Thursday, May 09, 2013

What is it like to be married? (Part two)

[My original post on this question was written in February, 2012]

Lately I've been talking to people who’ve been married fifteen or thirty or more years. For decades I've been hearing that “every marriage is different,” but I still thought marriage was supposed to fit into certain parameters of respect and decency, and if it didn't, it could not stand. I don't know how the heck I learned this from my life experiences, but I somehow I got the impression that there were rules to be followed.

I was wrong. Apparently marriage really doesn’t have to meet any standard whatsoever except that both people agree to be in it without anyone having to physically lock anyone up. This has turned into my theory called The Deal: that the key to a stable marriage (and "stable" does not necessarily include happiness) is The Deal that the couple has worked out, often without words or even conscious acknowlegement. I believe couples make all sorts of unspoken deals, some of which might seem awful or unhealthy, but they work and the marriage is stable. The deal might be “I won’t mention your drinking if you don’t mention my weight,” or “I’ll stop wanting sex to accommodate your sexual trauma” or “I’ll tolerate your affairs if you keep earning lots of money.” None of this is spoken out loud, but the arrangement is solid and can last indefinitely.

This theory also explains why people can be married for twenty or thirty years or more and then "suddenly" get divorced. It's because the deal stopped working for one or both of them and they were unable to negotiate a new one. When the deal becomes intolerable to someone, the couple divorces (or someone gets bumped off, depending on the level of relationship skills).

There are those who might call this theory of marriage cynical or jaded. I'm just processing what I've been hearing from the experts: men and women whom I'm friends with who've been married for decades. Decades.

Sometimes the deal is easy. At the beginning it's simply, "Love me and I'll love you" or "Keep being wonderful and sexy and I'll do my best to keep up." But I think all marriages eventually lose their shine, elasticity and water resistance, and when everyone isn't as wonderful or sexy, you look at what is there and decide if it works for you. Is the price of staying married worth it? Am I getting as good a deal as I'm giving? Is her depression worth how well she runs the household? Is his lack of ambition worth how great a father he is? Is my partner's salary worth how much our schedule drains me? Is his sense of humor worth how much he drinks?

Every marriage is different. Each contains its own bliss and its own nightmare, and each of those things can only be defined by the participants. You fall in love, you dive in and as everybody gets to know everybody better, you see what you've got. And you start dealing.


Andria Anderson said...

Very insightful, Regina. Not only is marriage a deal but the deal has to be renegotiated every few years - every 7 years being the "norm". There's a book called The Passages of Marriage which specifies the type of deals that will need to be tackled at each stage.

So that would mean that long-term marriages are kept going by people with a willingness to negotiate. But I don't think dating couples are thinking that way when they decide who would be a good partner for them. Good pre-marital counseling covers the concept but how many couples bother with that when they have LOVE?

All in all, makes you understand why arranged marriages tend to be stable. Good observations on your part.

Stephen Meier said...

I think you have it right. Some authors should coat this dynamic by saying it takes constant loving communication.

But it is still a deal and an ongoing negotiation. Those who negotiate for a win-win outcome are best situated but many win-lose outcomes can survive if the losing party accepts their end of the bargain. Many times the win-lose situation will terminate as the losing party gets tired of being on the losing end of the deal.

Regina Rodríguez-Martin said...

Thanks for your input, Andria and Steve. I think we all agree about this. I just left out the part about how the deal gets renegotiated throughout a long marriage. My marriage broke at the first 5-year mark.