There are so many things we expect to just know how to do, but turn out to be not so simple. Learning how to be married is one of them. And, like parenthood, our marriages change over time, so we have to learn over and over again how to be married to our spouses. If we don’t , the penalty is an increasing sense of dissatisfaction that will only grow over the years. If we do, the rewards are literally priceless.
So what do we need to learn? Probably the first and most difficult thing is that our spouse is a completely different person than we are. We probably have lots in common, shared values, maybe shared interests, but still, on the inside, we’re different.
First, there is the whole man / woman thing, about which whole books are written. One of the biggest problems I see in couples at all stages of marriage is that, in general, many women want to talk about situations and explore feelings about the situation before moving on to solutions, and many men, in general, want to help fix the problem by offering solutions right away. This difference can cause a lot of frustration for both parties, but once it’s understood, conversations about problems go a lot better, and both spouses feel much more satisfied and supported.
Individually, too, we are different. We come from different families, different histories, different experiences both good and bad. We have different answers for what is the “right” way to do many things, from sleeping with windows open or shut, to the Thanksgiving menu, to how much separate time is ok, to whether to live close or far from family, to how to handle money. And most of these beliefs are at least partly unconscious,at least at first. Once couples first start to realize this, they either accept it and learn to discuss things and compromise, or find that differences bring up a lot of anxiety. The solution isn’t to make differences go away, but rather learn how to keep calm and talk it through. In fact, learning how to calm ourselves and each other is probably one of the biggest tasks of marriage.
Learning the skill of getting back to a calm state is valuable long-term, since we change over time and so do our marriages. Think about the obvious changes: having children, launching children, adjusting to job loss or retirement, adjusting to aging and perhaps illness. These are pretty universal, and there are lots of other changes unique to each couple. Coping with change is hard enough sometimes, and the fact that our changes change the marriage dynamic means “there’s always something”, as my grandma liked to say.
So adjusting to marriage, meaning adjusting to and continually re-synching with our spouses, is a lifelong task. I think it’s part of what makes life interesting (at least that’s what I think on a good day!). Whether it’s interesting or annoying, it’s necessary, and brings tremendous benefits and satisfactions. I think it’s one of the main skills couples learn in marriage counseling. And that’s tremendously satisfying to me.