Now my husband and I are in our mid to late forties, and we have been married for fourteen years. The landscape around us has not improved. We still know a minority of happy, fair, functioning marriages, and we are hearing news every week, it seems, of a new divorce, or a narrative from a friend about an extremely imperiled marriage. We know a few long married folk who are basically putting their heads down and plowing through until death because they promised to, despite feeling completely regretful of their choice of spouse.
I'm not exactly a marital advice-giver. It's dangerous territory. I also always feel like I'm cheating a bit because I think the quality of my marriage is largely due to my husband being a wonderful person. I can give advice, but I can't give you him. So there's that. What I can do is observe and describe what I see around me, and hopefully learn from it by holding my marriage up to these mirrors and making sure the images don't match. Maybe you can, too.
In at least two marriages I want to look at here, the wives seem to dislike their husbands intensely. I'm talking eye rolls and groans at every word the guy says, every joke he tells, every parenting move he makes, any plans he suggests. It's the total opposite of what you want your marriage to be--your spouse should be your best friend, a person who makes you laugh, whom you find interesting, whose company you enjoy. I think what happened in these two cases was that the people dated for a while, then looked around and said, "Well, what's next? I guess we get married." There appears to be almost no common ground for married couples like this. It's amazing that they even got together in the first place. It's almost as if they were thrown together by someone who didn't know either one of them. The wives don't "get" the husbands, what makes them tick, and the husbands seem intimidated by their wives. The husbands' strategy becomes conflict avoidance. One man we know medicates with alcohol, another simply lives a life inside his own head, another trips over himself to appease the domineering woman. This lack of respect paired with an apparent mismatch is a dreadful example for children, who look to their parents' marriage for an exemplar of what the entire Sacrament and institution should operate like. A boy who sees his father bullied may grow up to be a bully himself, or become emotionally unavailable in order to avoid a commitment. A girl whose mother egregiously disrespects Dad may grow up thinking men are useless buffoons, or she may look for a partner "tougher" than Dad is, and end up overshooting and getting hitched to a controlling man herself.
Another phenomenon we have seen in the marital relationships around us is the old fashioned midlife crisis. Today it's a 50/50 proposition--the woman is just as likely as her hubby to be struck by midlife lightning. Suddenly married life is dull and unfulfilling and the grass just HAS to be greener on the other side. Often there is an urgent need to remake oneself and start over, leaving the starter spouse behind. This is especially sad because it's probably so easily remedied. If you reach a point in your marriage where you're feeling unattractive, afraid to die, like you missed out, or just plain bored, remember this little adage: the grass is greener where you water it. Cultivate the relationship you have before you start fantasizing about a new one. Your spouse is your history, your other half, your very flesh. If you're feeling a deficit of ANYTHING, he or she wants to know about it. Together, you find a way to get past it, and the couples we know who have done this are better on the other end.
The last and maybe most essential element that unhappily marrieds miss is the spiritual one. We are creatures of a living God, and He provides us with a whole host of graces to help us stay contentedly wed until death do us part. But if you start living two separate spiritual lives, and there is no union there, a real rift can and will develop. For Catholic families, this translates to weekly Mass attendance, together, going to confession TOGETHER, prayer TOGETHER, and talking about the things of Heaven together! What is your marital conversation about? Make a quick pie chart. Is it about fifty percent kids, thirty percent money, and twenty percent food and television? Make some time to talk about the biggies: Who is God to us? What do we think Heaven will be like? How are we going to help each other get there? How do you pray? Will you pray for me?
Looking back, I wish I were the kind of little girl who had a wedding binder like my daughter does. It shows me that she sees marriage as a beautiful and exciting thing. She's not just into the wedding day -- she wants to BE married, be a wife and hopefully a mom. She doesn't carry any of that toxic and paralyzing fear of commitment that I did. And when I talk to her about weddings and marriage and what it's like to be a married woman, it gives me a chance to appreciate anew what I have. I can tell her with certainty that I would marry her Daddy all over again, not because we are better than anyone else, or more virtuous, but because we truly have become one. To love is to will the good of the other, and if we are both living out that definition of love to the best of our ability, then we can never stray too far off of God's path for us.
If you are in an unhappy marriage right now, turn to your spouse and really look at him or her. What did you fall in love with those years ago when you just KNEW this was "the one?" This is the same person. Ladies, talk to your groom. Men, talk to your bride. Remember our definition of love: willing the good of the other. Before you jump to all the ways your spouse isn't loving you, answer the question -- are you loving your spouse? Hold your marriage up to these three "mirrors" and if you see any speck of similarity, rub it out. Christ makes all things new, and He can give you a renewed marriage if you let Him into your home and into your hearts.