What do people mean when they say, “You have to work hard at marriage?” They are alluding to the hard-to-accept truth that a good marriage doesn’t happen by itself. Things won’t fall into place effortlessly, as it might have did when you first started dating.
When you first start dating someone, what has to fall into place for the relationship to go smoothly? Not much. Essentially, it boils down to mutually-agreed exclusivity and logistical viability. You need mutual attraction and the space/time/capability to interact with each other. Based on this, you’re potentially compatible with many people as far as dating and hooking up goes.
In contrast, marriage is much more complicated. Many more variables need to align. So much more has to fall into place, and these things won’t fall into place by themselves because they’re just too complicated. Although you and your spouse might share common ground in some areas, there are many things you won’t see eye-to-eye on because you’re both unique individuals with your own idiosyncrasies shaped by genetics, upbringing, and unique experiences. Consider how different you and your siblings are despite being the same ethnicity, growing up in the same house with the same music and TV shows, and going to the same school. You’re wildly different. Now consider how different that makes you from your spouse, who may have grown up in a different town, state, or even country than you.
On many issues you must negotiate, compromise, and painstakingly figure out how to fit things together properly, like a puzzle. Where should you live? Is it important to live close to family? Should you rent or buy? How important is work/life balance? Who should pay for what? What’s the maximum amount of mess you’re willing to tolerate in your house before your peace of mind is disrupted? How should mutual downtime be spent? Should you have children? When? How many? What will their names be? Should they be raised religiously? How should they be disciplined, if at all? Will they be sent to public school, private school, or homeschooled? What happens when you don’t agree with each other? What does your spouse like to spend their discretionary income on? Are they savers or spenders? Are they in a lot of debt? Do they have a gambling/drug problem? Are they clean, or stoically indifferent to a messy house? When they come home, do they like to wind down and relax, or are they workaholics who bring their work home? Do they like to spend a lot of time with their friends? Do they invite those friends over often? Are their friends dangerous to the integrity of your relationship? Do they have a vice you didn’t know about?
Each and every one of these issues (and so much more) are like a war zone full of mines that you both must navigate together. No matter who it is, you’ll have issues.
The thing that people seem to get wrong is that they want to find “compatibility”. They want someone who is like them, who likes the same things, thinks the same way, and hates the same stuff. Basically, they want to date themselves, but the punchline is that most people hate themselves, too. So they’re back where they started.
No one’s compatible, not even with themselves. But the good news is that people, no matter how different, can find ways to get along over time.
In a good marriage where trust has been cultivated, your spouse will willingly alert you as to where their personal minefields are on the battlefield that you both occupy. And if you are an equally good spouse, you will tread lightly as you negotiate gently with your spouse so that they’ll continue to guide you through their minefields safely so that you can see their point of view, and not regret letting you get closer.
The ultimate goal is not to get your spouse to stay on your side of the minefield, but to meet each other willingly in a new place–a place where the both of you can be without feeling the need to protect yourself with a minefield.
But the only way to do that is to meet your spouse on their side of the minefield first, and see things from their perspective. Why did they put a minefield here? What hurt them in the past so much that they need this minefield here? Only then can you understand them.
Only when they know in their heart that you understand them, will they begin to trust you. And maybe they might listen to what you have to say.
Some issues are easy to resolve. Other issues can take weeks, months, or even years of hard clashing before the both of you can agree to leave the safety and certainty of your minefields for a new place where you can both coexist peacefully.
But even if it takes 3 years to finally resolve an issue permanently, it’s possible that arguing for 3 years to reach a mutually acceptable peace is a good investment if your marriage ends up lasting 50 years.
The younger me would have scoffed at this idea. In my arrogance, I would have quipped, “There’s no way I’m going to tolerate arguing with someone about anything for 3 years. If she won’t do things my way, then I’ll just find someone else!”
But the fact is, there’s no one out there who is going to see things your way all the time. And if there is, you will probably get bored of them in weeks and want to break up with them, anyway. Because the reality is, you’re probably wrong about a lot of things, and you need someone to challenge you when you must be challenged, so that you can get rid of the worst parts of yourself and grow.
This is what you need marriage for.
There is no person who is willing to even consider putting up with your nonsense until you’re 90 besides someone who is legally, morally, and spiritually obligated to you, and reputationally chained to you. Your parents will eventually die. Your children will eventually leave to blaze their own trails and adventures. And your friends will increasingly be focused on their own lives whether you like it or not.
If that’s how it’s going to be, then I’d argue that even 10 years of high-stakes negotiating in a 50-year marriage is well worth the resulting 40 years of meaningful, quality companionship. For half of people, this isn’t how it ends up working out, but the reason that people keep getting married is because the proposition of failure is worth it–if you can make your marriage work, it is heaven on earth, and you will never be alone. Your boss might not understand you, your friends might not really know the real you, but your wife will.
Do not be afraid to fight towards peace. Often times, the people we come to trust and respect the most were once our most bitter and ferocious rivals. This happens in sports all the time, and even business. The bond you forge with a worthy opponent is one of mutual respect. It’s not granted. It’s earned.
To me, that must be what people mean when they say you have to work hard at marriage.