Making Marriage Work

It seems to me that, when many of us were growing up, marriage was always presented as something to be desired. It was a golden prize that one could look forward to receiving.

One could receive that prize at the end of adolescence, or receive that prize at the end of college. Or one could receive that prize at the beginning of a career.

The message was that marriage was all that one needed in life. If marriage was for you, you would be happy and healthy. If you got married you would find meaning, fulfillment, passion and purpose.

The message that we did not hear was that there is a great possibility that persons often bring negative baggage into their marriages. We did not hear that this negative baggage could bring misery into marriage. Nobody told us that men or women may bring ghosts into marriages that could bring ruin into these marriages; that could bring unhappiness into these marriages; that could bring suffering and harm into them.

Negative Baggage

The negative baggage and ghosts brought into marriages are the result of early childhood programming experienced at home and at school. Children acquire values, beliefs and attitudes from parents and teachers, from peers and mass media. Very early they internalize these values, beliefs and attitudes and, when they are grown, they take them into their marriages. They follow these guides in the belief that they will lead to satisfying and meaningful relationships. Instead, these fallacies undermine happiness in marriage.

The values, beliefs and attitudes that were internalized had to do with finding happiness. They had to do with where people found meaning. They had to do with how to blame others for how one thinks and feels.

Here are some of the ways that people often bring misery instead of loving kindness into their marriages and families. Here are a few of the myriad ways people sabotage their marriages and families.

Let’s Count the Ways

• Do not forget a hurt. Do not forget an oversight. Do not forget an injustice. Do not forget a criticism. Do not trust your spouse. Do not trust his or her goodness and good intentions.

• Always be suspicious. Always looks for faults in your spouse. Always keep looking back. Always bring up the past. Always keep gunnysacking (storing up unresolved grievances).

• Always demand an agreement with your viewpoint. Always look for an agreement with your opinion and your perspective on things.

• Always demand control over your spouse. Always demand influence over your spouse. Always demand power over your spouse.

• Always demand that you know what your spouse did all day long. Always expect a detailed accounting of how your spouse spends his or her time.

• Always feel like a victim. Always feel that nobody likes you. Always feel nobody understands you. Always feel nobody appreciates you.

• Always feel that nobody appreciates how hard you work. Always feel nobody acknowledges the big sacrifices you make.

• Always be self-critical. Always be self-judging. Always be self-condemning. Always be self-shaming. Always be self-absorbing.

• Always expect that your marriage should be easy and blissful. Always expect that your marriage should have no difficulties. Always expect that your marriage should be hassle-free.

• Always expect your spouse and children to accept you. Always expect them to praise you. Always expect them to admire you. Always expect them to value you. Always expect them to say thank you.

The reality is that what everyone needs in life and in marriage is radical self-acceptance. The acceptance of a spouse is desirable but it is not nearly as essential as radical self-acceptance.

Radical Self-acceptance

Radical self-acceptance enables a person to live independently of the good or bad opinion of a spouse or children. It brings freedom and fearlessness into marital life.

What you need is the radical acceptance of your own body; of your own emotions; of your own feelings; of your own history; of your own past and present; of your whole self. “Your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit, who lives within you” (1 Cor 6:19).

Self-acceptance is the fundamental and essential element that makes a marriage work. Self-acceptance is the jewel needed for happiness in a marriage. It is at the core of a meaningful and satisfying marital relationship.

Loving a spouse has a lot to do with getting rid of some early programming about what a person needs in a relationship. It requires unlearning deeply ingrained beliefs and behaviors. It may require a total transformation of beliefs about happiness in a marriage. It may require a total conversion. It may require a total turning around of what you believe makes a marriage work. It may require facing and admitting flawed thinking and negative behaviors. It may require deep healing at a basic human level from the early programming and modeling that led to the addiction of blaming others for how things seem to be.

Only letting go of a lot of bad mental habits and bad behaviors can enable some individuals to embody a better understanding of how to follow the command of St. Paul, “Husbands should love their wives as their own bodies” (Eph 5:25). TP 

Msgr. Morgan, a retired priest of the Diocese of Camden, is a New Jersey licensed psychologist and a licensed marriage and family therapist.