And They Lived Happily Ever After . . . Or Did They?

ImageWe all have our own expectations of what makes a great relationship. While there may be a few women holding to the position that marriage is not for them; for the vast majority of us, marriage still represents that ideal which is the pinnacle of commitment. Yes, any two people can decide to live together in a house but I guess a public promise of love, unswerving devotion and fidelity is as good as it will get for most of us.

For many, marriage is superior because it signals a willingness to be held legally accountable for how we feel about the one that we love. To top this off, we usually spend enough money and work enough romantic symbolism into our wedding ceremonies to last a lifetime; or so we think. Very often, we hope that these will be enough to sustain the ideal of what we think a great marriage relationship should be. But this is usually where our problem lies; our expectations don’t usually match our individual realities. This discrepancy can actually push us at least to a lifetime of disappointment or at worst, towards the divorce courts if we’re not careful.

While not shooting down the idea of having standards or marriage goals, many of our idealistic expectations represent our childish or immature beliefs about what our marriages should look like; all the time. Without necessarily articulating it, we expect that “true love” will always bring with it fulfillment and easy transitions. Because we’ve been sold on romance, ά la the fairy tale and Hollywood, we’re often not prepared for the grueling reality that marriage is indeed hard work laced with its fair share of the mundane. But this is where fantasy ends and commitment kicks in. Whether or not we are living happily every day, are we prepared to stick it out for the long haul? Because this is where the commitment we made at the altar is actually put into operation.

When the sex is fresh and new and regular, when our partner is still bending over backwards to please us and when he/she still looks really sexy and well-kept, commitment is not so much an issue. We’re usually enjoying our happiness on auto-pilot and can’t imagine another life; of course we imagine we’re really committed! When change comes to our marriage, however, as it invariably will, this is when we have to decide daily to live the commitment we promised.

Practically, this will involve re-framing how we see the changes which come, as well as revisiting how we respond to them. For example, our partner lets himself go physically and begins to take our unswerving attention for granted. How should we respond? The easy way out may be to ignore his sexual advances, fume inwardly even as we give in or worst yet, check out the new cute guy at the office.

While these responses may be very human, knee-jerk reactions for many of us, none of them speak of commitment. Firmly and clearly communicating to our husband what we need from him, is going to be critical at this point. In another popular example, a husband may enjoy his new wife’s sexual and emotional availability for a season. When baby enters the picture, however, he experiences a significant change as he seems to be no longer the centre of attention at home. He can choose to sulk, spend more time with the boys, have an affair to ensure his needs are met or he could ditch his self-centred attitude and pitch in to ensure his wife gets adequate rest.

Again, this is where our understanding of commitment should influence behavior. Commitment is not about settling for any old thing in marriage but involves our active efforts to make the relationship work, as opposed to kicking it to the curb at the first sign of trouble.

Since I’ve been married for quite some time, I’m convinced that “happily ever after” is an individual reality born out of how we choose to handle our unavoidable marital challenges. If we do want to stay married, learning how to operationalize commitment is not an option. The following eleven tips should help us to gain some perspective on the issue of living out our marriage commitment in practical ways:

  • Accept human imperfection in both yourself and your spouse and see it as a gateway for personal development and change
  • Choose loving confrontation when unhappy or dissatisfied with some aspect of your relationship; this means that talking about how you feel is always critical; decide from the outset that you will not choose easy escape routes like emotional detachment or affairs
  • Protect your relationship from negative external influences (friends, family, cohorts) who encourage you to bail out at the first sign of marital stress
  • Set realistic goals for your marriage and work together at making them happen
  • See love as a choice, not a feeling that is based purely on sexual chemistry or attractiveness
  • Choose significant moments like birthdays, anniversaries or any day for that matter, to relive the memories of how you met, got engaged or got married; keeping alive the magic of your early relationship is still significant to the health of your marriage but understand that while this may be a tool to enhance your commitment, it should not be the basis for it
  • Develop relationship loyalty by actively demonstrating that you and your spouse are on the same team; practice “having each others back” instead of competing
  • Never neglect your sexual relationship; keep this “one-flesh” reality of your relationship going to demonstrate how exclusive and set apart your relationship really is from all others; this means actively working to make your sex better
  • Strive to demonstrate a “higher-order” love that is unconditional  and loves “in spite of”
  • Never share your  marital challenges with someone you feel sexually attracted to; this represents the antithesis of commitment and loyalty
  • If you sense your relationship  is becoming unglued and you both seem unable to handle it on your own, choose a reputable counselor, coach, pastor or therapist to help you get your marriage back on track

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