"What if I never have a happy marriage?"
*This is an excerpt from one of my schmoozeletter emails.*
One of the more painful categories of work we do is talking with people who are feeling unfulfilled in their marriages, but not necessarily ready, willing, or able to leave them.
This might be because of personal ambivalence- like they're not totally sure if they want out; sometimes they are ok, but not as happy or connected as they want to be.
It's sometimes because of children- the sense that if you have a family together, it takes that much more impetus to leave a not-awful situation, than if you can make a clean, individual break.
Often it's financial fears: "we can barely support one household between us; how could we manage two?" And sometimes it's the fear of the unknown, or that one would just be trading in one sad situation for another.
Of course, one of the best feelings for a couples therapist is when we can identify points of potential connection and healing for the couple, and help them find a way to understand, enjoy, love, and support each other authentically and mutually. And that can happen- more often than people realize.
But there are times when that might not be a realistic goal- especially if one or both partners describe never having felt the chemistry in the first place. In these cases, often one or even both partners might express depression or anxiety about the ostensible hopelessness of the situation, asking questions like: "What if we never get there? What if we're just not the kind of people who can be fully happy together?"
It's an understandable fear. Society puts such a premium on the idea of "happily ever after." Disney, Hollywood, social media, pop psychology, even cultural religious marriage ideals and messaging can paint a picture of "if you just figure out how to attract/ be the 'perfect' partner, you will find the secret to soulmate-flavored marital bliss." But for the majority of couples, even including many very happy ones, that might not be a realistic yardstick.
Marriage is moments.
Moments strung together with words, feelings, thoughts, and actions.
It will be as imperfect and messy as the two individuals in it, squared.
Some marriages are clearly meant to last, some are not, and many are unclear either way.
That uncertainty is a special kind of torment.
Sometimes, when working with a spouse or couple who's in this place of ambivalence, asking that "what if we never get 'there'" question, I try to challenge the binary of "there."
"What is 'there'? The feeling of total infatuation with one another? Do most couples have, or sustain that? Let's say it's a continuum. If 1 is: "we need to get divorced yesterday", and 10 "passionate, blissful soulmates," then where are you now? If your current status ranges from a 3-6, what if we could learn how to do fewer 3 moments, and learn how to create interactions that feel like 5-8? Would that be worth a try? How would that change your individual perceptions and goals? Can we start with that?"
These "scaling questions" allow us to more gently confront and deconstruct the painful, realistic question of "what if we never get 'there'?"
Because relationships aren't usually races with finish lines. They're processes, albeit with micro-goals along the way. And there need to be defining rules and boundaries for safety.
But like most complexities of life, it's a spectrum, not black and white, and there's usually room for change and growth. Maybe getting to a range of 5-7 would be transformative and beautiful in its own imperfect way, if we stopped fixating on the elusive, unrealistic 10?
There are no guarantees, but you don't know unless or until you try.
This week in the Jewish calendar marks the date of "Tu b'av" - a historical mini-holiday on which we focus on the idea of love and marriage.
In this week's Torah portion, Moshe/ Moses begs G-d once again for entry into the Promised Land. His finish line. His "what if we never get 'there'?" goal. His "10." His whole life's work was to convince over a million people and their children that they had a destination, a purpose, a home. That G-d was leading them someplace really special. And he has to confront the agony of knowing that just when they're about to cross an actual finish line, he knows that he will miss out. And that as painful as that is for him emotionally, that is what it's supposed to be, spiritually. This was the complete version of his marriage.
We humans HATE not getting what we want. Especially if we believe we want it for noble reasons. And we generally protest it; even a super-human like Moshe, who had the most unique relationship with G-d of anyone, ever. Can we really expect more of ourselves? I don't think so. We're allowed to struggle, supposed to.
In the very same portion, it says: "Love G-d with all your heart, your soul, and your intensity." How do we love One who hurts and denies us our deepest, loftiest goals? It's not easy- maybe that's why this verse is said twice a day in the Shma prayer. But that's one definition of what love is. Devotion, even. Even if it's not exactly giving me what i want always. If there's enough of a foundation for trust and giving and working towards a "maybe," including disappointment.
Love: of G-d, in marriage, of the self, is going to look different for each of us, and morph in different moments and seasons. And it's a practice and a process- there can be a little, a lot, pure, passionate, or mixed in with lots of other feelings- including anger, doubt, and fear. Fortunately, love is dynamic, creative, forgiving, and flexible like that.
Hoping you find all kinds of realistic love and insight in your life,
*If you'd like to see more stuff like this- you can! RIGHT HERE
Thank you so much to the schmoozeletter subscribers who offer constructive feedback, which lead to blog posts like these.