Marriage: Staying the Course

Disclaimer:   I’m  a divorced woman who worked hard to save her marriage.  If you’re reading this and are divorced, please know I’m not judging you.  I’m simply sharing my stance:  I believe there is no perfect match for each person and that most marriages can be saved if both parties work hard at loving, learning, and listening.  Most. 

A few days ago, I ran across this  blog post by Lori Lowe, We All Married the Wrong Person, while perusing the Freshly Pressed page from WordPress, a list of 10 recent posts.  It’s an eclectic list, but I generally follow a few of the links.  Sometimes they’re actually good reads.  This post from Marriage Gems:  Research-based Marriage Tips and Insights hooked me.

In her post, she reviews some work of psychiatrist and author Scott Haltzman, MD, specifically his writings about choosing of a life partner and staying with that partner.  In short, he holds most people emphasize finding the right person, often dating numerous potential mates in the hopes of finding Mr. or Ms. Right, or (and I really detest this term) one’s soul mate.  He goes on to explain that if a successful marriage depended on doing that careful search that more people would stay married, given the dating habits they have.  After all, they’ve tried out plenty of candidates in search of the best fit.  But that system doesn’t work.  Working one’s way through more choices doesn’t increase marital success, and the divorce rate reflects that. 

Simply put, more available choices don’t make for a better product.  Now, I could have told you that.  That’s why I shop at Trader Joe’s.  Fewer choices in a smaller place makes for easier decision-making.  I live without what they don’t have (okay, I make a separate run for the ice cream I like).  Plus, they’re just so darn friendly there, and, at least at my particular store, the lines are really short.  But I digress.

I’ve heard many a woman (and I’ve talked to many more women than men about relationships – go figure) dreamily talk about meeting her soul mate.  Really?  On a planet of almost 7 billion people, you’re going to meet the one person who will fulfill your every desire in a mate?  Even with internet dating (and I admit I haven’t done that), the chances of finding that perfect mate seem, well, worse than being struck by lightning in a given year (1 in 750,000 per the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association). 

People and marriages aren’t perfect.  Neither are kids, and no one tries out a bunch of those, choosing the one we deem to be the best fit or, worse, tossing the one we have at age 2 or 13 because they really aren’t what we want anymore (there could be quite a few 13-year-old orphans if that was an acceptable option). We keep the ones we get.   Life isn’t perfect.  It’s wholly unpredictable, as are the people in it.  Add in a few of those not-so-handpicked kids and you’re awash in imperfection.   And that’s just fine. 

Now I’m all for caution when considering partnering for life.  Certainly one looks for red flags:  bodies in the trunk, a string of past marriages/relationships that “just didn’t work”, and, depending on your bent, an aversion to chocolate.  That’s not including the biggies:  substance abusers, people abusers, already married folks, etc.  Sure, some screening is good.  But the perfect mate isn’t out there.  Really.  Because no one is perfect, and no one is perfect for anyone else.  And this is Haltzman’s point.  I’d add that the longer the list of what a potential mate must have/do/be, the more likely we are to be disappointed (and perhaps leave the marriage) down the line.  Because even when we think we’ve chosen carefully, Haltzman maintains, we’re still unable to choose the “right” person because we’re a bit blinded by love.  Those endorphins, pheromones, and hormones don’t lead to the clearest of thinking, it seems.  Shocking, huh? 

Haltzman sums it up this way:

I strongly agree.  It’s impossible to choose a “perfect partner” (as Lowe’s blog post title affirms), but it is possible to stay in the marriage and, I believe, find happiness.  As a culture, we’re focused on finding perfection in all:  the perfect car, house, job, shoes, cell phone, and, of course, partner.  It’s a consumer mentality:  find the perfect item and toss it when it ceases to be perfect.  Or when you realize that it never was perfect.  That’s flighty enough when it comes to vehicle choice, but it’s downright wrong when it comes to dealing with your life partner (and I’d agree with Haltzman regarding extreme scenarios such as those he posed being exceptions).
Divorce will happen — I’d maintain that it should happen in some circumstances.   But perhaps less expectation of perfection in one’s partner and the relationship and more focus on acceptance and love would help more couples avoid divorce and improve their relationships.  Simplistic sounding, perhaps, but certainly not easy.  Coming from the other side of a 15 year marriage, I’d say it’s worth a good try.

18 thoughts on “Marriage: Staying the Course

  1. There is one bit of my own advice that I repeatedly come back to when the slightest possibility of separation from my spouse arises: From thirteen years of marriage, I already have a handle on his dirty laundry (literally and figuratively). Why would I want to start over and try to figure out someone else’s? As you say, there are exceptions for extreme situations… but so far I haven’t had to deal with any of those! Thanks for another great read!

  2. …How did you both know I needed some perspective today?! That IS why I shop at Trader Joes too. Shopping around seems enticing until it comes down to doing it. I concur with the point about “his dirty laundry.” It’s good to realize how far we’ve come together (sometimes I get caught up in how far we still have to go!). Being in the moment isn’t always the best advice for me, sometimes I have to step out and gain perspective again.

    Once again two of my favorite blog authors hit home for me.

  3. Thanks for this. My husband and I are about to have our 20th anniversary and many times I joked that we are still together because we couldn’t afford to divorce (which was my parent’s joke, too, until they retired and seemed to recommit all over again). I’ve been having a version of this conversation with my husband lately, not about being married but about choices we have made along the way and how those choices have affected where we are now. I remember hearing that a successful marriage starts with choosing well and while that may be a good start, I think there are then a series of choices that we make along the way that ALSO have to be good. And sometimes those choices are to move in different directions, even divorce.

    • You’re welcome, and thanks for sharing. It is way too expensive, and if that stalls folks from it, all the better. Choosing well is indeed a start, but it’s only a start. I was never a big fan of the wedding process (although we had one — not too big but much to, well, much). All that fuss for one day when it was the rest of our lives together that were the main point. My ex always maintained that he didn’t see why people said marriage was hard — he thought it was easy. I never quite got that. I can understand divorce a bit better if it is a mutual decision, but so often, it seems one person has decided they’re done and the other one is left without a say in the decision. No stats on that, just my observations. And my personal experience.
      All the best to you and your husband!


  4. Perfect! I’ve always felt like I kill the whimsy in folks when I tell them I don’t believe in a soul mate. There is just a person, you like, a lot, and you are going to try and make it work!
    Now Skye is all into Disney princess right now. I hope the idea of soul mate doesn’t ingrain it’s self in her.

    • Michelle, I’m sure you have plenty of years to scrape that idea out of her mind, should it implant. Fortunately, the Disney years are generally quite a bit of time before the mate-choosing years.

  5. Soul mates? Meh. But I do think that the “Marriage is hard work” approach, which is embedded in essays like “We all married the wrong person,” dismisses too much the reality that some people **ARE** more compatible than others. For my money the single best advice manual on marriage is “Will Our Love Last?” by Sam Hamburg. And for the record, I’m someone who is divorced and in a second marriage.

    • Thanks for contributing! Sure, some people are more compatable than other. That’s why you should choose carefully, but don’t expect that you’ll have it all figured out before you say, “I do.” My understanding of Haltzman is that once you’ve chosen carefully (and truly understand neither of you to be perfect), then work within yourself as well as with your partner. I didn’t include that excerpt (in the interest of trying to stay on point), but the here it is: experience together. Dr. Haltzman offers the following tips for improving connection:

      ■Respect your mate for his/her positive qualities, even when they have some important negative ones.
      ■Be the right person, instead of looking for the right person.
      ■Be a loving person, instead of waiting to get love.
      ■Be considerate instead of waiting to receive consideration.

      I’m working my way through “If the Buddha Married” (Charlotte Kasl ), but I’ll look into your recommendation in the coming weeks.

      Many (probably most) of my readers are already married. Choosing isn’t the issue. Staying with the choice is.


  6. I think about this all the time. If I bailed (or if Brian did) every time it got hard, there’s so much I would have missed. I apply this concept to my friendships and even broader belonging concepts (i.e. church). I feel like most of the deeper meaning in my life has come from resolution of discomfort and working through things rather than avoidance in all it’s forms.

    • Amen, Breanna. It works across life, albiet not with the outcome we want every time. It’s just such an imperfect world full of imperfect beings, isn’t it? 😉 I’m glad my imperfect self has such grand company.

    • Thank you, Breanna. You summed up what I was feeling but unable to articulate. Reminds me of my favorite quote from “A League of Their Own”: “If it was easy, everyone would do it.” Same goes for deep committment to another person, to children, to policy work, to church life, etc.

  7. Good post Sarah. I have always been critical of divorce too, for the same reason. No one is perfect, no marriage is perfect, and I think far too many people forget that. Our society is obsessed with ‘romantic love’ and as soon as things get comfy and the spark goes they are off searching for that new kick from a new person. That being said, there are marriages that are really wrong, and it’s sad that people ending those marriages are judged because of it.

    • I completely agree, Christina. The caveats I mention (as stated by Haltzman) are a good start, and they can appear anytime. I’d always say that it takes two working at it. Sure, I can give love, be accepting, etc., but it really takes two doing that to make a marriage work. And, as I’ve learned, you can’t make the other person do the work.

      Additionally, I wonder if there is a point where there’s too much water under the bridge to make it go. Probably. I’ve just seen too many marriages end lately because one person didn’t want to stick with it (someone else more attracting comes along, it’s not “easy” any more, or a desire to find a more compatable partner). Some marriages are really wrong, either from the start or due to changes. And, yeah, some can’t (and shouldn’t) be fixed.

      No judging here. Compassion for those in rough, wrong, painful marriages is here.


  8. Sarah, your posts are always so thoughtful and sensitive. I got dumped by a husband who not only broke my heart but the hearts of his three kids who loved me as a much-needed second mom. Trying to save the marriage ‘for the sake of the kids’, if nothing else, is not necessarily a bad thing- do you agree?

  9. I couldn’t agree more. Put simply, there is no such thing as a perfect marriage because there is no such thing as a perfect human-being. As with everything else in life, marriage takes hard work!

  10. Thank you for sharing about something so tender. My background: married the first time for 12 years, ending in divorce; now married, much more happily, for almost eight.

    the one person who will fulfill your every desire in a mate

    I never thought of either uniqueness or perfection as the definition of “soul mate.” Rather, the term expressed the intangible sense of connection one has. I like it. But hearing your criticism of it makes me realize that I don’t really think of my marriage, this one, the present, good, happy, and I hope lifelong one, in those terms. We think of ourselves as suited for each other in more down-to-earth ways: in some deep way, we see the world the same way; we share values; we are interested in each other and find a lot of the same things interesting. I suppose you could call all that “being soul mates,” too, but I think that in my first marriage my acceptance of that term obscured some very pragmatic ways in which we were not a good match.

    I love the idea that none of us marries the right person. There is no Mr. or Ms. Right. I certainly am not the perfect mate, so how could I ask my spouse to be? We are not perfect for each other. We love each other tremendously, we have fun together, we talk about the important things, we adapt to the changes life throws our way, we give each other room to grow. We work on ourselves, as you say.

    On the other hand, based on that conviction that “marriage takes work, I stayed for far too long in a marriage that was making neither of us happy. (Some other factors were probably stubbornness and a dread of failure.) I have since learned that it doesn’t take nearly as much work as I was putting into it. There’s the rub, isn’t it? While some give up too soon, others take far too long to realize that the cause is lost. I guess all I am saying is that I needed the opposite advice to what you give here–which does not in any way invalidate it.

    One other concern arises for me, based on some borderline-abusive or just one-sided marriages I have seen. It can happen that one partner is a loving and considerate person and the other is neither loving nor considerate–in which case the St.-Francis-like advice from Dr. Haltzman can be more destructive than helpful. Some partners need to work less on their sweet qualities and more on being assertive, in short, insist upon receiving love and consideration or accept that they aren’t forthcoming, in which case perhaps the marriage is over.

    • Thanks for the thoughts, Amy. I’m working on my rather knee-jerk reaction to the word “soulmate” and receive a moderate amount of ribbing about that stance from man dear to me.

      Yes, knowing that one’s spouse isn’t perfect or perfect for you is crucial. Marriage involves two fallible human beings. I’m sure many do need the opposite advice – stay in there, work harder, etc. My marriage, on the other hand, fit in with your last paragraph. Sometimes it’s knowing when to quit.

      I’m delighted that you’re happy and, from the sounds of it, wiser. While I despised the end of my marriage and subsequent separation and divorce, I learned a good deal about myself and how to deal with conflict. I’m a far better woman for the experience.

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