by guest blogger Pam Fullerton, psychotherapist and writer
I recently read an article in The New York Times by philosopher Alain de Botton that ignited my thoughts on marriage. Among many things, de Botton expresses in the article a belief that “Choosing whom to commit ourselves to is merely a case of identifying which particular variety of suffering we would most like to sacrifice ourselves for.” Further, he supports pessimism rather than the romantic idea of marriage, stating, “Pessimism relieves the excessive imaginative pressure that our romantic culture places upon marriage.”
Marriage is challenging and complex; I would never argue that—ever. And I would never argue that moments and degrees of suffering exist in marriage. In our 25 years of marriage, my husband and I have had our share of suffering. However, I do believe that while some degree of suffering will, at times, exist in marriage, marriage is more of a struggle or a challenge rather than it is suffering—which implies despair, hopelessness, and a lifetime of misery. To say “struggle” or “challenge” more accurately implies the reality of the challenges that come with marriage, and that there will be times that are more challenging than others. (Keep in mind I never encourage one to stay in a marriage of abuse.)
Pessimism, by contrast, creates despair, which can create a desire to find your way out, as opposed to finding a way to stay in the marriage or finding ways to stay in love. At one point in our marriage, my husband and I decided to email each other a weekly positive reflection about the other. In preparing to find a positive reflection, I found my brain flooded with positive memories, and suddenly, serotonin was flooding my brain! And to think, we had decided to do this because we were going through a challenging time in our marriage. What a pleasant surprise!
It’s easy to focus on the hurt, disappointment, and pain, but when you balance those challenges with positive memories, it brings needed relief in the form of love and hope.
I believe that marriage is a balance of joy and pain, hope and loss, love and doubt, challenge and victory, companionship and loneliness, and so on.
Love changes over time, as does the romantic aspect of love. I feel romantic toward my husband when he plays with our grandson or when he chuckles about something only he knows about me. Or when we enjoy a summertime meal that I’ve created and spend the evening in our backyard, chatting while losing touch with time. And I know that he feels the same in return.
Marriage is a lifetime of learning about oneself, if you choose to do so, and if you do, it can be life-changing in a good way. Marriage—rather than suffering—can be viewed as “commitment to stay in the challenge” and “choosing personal growth.”
Marriage is a lifetime investment that has its payoffs and its losses. The payoffs can be personal growth, shared experiences, and a lifetime of memories. Even the painful experiences can be transformed into growth if you choose to self-reflect in your marriage. The loss might be recognizing that one person cannot meet all of your needs as perhaps you once hoped. Loss is recognizing that your hopes and dreams for your life together will not unfold as you imagined.
However, you will almost certainly have positive experiences in your marriage that you never imagined. I never imagined that my husband and I would enjoy some of the things in our life. We spent the first half of it in financial hardship raising four children. During those times, I never imagined that we would be able to do some of the things that we now enjoy.
The challenges each of us experience in marriage will vary from marriage to marriage for a variety of reasons. There are those among us who have had more than their fair share of hurt and pain growing up, therefore being in a marriage may take more work because they learned about relationships only through hurt and pain. Also, one never knows what life will throw at you—unexpected death, loss, and hardship—and these unexpected painful experiences will challenge a marriage.
Believe me—regarding personal growth in marriage—I’ve had times when I have wished for the personal growth to come to an end! Living alone can sound inviting, especially when I have felt trapped in my marriage. I don’t know of many people who haven’t felt trapped, hopeless, and helpless at some point in their marriage. When you make an investment in a life together, it’s inevitable that during times of disconnection you will feel trapped.
Like so many, I never expected to experience disappointment in marriage. Sadly, I had only hopes and dreams for a future with my husband. When reality hits, it hits hard. Reality would not be so hard if all of us were better prepared for marriage and if learning about relationships became a part of our education!
Marriage is a partnership in which we go through the battlefield and the joy of life together. Yes, it has its growing pains—that can cause suffering. Given the complexities of humans and the complexities of life, struggle in marriage is inevitable. However, marriage is a partnership that is meant to pull you through life. It can provide safety, security, camaraderie, and collaboration.
A partnership in marriage means that you know you share the same mission in life, that someone always has your back, and that you go though things together. This does not mean that you do not enjoy separateness, separate interests, and separate friends, but these separate times are even more enjoyable because you know that you always have a partnership behind you.
And this is what no one tells you before you marry: Isolation is the cause of suffering, and you will feel isolation in your marriage. This is the cause of loneliness. You will always have times of loneliness in your marriage during times of disconnection, due to the complexities of a relationship. However, times of disconnection can be productive if used to self-reflect, learn, and grow. Pain can bring growth and result in a deeper and more loving connection with your partner.
Staying In Love
We need to learn how to stay in love after we’ve been hurt by the one we love. And we need to learn how to be in a relationship with all of its complexities. We need to recognize that learning is necessary for growth in connection with one another. All of us seek to be understood, accepted, respected, and loved, flaws and all, and to be seen (and loved) for who we are as a person; however, this takes learning about all aspects of a relationship.
Gaining perspective on our marriage is challenging because we don’t have the distance to see clearly. I am able to help couples in therapy because I can view their relationship from a distance. It’s easier for me to help others than it is to gain perspective in my marriage! It’s much more challenging to gain distance, clarity, and a healthy perspective in one’s own marriage. Help from another person who is fair and understands both sides can provide hope. It’s when we lack hope, feel trapped, and feel lost in marriage that we need support from others.
Remember, though, we must learn, learn, and then learn more how to stay in love. Learn how to love after hurt, injury, miscommunication, and the challenges that life will present to you.
You cannot “fly by the seat of your pants” in marriage—it’s a lifelong journey of discovery. But it’s a discovery that can be beautiful, liberating, and enlightening if you do it as if you were taking a lifelong class that always offers something new to uncover.
If you would like to learn more about relationships, I wrote this for you: Ten Essential Things I’ve Learned About Marriage & Relationships, which includes the lesson that saved my marriage. I care about the work that I put out to you, and I hope you find it helpful. Please let me know!
Pam Fullerton has been in private practice as a psychotherapist for the past 19 years. Although she works with a variety of life issues that are presented to her in therapy, her passion is to understand the vast complexities of all relationships. She believes that healthy connections with others are what promote personal growth. Keep up with her writings on relationships, mindfulness, and more by subscribing here.