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As of this date — May, 2015 — my husband and I have been married for 48 years and 4 months. It’s been a successful and happy marriage that I attribute to many things. No one knows their partner truly well before they marry — even, it seems, after you have lived together for years! — but there is no doubt that a marriage where both individuals tend to agree with the other will work better than those who are constantly at odds with each other.
A recent article in Psychology Today says: “Over the course of a relationship that can last as many as seven or eight decades, a lot happens. Personalities change, bodies age, and romantic love waxes and wanes. And no marriage is free of conflict. What enables a couple to endure is how they handle that conflict. So how do you manage the problems that inevitably arise?”
Our marriage has not been free of disagreement, but we have always been able to discuss it and find answers. Is it possible for there to be just one thing that makes the marriage a deal-breaker? I think so, yes. Fortunately, that hasn’t happened to us.
The reality is, of course, that it is truly rare for two individuals to think alike about every topic and every behaviour, so any marriage that’s going to last requires some negotiation.
From the beginning, my husband and I shared many things — from watching TV programs together, to pooling our money and always deciding together how it was going to be spent, to sharing the responsibilities of housecleaning, meal preparation, and parenting. But sharing goes deeper than actions; we also shared and discussed ideas and philosophies, common interests, and goals.
There does not have to be common ground for everything, but it helps that there is a strong sense of unity: we’re in this together; whatever comes our way, we’ll solve it together.
Sometimes, of course, sharing can involve one partner teaching the other partner something new and different. For instance, I had done little in the way of outdoor activities before I met my husband. Fortunately, he shared these experiences with me — and taught me many things along the way. I was sometimes fearful and nervous, but I experienced things I would never have experienced without my husband’s willingness to share with me. He did sometimes go without me — but this was always an agreed-upon decision prior to the trip.
It’s good that one partner can teach the other something new, but it’s also true that sometimes we need privacy or doing activities with others. That’s when it’s very important to co-operate and find compromises.
Co-Operation and Compromise
Because you cannot always share everything — and disagreements are bound to occur — then a couple has to co-operate and compromise with each other. Some compromises are easy to achieve: my husband won’t be offended if I ask him to “Please put down the toilet seat,” and I will be able to give him space if he says, “I need to be alone for an hour.” But compromises can be difficult even potentially dangerous to the relationship: It would be hard to agree with my husband if he told me wanted to take a six-month holiday without me. He would find it impossible to accept if told him I was going back to university and he would have to do all of the housework and meal preparation for the next year. When such differences occur, it’s vital to reach compromises through discussion so that both individuals feel that their needs are not being ignored.
While we have a right as individuals to choose the things we do with our lives, that changes when you are in a committed relationship, for now there is another person who is concerned for and partly dependent on you (sort of like having another mother).
Compromises have to be made: If the individual is going somewhere alone, it’s perfectly reasonable for their partner to know where they are and to keep in touch. Think about what we tell people all the time about hiking: know where you’re going, tell others where you will be, ask someone to send out searchers if you are not back by a certain time. This applies to any personal decision that affects partners in a marriage.
What activities are beyond what you can tolerate? Here are some examples of compromise that we have made over the years:
- My husband has changed careers three times in our marriage, and I have always supported him in that. He, too, has supported me in my career choices.
- Although I considered earning a Master’s degree, it was never possible because it would have meant leaving my husband and son during the summer months. I was never willing to leave him with the total responsibility of parenting for that long a time.
- My husband once had to drive for several hours on winter roads for his job (which made me very nervous and worried), but he was learning valuable skills and it made it possible for him to start his own business later.
- Because I was nervous about it, he agreed not to fly in a small airplane with a friend (who was later killed while flying).
- When we took walks or hikes together, my husband likes to take photographs. I have usually tolerated our stopping along the trail while he takes pictures, but sometimes he goes alone to not feel as though he is imposing himself on me.
- In our retirement years, because I have chosen to teach fitness classes, my schedule prevents us from doing some things that we might have done in a totally schedule-free retirement. My husband has always agreed to accommodate me so that I can meet this very important goal for myself.
- I have a very limited list of food preferences, while my husband likes to try new and sometimes exotic foods — and he simply just likes more different types of food than I do. This has been a difficult difference to accommodate. Sometimes we share food at restaurants; other times he orders something that is completely out of my own comfort zone. He backs away from some restaurants where he knows I am not likely to find anything I am willing to eat. At home, we usually eat the same meals, but sometimes we have completely different meals.
- We both accept the fact that sometimes we need privacy (this is an issue that has come up much more in our retirement years), and we both make an effort to leave the other one alone for a little while every few days.
It is inevitable that co-operation can occur if there is support and respect for each other. I emphasize that it has to be a two-way street.
Support and Respect
If a couple has common goals, support and respect will automatically follow. If each person has individual goals, and we all have individual goals, then it’s necessary to offer mutual support — as long as long as that compromise doesn’t infringe on one’s own needs. Consider the doctor’s motto: “First, do no harm.” Each person in a relationship must understand the hopes, desires and dreams of the other. In the absence of compromise in a relationship, harm is inevitable.
My husband and I have always supported our individual career choices, as well as our specific wishes of activities to do in our spare time. They have not always been in sync, but we’ve always found a compromise that both of us could be comfortable with. That’s because we love each other, and we value the other’s judgement and opinions.
Each partner has to have empathy for the other’s issues. This cannot last for just a day, or a year, but it must be a part of your relationship throughout the years of marriage. As soon as a person thinks that the marriage is safe and you will always be happy, something will happen to change that. It’s not as though you must be constantly alert to difficulties, but you cannot get complacent and over-confident.
When there is a disagreement, there has to be respect for the other person. Lack of empathy, personal insults, abuse, threats, and of course violence are absolutely not on the table.
My husband and I, first and foremost, are best friends. Everything else comes after.
An article in Psychology Today comments on this:
“‘At the heart of [a good relationship],’ writes Dr. Walter Gottman, a University of Washington psychology professor, ‘is the simple truth that happy marriages are based on deep friendship. By this I mean a mutual respect for each other's company,’ plus an intimate knowledge of each other's quirks, likes and dislikes. This explains [his] finding that frequent fighting is not a sign of a bad marriage (unless, of course, it becomes physical abuse). Because while all couples argue, it is the spouses who are friends first who have the advantage.’”
Individual Rights vs. Couple Rights
I think one of the biggest problems today is that everyone seems to have a sense of entitlement. Despite the wedding vows, there is an assumption that two individuals in a marriage should still be able to do everything that they have always done — or even introduce a new idea and expect instant acceptance from their partner. But, once married, you are no longer single, but a partner in a relationship. Everything that you do affects your partner, and you must include an understanding of your partner’s concerns in your relationship.
Where do you draw the line between what’s right for each of you as individuals and what’s right for you as a couple? As soon as you marry someone (or commit in any way), you have responsibilities and obligations to them — the same as you would if you were a parent. Once married, you have committed yourself to a life with your partner, and if you do something that bothers the other person, there has to be discussion, compromise, and co-operation. Once you are part of a couple, you have to think in terms of “we,” not “I.”
And so I end this discussion with the one topic that hasn’t been mentioned yet: the sexual relationship. Everything already mentioned applies to a couple’s most intimate moments. If things don’t go well in the bedroom, they may not go well anywhere else in the house.
Here are the other personal articles I have written about my life:
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