When we get married, we make all sorts of promises. The marriage contract, by its very nature, is a series of promises. But when you think about it, the institution of marriage, and what we assume and expect of each other within a marriage is, if not ridiculous, certainly in conflict with reality. I say this as a couple’s therapist and as someone who’s been married for many years, and who also deeply respects and enjoys what marriage offers.
I frequently see clients who complain that their partner doesn’t want what they wanted when they got married: “But you said you wanted kids when we talked about it!” Or, they feel guilty for not wanting what they used to want: “But I said I wanted to move to the country, so now I have to do it.” I hear stories all day long from men and women who feel confused and trapped because they don’t want or need what they used to want and need in their life and for themselves.
Sometimes, what changes is what we want in a partner. We may have been drawn, for example, to our partner’s steadiness and reliability. Perhaps it soothed our feelings of ungrounded-ness, satisfied our need to feel more rooted. But now, years later, we no longer need a calming force, but instead, wish for adventure, possibility, and change. We have created our own ground and now need to fly. Or perhaps we were originally attracted to the differences in our partner. When we married, we needed to feel less connected, less the same; it was emotional space at that time in our evolution that allowed us to not feel judged. Now, however, we want a soul mate, to feel connected, to be with someone who deeply understands and shares our experience. As we change, what we need in a partner also changes. Our emotional holes fill up and we don't need our partner to satisfy what's been satisfied or what we can now do for ourselves. But still, we feel guilty and confused when what drew us to our partner is no longer what we need.
So, what are we to do then, when marriage means promises and reality means we are going to change and what we promised may no longer be possible? How can this endeavor called marriage ever work if both people are constantly changing? To begin with, we must shift our expectations of marriage and what it includes. We cannot blame our partner and cannot be blamed for becoming someone else as we go through life. It is not a betrayal when we or our partner feels different than how we felt when we were first married, when we want a different experience and life from what we wanted when we married. It is not a betrayal when who we are is completely other than who we were in the past.
The question is not if we are going to break promises in a marriage; we are. We must accept this truth. The question is how do we want to dance with the broken promises that will happen, dance with the changes and disappointments, and dance with the continual losing of the partner we used to know?
In most every marriage, there comes a time when we realize that our partner cannot be, for us, what we had hoped they could be. We discover that our partner cannot fill our own emptiness or be our reason for living, our purpose, as we had once imagined. We bump into the reality that our partner is also a human, with limitations, fears, and just trying to find their way. Our partner is not something to fill our needs and holes. Sooner or later, the promise that our partner can save us from our own struggle is broken. This involves a certain degree of heartbreak and disillusionment. It is the ultimate reality check. But we need to have our heart broken in this way, in order to fully mature and take ownership of our own life, our own needs, our own unanswered questions. At some level, a healthy long-term relationship should include disappointment; in order to really love our partner, we must give up all hope that our relationship and our partner is the answer, our salvation. When we give up this hope, we enter the beginning of something real and sustainable.
We take our vows as a proclamation of who we are, how we feel, and what we believe at the moment we stand at that altar (or whatever we stand at). But we must remember that marriage is not an agreement to stay there, to keep being that person, feeling those feelings. That’s not possible and not wise. Marriage might have better odds if we saw it as a commitment that includes broken promises. It might be more sustainable if we understood it as the promise to meet our partner as they also change, to not assume that they are who we met at an earlier time, and to give them the chance and encouragement to become who they need to become. And simultaneously, marriage might be more successful if it meant a willingness, not to keep wanting the same things, but to be honest about what we actually want and need as we move through the life cycle, and to communicate those truths, no matter how difficult.
Although this may sound like heresy, we may even want to give up the idea of marriage as a promise to love each other for all time, and rather to see it as a promise to be loving and honest with each other as we discover where life is leading each of us, and who it’s leading us to become. As we walk together through a marriage, and indeed through life, we can and should be able to continue promising to provide loving support and encouragement for each of our own journeys. This is a promise we may be able to keep.
Marriage is a most remarkable endeavor and one worth practicing. But it won’t survive as an institution if we take the human part out of the equation, if we forget that it’s humans who are doing the marrying and not some imaginary static species. We cannot and should not expect ourselves to be what we fundamentally are not, just because we say “I do.” We are going to change as time passes and this includes how we feel about everything, including ourselves, our partners, and our relationships. Change is not a betrayal. More often, it's a sign of growth. This reality needs to be taken into account when we consider the expectations of marriage. This reality, accepted, begins a conversation about true intimacy and what it means to be partnered with another human being in the dance of life. When we accept broken and changed promises as part of the dance, we say "I do" to a marriage that's made of the truth. And, when we know each other's truths, no matter what they contain, we begin the dance of real love.