Book Review and Subsequent Marriage-Improvement Reflections – Lesson One

I recently read a GREAT marriage book by Elizabeth Weil called

No Cheating, No Dying: I Had a Good Marriage. Then I Tried to Make it Better.

Even less recently (and to clarify my interest in this subject somewhat), I also got married.

Like most young people, we thought we knew what we were doing – after all, we’d lived together for five years, accomplished many milestones that “people say” you should accomplish before settling down (college – check! Buying a home – check!). Boy, were we in for the year of a lifetime. There were moments I did not recognize my husband as the man I married. There were moments I did not recognize myself!

Marriage is WORK. Marriage is WORTH the work. Maybe that’s ultimately the point of this book – the moment we stop caring whether we are living parallel lives in the same house, stuck in patterns and routines that are comfortable, that’s when we are probably in trouble. On the other hand, some of us live in a passionate household full of caring – smothering, get-out-of-my-face-I’m-my-own-person kind of caring. And most of us live somewhere in between.

Weil takes on the concept of a “good marriage,” and uses examples from her own life to demonstrate that ideals are not reality. She outlines her own pathway to this understanding, beginning with the initial project conception –using her own already “good” marriage to take some of the normal steps people undertake to improve “bad” marriages. Weil is an entertaining writer – she includes real dialogue from her lives, which are comforting in the normalcy they reveal. The mishaps and moments of tension present in her marriage mimic those in all of our lives, whether married or not. The prototypical “in-law” tensions are there, along with the balance struggle when dealing with the needs of children before your own.

You know a book is good when you have the urge to mark a page every few pages or so to come back to later. I have culled the following wisdom for the readers of this blog, true, but mostly for myself as a reminder when we have our next big fight and things seem hopeless. Because whether we enjoy it or not, psychology is a real thing.

  1. Breaking the cycle of “parent – child” to “spouse – spouse” is harder than you think.

On one hand, a new relationship blossoms under the gentle taking-on of certain activities for one another – as usual, this begins with an innocent gesture – throwing in of a batch of laundry, say – and culminates in the female being “expected” to continue “taking care” of these little things “because she wants to,” and “because it’s naturally expected.”

This is not 1950. So naturally, this becomes an issue if not addressed at some early point upon moving in together.

Being married takes this problem (which usually surfaces early after moving in, if not before) and shuffles it around again. This is especially problematic if both spouses work full time or are otherwise occupied with school, and the traditional gender roles were in place during childhood, accidentally reinforcing up front this expectation. When you are married, societal expectations of you shift. Your home becomes ground zero for battles you thought were already over.

For example, my husband Charles and I had already made some “rules” about whose chores were whose. The problem was, it was easy for Charles to ignore the grass getting too long and the trash piling up outside, whereas the indoors stuff – “I’m out of socks again!”- was pretty noticeable. This quickly set me into a pattern of feeling like I was the only one ever doing anything regularly enough. “My” chores were really too big for a single person to take on and continue to work full time and (gasp!) add graduate school to the mix.

Charles works in a dirty environment and is extremely picky about his clothes. These two factors combined into an obvious need for Charles to take on one of the laundry batches – his work laundry –per week, and a bigger effort on both of our parts to take care of the rest “as needed” rather than wait for the other person to take care of it. Once we both got past this initial shift, it was fine. I actually like folding laundry. The biggest bone of contention chore-wise is by far the dishes. Thankfully, we have a dishwasher.

Essentially, you move from this idea of your spouse being required to take care of you, and you learn that, actually, you are supposed to take care of each other. This might mean doing small things like before, but in marriage, you are beyond the stage where you expect it to be returned. It’s because you WANT to make your spouse’s life easier that you do something nice – no expectation of something in return. We were children and our parents job was to take care of us. Now we are married, and it’s OUR job to take care of US.

This seems like a small thing – but this lesson is really hard to learn. Once you have it, it’s elusive – so hold onto the sentimental meanings behind small gestures as long as you can. Cherishing such moments allows us to savor the feelings that accompany them and get used to those feelings. This often results (at least in my case) in me wanting to continue that feeling by paying it forward, usually to my spouse. Win-win.

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