Do you believe that somewhere out there is a marital union in which two people are so in love and well-suited for one another that there's never any conflict, any strain, any pain? Your head may tell you that no couple could exist in such an idyllic state, but your heart may believe otherwise.
If so, your heart is leading you astray, says Linda Wolfe, author of an article called "Imperfect Marriages." Wolfe, who's out to shatter any magical notion that marriages come in perfect packages, challenges: How, in fact, can there be perfect marriages, when there are no perfect people? Wolfe blames the myth of the perfect marriage largely on the media, which, she says, generally portray marriage as an ideal state, constantly drumming the myth of "happily ever after" through books, television, movies, songs, even greeting cards.Believing in the myth comes in part from glamorizing other people's relationships, continues Wolfe. " `They're so perfect together,' you hear. `They were meant for each other.' " Never mind that most couples are reluctant to admit, except to their closest friends, the imperfections that riddle their relationships, so that we often imagine such relationships to be idyllic and totally satisfying.
There are dangers in accepting the myth of the perfect marriage, Wolfe warns. Couples can become dense to the possibility of working out problems in marriage - dealing with an imperfect marriage, as opposed to landing in the perfect one: "Such people think that the world is full of endless options for them. This notion - like belief in the perfect marriage - is utterly fallacious but persistent."
Further, couples who believe in the perfect marriage are apt to get an "all-is-lost-feeling" as soon as normal differences emerge in the relationship: "They tend to think the whole relationship is wrong. The next thing you know, they're talking about separating."
Couples may abandon a present marriage, imagining that the imperfections in their relationships will disappear if they find new partners. Rarely does this happen. Instead, old flaws simply resurface in new relationships because they were caused not by their partners but by them-selves.
Notes Wolfe, "When people marry, they bring with them as a kind of dowry their own personalities and problems. And if they divorce and remarry, they take that dowry with them. . . . Many people imagine that if only they had a new partner, everything would be all right. They forget that they themselves are the same old people who negotiated the troubled relationship in the first place."
OK, you may say, I'm still working on my heart, but my head is convinced that it's true - there are no perfect marriages. So what do I do now? How do I get a wonderful, deliciously inspired imperfect marriage? There are no easy answers, of course, but try these ideas on for size:
- Recognize that, after the courtship phase is over, no relationship stays the same - the passion will dwindle. And that no relationship can escape periods in which it goes a bit stale or produces arguments and quarrels. So plan on it.
"Even the most highly evolved couple, one that got together for all the right reasons, is going to have bad, sad, boring times," says Judith Stone, author of an article called "The Marriage Go-Round." Consequently, to survive gracefully in a relationship, "you must be willing to have days and weeks when you're not really close, when you have problems communicating, when things aren't wonderful. You have to let things ebb and flow."
- Increase chances of an imperfect - but perfectly viable marriage - by using "selective insensitivity" - the habit of overlooking annoying habits in each other. Lois Leiderman Davitz, author of the article, "The Big Secrets of Adoring Couples," cites a case in point - a happily married couple of some 40 years: "Every time they went to a restaurant his wife complained about the cost of the dinner and a stomachache from the seasonings," Davitz reports.
Did this drive this man crazy after 40 years? Not at all, she says. He practiced selective insensitivity. If he had listened and reacted and been sensitive to her remarks, they would have had battles every time they dined out.
Davitz advises identifying in your own mind what is worth being sensitive to and what demands "selective insensitivity." The next time you find yourself irritated at your mate, ask yourself these questions: Is this issue life-threatening? Is it worth making a fuss about? Will my life change, or will I truly be happier, if I vibrate right now?
- Mind your manners. Most potential "imperfect but perfectly viable marriages" sour when couples lose their manners. Often partners somehow manage to square their expectations that they have a right to the best of manners from a spouse while they are themselves are being ill-mannered.
Speaking of "marital manners," Judith Voist, author of an article called, "What Makes Your Marriage Work," reports, "I used to believe that marriage meant I could say, straight out, whatever I thought and felt. I used to believe that using tact and diplomacy and mannerliness and kid gloves was, in a close relationship, kind of phony. I've subsequently discovered that the courtesies of life make the marriage machinery run more smoothly. My feelings now about marital manners is, `Have some.' "
- Jo Ann Larsen is a therapist practicing in Salt Lake City.