of two admittedly imperfect souls.  Being able to admit and discuss our flaws helps our spouse cater to our irrational quirks and needs (and opens up the door for them to help us better cater to theirs).  This mutual catering to the irrational needs goes so much farther toward improving a relationship than just trying to deny we have those selfish impulses and chastising ourselves for feeling ways that we recognize aren’t perfectly virtuous.

Rather than trying so hard to improve, we could just work on better explaining our shortcomings.  Anxiety provoking, sure.  But, so much easier.

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