The wedding shuts one gate and opens another. The longings and dreaming of courtship are at an end. The supreme intimacy of life begins.
Before them is a clear road. Not to happiness, as they may believe, but to the opportunity for gaining happiness. The goal is not easily won, but they can attain it without the aid of luck or rare gifts or miracles—simply by practicing the common everyday virtues that bring success in all human ventures.
Because reality rarely measures up to imagination, the first answer is almost bound to be, “No, this is not what I expected.” And the first emotion tends to be disappointment. If one accepts the fact that discrepancy between imagination and reality is inevitable, he is better able to go on to a more thorough examination of the situation, from the fresh viewpoint of finding out just what he has received, regardless of hazy but optimistic expectations; and the object possessed will more than likely turn out to be better than, although different from, what the imagination pictured.
But love is not a finished product that, once it comes, can forever after be trusted to keep its strength. Like everything else that is alive, it must be kept growing through exercise, or it wastes away.
Love gives the push that keeps a marriage moving, but it does not give the direction. That comes from understanding and cooperation. Although John and Mary love each other as feverishly as any other couple at first, if their loved is self-centered and ingrown, it will eventually turn to hate, or wear thin and give way to indifference. This is what they must guard against. While love is still the moving force of their lives, they must study the problems that are due to come. To wait until they are beset by them is to beg for trouble.
In order to cope with their problems they must realize, first, that they cannot stumble upon married happiness; that they must possess and cultivate a positive will to succeed. Then they must understand that the will is in itself not enough; it must be coupled with a willingness to work, and work hard, for the happiness that can be the greatest blessing of their lives. And finally, they must know what constitutes a happy marriage—what to aim for in their day-to-day association.
What makes a successful marriage? Here are nine guideposts to help John and Mary along their road:
1. The first requirement is the building of a union that is just to both.
The smaller issues on which this rests are the lively clashes of opposite desires, inevitable in the coming together of any two persons, intensified when those two persons are as different as a man and a woman, and unavoidable for two committed to a lifetime together in the close quarters of marriage.
2. Compromise will lift these essentially petty decisions of precedence above the level of selfishness.
Decisions must be made on the basis of what is good for both, not the selfish or narrow wish of either. The choice that brings the larger advantage to the two persons in their common role of marriage partners is the one to be made. Human judgment being as faulty as it is, time may show that any one decision has been an error, but there can be no ill will about it if each feels that an honest effort was made to be fair.
For example, Mary wants to buy a car, just as John is reckoning that the time has come to build a house. Or perhaps he wants to invest money in professional or business advancement at the precise moment when she realizes she wants a child. In either situation, the particular couple involved have to weigh delicately the effect on their joint enterprise of the conflicting courses of action. Much as Mary may crave a child or a car, she might not be able to enjoy either if she got it, unless John were ready to share in her delight. Nor could he, overruling her against her will, find in his choice of home-owning or personal-career investment the satisfaction he had expected. They two, and nobody else, can make the decision to fit their marriage.
Readiness to try to imagine the partner’s point of view has to be supplemented by calmness in considering the probable effect of either course on both persons. If each one is hurt at the other’s inability to join instantly in his, or her, plans, they will need to take pains not to get side tracked into making a personal contest of the affair. Trying to win over your partner with a single eye to getting what you want, regardless of its effect on the mate, is short-sighted in the extreme. Even if you could care only for personal pleasure, that cannot long outlast your spouse’s displeasure.
Staging a contest or a succession of small contests, for the sake of finding out who is boss builds up a habit of fighting that may lead to a bitter end. It is useless to discover who can win in any particular skirmish. What is important is to learn whether one of you is set on being “head of the house.” If your spouse craves that distinction, by all means hand it over without delay. It is an empty honor, for the one who bends but does not break will readily develop the fine art of influencing the headstrong one.
Because it is part of the traditional feminine character to enjoy giving in to the man, this tendency must be scrutinized when it appears. No man can afford to be crippled for life by letting his wife swaddle him with solicitude as some mothers spoil their children for their own glorification. A woman’s feeling that she will be emotionally gratified by making a sacrifice does not prove that, aside from her momentary pleasure, there is any value in it. The ease or difficulty with which husband or wife makes an adjustment in no way measures the worth of that adjustment for their partnership.
Because of women’s recent growth in socially recognized independence, any individual woman may waver between a craving for self-sacrifice and a repugnance to the very thought of it. This changeableness can make her feel resentful after she has given in to her husband. All this must be taken into account in making decisions. Compromise, not submission, should be the rule. If John forges ahead on one count, Mary must find an acceptable outlet for herself on some other front.
3. Respect for the other member of the marriage association is a must-have. No demand should be laid upon the mate that requires a drastic change of personality.
Nobody can suddenly change his personality at will, and the effort to do so to please the partner is liable to result in a top heavy hypocrisy—a superstructure calculated to impress the observer, but built on a shaky foundation of chaos.
The changes a husband or wife makes in the partner’s total personality are in the nature of altered emphasis in the expression of traits already present. These minor changes occur as by-products of active response to the personality of the mate in many small daily contacts, and not as a result of exhortation. Nor are they necessarily permanent. A chameleon changes color easily to match its environment or temper of the moment, but a human being’s more lasting change is not so readily made.
Each marriage partner must be proud of the other and let the other continue to be proud of him or her. Therefore you have to respect yourself and act as if you did, even at home. Too many couples exploit the sense of let-down that marriage brings with it. After so long a time, husband and wife cease to feel that they must exert themselves for each other in little matters. Knowing themselves accepted, they lounge—mentally, mannerly, and physically—when at home or elsewhere alone together. Some of this relaxation is a good thing, but it is a mistake to let home and spouse degenerate into nothing more than an invitation to be lazy.
Using the mate for relief, as in nagging, whining, crying, or grumbling, is taboo. If you are tired or irritable, you can rest or exercise for restoration, as in the days before marriage. To pour out troubles or act out annoyance without restraint before the mate is to wear out his or her spontaneity and dry up the source of refreshment you are trying to tap. Fatigue and nervousness, expressed, breed fatigue and nervousness in a sympathetic audience.
4. Too great concentration is to be avoided. Even the greatest love stagnates if it is kept out of the main current of life. To care only for each other is selfishness for two, only one step removed from self-centered engrossment.
This is why the unique value of children is their service as an entering wedge in the close-grown love of husband and wife, a wedge that widens and holds forever wider the unity of love it has penetrated. Other responsibilities, other interests, may serve a similar purpose, though more easily dislodged and seldom striking so deep.
Friends, old and new, have a function in relieving the over close concern of one marriage partner with the other. If they are to play their full part in preventing over concentration, the friends must not be limited to those who appeal equally to both the husband and the wife. Common friends are fine, but for this purpose there is special need of friends for either spouse who can call forth those sides of his or her nature that are not aroused by the mate. A brilliant man may be bored by his wife’s slower-thinking women friends, but these may be just what she needs as a relief from the high-pressure intellectual life she is leading with him. A stylish woman may be appalled at the slouchy appearance of some of her husband’s cronies, who are a necessary balance wheel for him in the strenuous gyrations he goes through to keep the sartorial pace she sets.
The factor that underlies all the perplexities, and most of the contentment, of marriage is its unique degree of concentrated intimacy. Here the supreme testing always comes. Each means so much to the other, each needs so much from the other, that there can be no halfway satisfaction in being together. But there will come a first time when John is too tired to go out with Mary, or vice versa. Do not think of it as a blow; do not believe he or she is implying “I do not want to go out with you because I am getting tired of you.” You must realize that it is important to have some privacy of time, if not of space. The wife may be alone part of the day and profit by it. When John comes home at night, he has not had that privilege. His need for privacy must be appreciated, whether he wants to get it by staying at home alone in the evening, or by going out without his wife, or by having his friends in when she is not around.
5. The general level of emotion is what counts, not the spectacular scaling of peaks. Staking all on high moments is melodrama with no comic relief.
Some husbands, some wives, are artists at achieving and momentarily living up to romantic settings, but quickly flop down to the lower levels of decent fairness between the high spots of their sentimental flare-ups. Others cannot utter a poetic phrase, make a romantic gesture, or let their eyes show the quick intensity of their tender emotions if they must die for it. This difference is one of make-up and training, not of marriage capacity.
The couple who are sure of each other’s steady affection, regardless of its expression in romantic interludes, are the ones who can afford to smile at the anxiety of those newly married husbands and wives who are terror-stricken at any lessening of the outward expressions of love.
Another terrible moment that is due to come may seem even more frightening because it is you who are slipping. Soon or late you find that some familiar mannerism of your spouse displeases you. It may be a slight uncouthness at table, a peculiar back-country phrase or pronunciation, some gesture of timidity or swaggering. Once you loved it as a part of the individuality of the person you fell in love with. Now it vexes you. And your vexation terrifies you. Does this mean that you no longer love your mate as you did? You cannot help your change of feeling. How, then, can you hope to keep your affection from disappearing altogether if it has already begun to wane? You remember other people you once thought you loved, and wonder, panic-stricken, how you can keep this love from dying as those other loves did.
This is probably an almost universal experience, marking, not the beginning of the end of love, but the passage from an adolescent type of blind devotion to a more mature affection that persists in spite of being able to admit the flaws it sees. For the very young a person must register one hundred percent or be rejected. Maturity brings recognition of human imperfections in the most heroic, but also develops the ability to weigh big and little things and to love with more confidence because unafraid of being disturbed by little imperfections.
Now that you can see your mate more clearly, you should also be able to see more accurately his, or her, good points, which before were hidden from you in the mist of your enthusiasm. Your love is now becoming less self-centered and more helpful to your partner.
6. There can be no holding on to the present nor seeking to bring back the past. Each moment is new and good in itself.
The tale is never told. Always it is the unturned page the holds the answer to the question, “How goes it with this marriage?” The present is useful only as a foundation stone for the future, which is being built up out of many fleeting present moments, each quickly lost in the past.
Trying to convince yourself that you still feel a kind of love you have outlived prevents your growing into the more mature kind of love that fits your present stature and prepares for the needs of the future. Attempting to hold the partner to a similar static expression of love hampers the growth in him or her of an expanding reality of love.
7. There can be no narrowing of marriage to mere sex adjustment. What is essential is life adjustment, of which sex is but a part.
To interpret the marriage association as little more than sex is to throw away all chance of success, even in the realm of sex. The two lives have to be adjusted to each other, and the two persons have to work out a common life that means something to them over and above the pleasure they may take in each other’s company. As a continuing part of this life adjustment, sex adjustment can develop into a permanent factor of married happiness; but without the larger adjustment, the partial adjustment cannot be made in any fundamental and enduring form.
In the sex life in marriage, as in other parts of the association, each partner wins by considering the other before the self. Since marriage grows by enveloping, rather than by being enveloped by, any one element, every part of the married life must receive the same painstaking attention. At no point can the domination of either partner over the other take the place of adjustment.
8. There must be no cultivation of sensitiveness, no looking for hurt, but instead a complete trust in each other.
One who prides himself or herself on having to be handled with gloves has a great deal of growing up to do in order to be able to be an active partner in the marriage. Cry-babying is no more helpful in marriage than in business or social life; it is only more easily indulged in, more tempting because of the sympathetic response it is likely at first to receive.
In the healthy marriage, this sympathetic response will soon give way to anger, which in turn may have the effect of a dash of cold water in the face of the oversensitive one, helping him or her to buck up and behave like an adult. In the unhealthy marriage, sympathy will grow into pity, which drives out the indispensable attitude of respect.
The person who has the backbone to try to play the part of a mature being will realize that getting hurt in any human association is a two-edged affair. Both get hurt, but the weak person does nothing but squeal about it, while the robust ignores it except for trying to take some constructive step to prevent future occasions for hurt. The marriage partner who is mature will maintain trust in the other’s good intentions in the face of what might seem to be occasions for hurt feelings.
A chief advantage of the married estate is its opportunity for frankness. “Why doesn’t his wife tell him of that unpleasant mannerism, so he can correct it?” bears witness to the universal appreciation of this function of married life. But if John nurses hurt feelings whenever Mary punctures his vanity by suggesting that he presents to the world a less than perfect front, Mary may soon lose courage and relinquish her wifely job of husband improvement. Or the combination may be reversed.
Frankness must go clothed in tact. Stiff-minded people who are frank only when angry lose their case before they present it. If the expression of anger is to have its proper stimulative effect, it has to be administered but rarely, and then in small doses. More has a paralyzing effect on the recipient, producing a response in kind that takes away the ability to think of anything except retaliation.
9. Willingness to grow is the most necessary factor for success. Marriage is a life program of going on together that requires maturity; failure means that there is a holding on to childishness.
We are all immature at some points, but we can welcome opportunities for growth, painful though they may be. The man and woman who find their marriage yielding diminishing returns may be sure they are attempting to hold it to an adolescent level. As this is an impossibility, they are aware of increasing dissatisfaction. That does not mean they are unadapted to each other. They are afraid to leave the known pleasures of their first youth for the unguessed satisfactions of maturity, so they try to stand still, hoping to keep their marriage, unchanged, in its first stage of promise.
If both husband and wife accept maturing responsibilities as they come, their marriage relationship will keep pace with their own development and will therefore become increasingly satisfying to them. A truly mature couple do not look back with longing to the early part of their married life, but appreciate its value as a phase that led up to the deeper content of each succeeding phase.
Having invested years, their youth and hopes, in their marriage, it would be poor business for any couple to fail to follow up their initial investment by putting in such small regular amounts of thought and effort as will make a go of it. The difference between success and failure is the hairline difference between caring and ceasing to care for one’s investment.
Married life is serious business, as living always is, but it is easier and at the same time more rewarding than single life. To be human is to be lonely. To be successfully married is to have an inner bulwark against loneliness.