The Bad Years: Expect Them in a Healthy Marriage
“I’m not advocating for loveless marriages. But it’s also the case that marriage doesn’t make us happy every day. No marriage does, but your marriage serves as so much more than just a vehicle for immediate individual adult needs. It makes one world for your child, and children will tell you that means everything to them.” ~Elizabeth Marquardt, Between Two Worlds
We’ve all seen the wedding cards that talk about “happily ever after.” We’ve all heard the wedding songs about “happily ever after.” There is not one girl who hasn’t seen the movie, or read the book about a handsome prince sweeping away his beautiful princess. Everyone identifies marriage with this magical theme, and for the most part we wait to find our dream partner, get married and live happily ever after. This is sweet, it’s heartwarming, but it isn’t exactly true. Marriage requires work, and there are tough times in a marriage, and some of those times take years.
I often wonder why the bad years of marriage aren’t talked about. After all, anyone happily married will confess to living a few of the bad years themselves. Whether it was due to the stages of their children’s growth, an in-law or an illness, bad years are part of all great marriages. Our inability to anticipate the bad events and to talk about them prior to them happening is what hurts many couples when they are going through them. It is also the unexpectedness of bad times that causes couples to panic and mention the word divorce. It is no surprise that the majority of the couples I work with report the reason for their marital difficulty is feeling distance in the marriage or falling out of love. When did either of those reasons become a reason to break up a whole family? The couple who tells me straight face, we need to divorce because we no longer are in love, but admit to loving one another boggles my mind. What does that even mean? It means they are stuck in a rut, and they have no idea how to work with the situation. They begin fighting because they are frustrated with their lack of feeling, and they tell themselves as well as the kids that a divorce will be better than fighting with one another. This is total nonsense. If choice A is staying together while continuing to fight and B is getting a divorce, how about we talk about choice C which is working it out and understanding one another.
Couples cannot understand the probable bad years in a marriage as they walk down the aisle because they cannot imagine feeling anything but the love and lust they feel at that time. However, we should teach couples in pre-marital counseling that although the bad years will be rough, they will also provide growth and deeper understanding and commitment. Then the couple may take the bad years in stride, and stop contemplating divorce the minute their marriage gets tough. If you willingly accept struggles as being a necessary part to personal as well as relationship growth you may become better at handling conflict as well. Below are suggestions to help you adapt a better attitude during those rough times in your marriage. Abuse is not a rough time, it is a sickness. I do not advocate for working through abuse, in fact abuse is one reason to divorce. An abuser needs professional attention and help to make necessary changes in their life.
Marriage retreats are very important during this time. Go to them with your partner or go to them alone. They help you look at your reactions. Your reactions can make or break a destructive cycle.
Talk more to your partner than you do to a friend when you are going through a bad time within your marriage. When you talk say one sentence to your partner’s three. Usually there is a lot of talking to during a bad period of marriage, but less talking with.
Withdrawing from intimacy is very common during the bad years. This will most definitely make things worse. As much as possible even if you cannot have sex with your partner; touch them, or hold their hand when possible.
During the bad years it is common for one partner to move out of the marital bed. If you do this, the sooner you move back in the better. Sleeping separately will destroy your marriage quickly. It shows your partner rejection and there will be a sense of abandonment. One night won’t hurt a marriage, but more than a week will.
Write to one another. Most people can write what they feel easier than they can say it. I have worked with couples who repaired their marriage with emails and hand written letters more successfully than talking.
Begin talking about your memories of your first dates. What did you like about one another? Try to get some of that feeling back as frequently as you can.
Begin dating your spouse again. Try to experience new things with them, and take a break from talking about the things that are upsetting you.
Become a team against the issue that is making the marriage fragile. If it’s a child, or an illness, you can handle it better if the two of you remain a team.
Find a church or spiritual place you both like. Some problems cannot be solved, but a spiritual connection can help you both accept the situation better. People have to grieve things differently. Your spouse may want to bury a problem they think is over, but you may still feel it very deeply. Allow one another the space to work through the problem in their own way.
Remind yourself that you took a vow and divorce is not a good option. This has helped more couples than I can count. In the end it is the commitment that will get you through the long tough days/months/years.
Every healthy happy married couple I know has had bad years. It is normal; it is to be anticipated. I would be nervous about marrying anyone who wasn’t open to talking about how to handle the difficult times prior to becoming my partner. Marriage is a lifestyle. It is an incredible shared journey with another person. That person will be your teacher, lover, best friend, worst friend, and co-parent. They deserve the best of you, the worst of you, and the truth of you. It’s not about being married “Happily ever after,” it’s about being married “Authentically ever after…and finding the happiness in that.”