Here’s my experience, and that of most of the women I talk to: Marriage is F—ING HARD. I have had this conversation with many of my girlfriends as well as members of my THRIVE membership for women 40+. Some of these women have been married for decades (or re-married), some are divorced, others are widowed. And we all agree that marriage takes A LOT OF WORK.
I don’t know what I was thinking when I got married. Truth is I probably wasn’t thinking—swept away as I was by the joy and festivities of our romance, engagement, and wedding. Our love would conquer all!
I should have known better. After all, I’d been married and divorced before (a “starter marriage” that lasted only a year before it fell apart). You’d think I’d have entered this second marriage with greater maturity and clarity.
Why would I expect it to be easy? Peter and I were 32 when we married and both living pretty unconsciously. Unaware of our family-of-origin issues and unhealthy coping tools that would cause many conflicts over the years, both in our relationship and in the way we parented our twin girls.
When our daughters left for college four years ago, there was a lot of built-up anger and pain between us. At 54, we separated and seriously considered a divorce.
When it came down to a decision, we couldn’t pull the trigger and agreed to give our marriage another go.
With the help of a skilled marital therapist, as well as our own individual psychotherapists, we are working through our issues. And let me tell you, it is hard work.
It begins with each of us developing a clearer and more grounded sense of Self, one that allows us to be individuals with our own identities, feelings, and opinions. A Self that feels empowered to clearly communicate our needs and boundaries, to ourselves and to each other. A Self that respects our differences and tolerates difficult feelings that might come up as a result of these differences.
This shoring up of the Self is necessary because many of us lose our Self in our marriage. We subsume our needs for those of our partner and/or our children. We fuse with the other and this enmeshment prevents us from maintaining our own individuality alongside the duality of the couple.
The goal, then, is a “differentiated relationship.” I’ll let my own marital therapist explain what that means:
In differentiated relationships, partners can give each other space in which to have their own emotions while remaining close enough to offer loving support, but not so close that they lose themselves emotionally.
In differentiated relationships, partners are free to assert their own experience without needing to either deny the reality of the other person’s perspective or to adopt it as their own (because they’re afraid of being isolated or rejected).
Each partner gets to be a separate person and also gets to be connected; “separation plus linkage” means that each contributes something unique to the collaboration.
That’s how complexity is achieved, when there are many interconnected elements responding to one another without any one dominating or silencing the others.
A healthy marriage is an ongoing, lifelong project with the goal to establish the primacy of the Self while tending to the needs of the couple.
All this to day that in any long-term relationship, we are never “done.” Each and every day, we must choose (or not) to re-commit to each other, to continue to learn and grow, individually and as a couple. Consciously. Willingly.
I don’t know what the future holds for my marriage; there are no guarantees. As Esther Perel points out, most of us will have several long-term relationships—and some of these may be with the same person. Peter and I agree: We are creating a new marriage. We are leaning into discovery, honesty, and compassion. One day at a time.
YOUR TURN: What has been YOUR experience with sustaining a marriage or a long-term relationship? Please share your wisdom in the comments!