Is anyone really surprised by the findings in this UCLA study on marriage? As PsychCentral’s Rick Nauert reported, couples that are willing to make “sacrifices” have better, longer-lasting marriages than people who aren’t.
Still, I have a problem with the language. “Sacrifice” implies something that costs you—big time. An online dictionary defines the definition of sacrifice (after the offering of a life as propitiation or homage) as: the surrender or destruction of something prized or desirable for the sake of something considered as having a higher or more pressing claim.
“Surrender” and “destruction” don’t give me the warm fuzzies. Here are some of my own ideas (based on a variety of sources) of what makes a marriage satisfying and lasting. You are welcome to add your own ideas in the comments:
When both spouses view marriage as (at least somewhat) more important than self. I know that this is going to tick off people who feel that self-actualization is the be all and end all. But I have personally witnessed friends’ marriages self-destructing when each person is very focused on their own needs (whether they be spiritual, emotional or physical).
Putting the marriage first is slightly different than putting the other person first (although certainly in marriage as in any relationship, that has to happen at least some of the time).
Of interest: It’s great if both partners agree to put their marriage first. That the preferred ideal. However, Judaism teaches that one person might actually be able to save a sinking marriage. How? By viewing the relationship as bigger than the individuals involved and thinking about and working on one’s own character. In other words: focusing on what you can do to be a better person and let go (at least for awhile) of expectations.
The old saw, “the only thing you can change is yourself” holds true in marriage, too. I guess you could view this as sacrifice, but I don’t think it is surrendering or destructive to step back, work on yourself, and wait a bit. Your spouse is a mirror for you, and vice versa. Surprising changes can occur when one person makes an effort.
Several years ago I watched a friend view herself as a martyr to her marriage. It made her bitter and holier-than-thou. Her role became one giant surrender for the sake of being able to say, “Look what I’ve sacrificed for my husband.”
I also watched a couple in the throes of obsession with their own, personal desires (there were legitimate needs mixed in with those desires, but both people were unable to discern the difference. This was a couple that fought viciously over…wallpaper). They were both very dedicated to never pushing themselves beyond their comfort level. I watched their marriage implode. It was ugly.
Agreement on what marriage is. Without a clear-cut idea of what marriage is, how can you possibly get married? Yet, we’ve all seen people get married without having any idea how their spouse defines marriage. Or how they themselves define marriage. That’s why pre-marriage counseling is an excellent idea, whether done by clergy or other qualified mentors. I believe most people would like to think of themselves as honorable, as the type to honor contracts. By being explicit about what is expected in a marriage as in any contract, potential spouses are able to discover if their values are really in sync. By the way, love does not conquer all when love is merely longing and desire.
A recognition of the holiness/spiritual potential of marriage. Yes, I know this is an old-fashioned idea, but remember, for every spouse who felt stuck in an old-fashioned marriage (before the days in which divorce was commonplace), there were others who felt that participating in the contract/institution of marriage was a holy, very important, and ultimately spiritually rewarding thing to do.
Today, most religions still teach that marriage, in and of itself, is a sanctified and even noble venture. If you believe that your marriage has been blessed by the Creator, you tend to regard it as a thing of wonder, to be treasured and nurtured. (At least some of the time).
Recognize that marriage helps you grow both spiritually and emotionally. Judaism teaches that we cannot become complete souls without marriage. Interestingly enough, though Judaism prescribes marriage for men, it emphasizes it slightly less for women. One of the reasons I’ve been told, is that without the mirror that is marriage, men aren’t quite as capable as women as becoming emotionally and spiritually well-rounded. In the Jewish religion men are actually urged to marry (at least in part to develop good character). But frankly, with today’s cultural equality of the sexes, the challenges and rewards of marriage can help both men and women become stronger, more compassionate people.
Don’t say sacrifice, say “self-development.” Unless you are in an abusive marriage, focusing more on giving than getting is key to making marriage work. Giving feels good. It helps us become stronger. It gives us self-respect and personal dignity. Giving can actually teach us how to have healthy boundaries. (This doesn’t mean giving at the expense of being abused). Successful giving has some important components: What is given must be what the other person needs. Giving into unreasonable or unhealthy demands isn’t giving. It’s giving up.
The benefit of the doubt/looking for the good. These are two other Jewish teachings. We are taught we should give a person (until proven otherwise), the benefit of the doubt as well as focus on the good. This doesn’t mean making excuses for abusive, illegal or addictive behavior. We have to use judgment and not excuse crimes or abuse. But, it does mean sticking up for your spouse at least as much as you stick up for yourself.
How many times do you let yourself slide? Many people gloss over their own “failings” or imperfections, yet they can’t let them slide by in others. It is human to: oversleep, feel lazy, overlook dust/dirt, run late. It is human to have flaws that are repetitive, sometimes even constant. He chews with his mouth open. She leaves candy wrappers all over the car. He is a bit loose with the truth (as you see it). She exaggerates others’ faults. He has a slight temper, she sometimes says unkind things she doesn’t mean. And so on.
You have a choice. You can certainly tell the other person about their flaw. And if they don’t change, you can remind them. Over and over again. Or, you can accept that you’re not perfect either. And look the other way.
Look at all the positives. She occasionally sulks when she doesn’t get her way, but she slips sweet notes into your briefcase along with your daily supply of vitamins. He finds it uncomfortable to have heart to heart talks, but he always makes sure your tires are filled with air and your oil is changed.
Life can be hard. Work can be frustrating. We all struggle. Marriage should be a refuge from the world, a place where each spouse can find a safe place to be themselves and accepted, with all their flaws. A place where they are judged gently or not at all.
Self-reflection. Being accepted and not judged at home doesn’t mean that you can treat your spouse disrespectfully or impolitely. (Yet, you must remember, change must start with the self). Judaism teaches that in the afterlife a person is judged far more on how they treated their spouse, more than any other relationship. Did they speak kindly to their coworkers but come home and yell at their spouse? Did they laugh and tell jokes with their friends but complain constantly to their spouse? Do they attire themselves impeccably when outside the home, but walk around in unwashed sweats at home (this implies disrespect for your spouse, perhaps clean sweats are okay?) Reflecting on who you are in your marriage vs. who you are elsewhere can be eye-opening. Think about it.