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Life's circumstances can make you bitter or better

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Rev. Fr. Charles Joanides, Ph.D., LMFT

The other day, I had occasion to meet informally with a couple who’d been married for 51 years. By their own admission, “things hadn’t always gone the way they hoped.” They described a number of setbacks and challenges related to finances, health, parenting and extended family. But despite these and other similar challenges, both stated they had endured them together, and grown closer as a result.  

Toward the end of our conversation I briefly described the work I do with couples, and asked if either partner had any secrets they’d like to share - especially for younger couples. The husband offered this quick response. “Oh, I don’t know if we have any real secrets to share. In fact, I’d say that the secret to being happily married is anything but a secret. But since you asked….”

Anyway, to my surprise, for the next five minuets, they waxed rather eloquently on the subject of marriage and what they had learned. Here’s a thumbnail sketch of what they shared.

Both partner’s comments emphasized the importance of sacrifice, mutual respect and commitment to one another through thick and thin. They also repeatedly maintained that love, honor, fidelity, and respect were equally important.

As our conversation drew to an end, the wife looked at her husband fondly, and then at me, and observed, “You know, maybe I do have one secret that might help other couples.” She then paused to gather her thoughts, and continued, “Tell them, that life’s circumstances can either make you bitter or better. But if you remain committed to the things that help marriages work, you’ll avoid getting bitter and you’ll get better at being married.”

I came away from this encounter refreshed and encouraged by this couple’s philosophy. And in retrospect, I gained an even deeper appreciation for the timeless values that they identified as being so important to the well-being of their marriage.  

Bitter, Rather than Better

Sadly, because of the work I do as a therapist and priest, I’ve met many bitter and broken couples who weren’t nearly as successful at being married as this couple. As a result, they had different stories to tell. They described an endless litany of issues, problems and challenges that made them bitter, rather than better.

In retrospect, as I think back now, and remember the anguish on their faces, and the anger, resentment, dashed hopes and regrets that characterized their statements, I believe that one reason why many of these spouses failed at marriage is either related to their inability to understand the importance of the timeless values this elderly couple described, or their inability to keep them front and center in their lives. I also can’t help thinking now that if these values had played a more prominent role in their marriages, their stories might have sounded significantly different.

Maybe We’re too Self-Absorbed

I don‘t believe that love, commitment, sacrifice, respect, fidelity are as commonly valued as they once were. Certainly, these concepts sound nice when they’re strung together. But I wonder how many people today relate them to a bygone era that belonged to their parent’s or grandparent’s generation. I suppose most of us would still admit that they have some merit. But I wonder how many embrace them and use them to regulate their lives.

It seems to me that there’s been a subtle shift in the way people think in our society - a shift away from these timeless values toward a new kind of thinking that emphasizes self-fulfillment, self-determination, self-sufficiency and self-improvement.  By the way, did you notice the emphasis on self? It’s as though the average person is less interested in their relationships and a little too self-absorbed.

It’s my contention that this increased preoccupation with self has had subtle, negative consequences on marriage and family life. Confused? Not convinced? Well, perhaps these few examples might help you better understand what I mean.     

  • Over 40% of all marriages are ending in divorce. That’s no surprise to most people. However, did you know that a sizable number of these failed marriages are labeled “low conflict couples” by experts who study divorce trends? In other words, these marriages reveal little or no evidence of any serious destructive behavior. In these failed marriages, spouses have simply fallen out of love with one another, and opt to divorce. This, despite the fact, that there are many reputable studies and lots of information in our popular media indicating that children generally do better when their parents remain together. Yet, since we live in a society that places a high premium on self-fulfillment, rather than making a serious effort to reclaim the love they’ve lost, many spouses in low-conflict marriages choose to divorce.
  • Having children and a family also used to be the number one reason why people married. Not so today. Studies show that a growing number of Americans are viewing children as an obstacle to happiness. The upshot is that today many couples are having fewer children, while also waiting longer to start a family. Once again, the underlying implications of these trends seem to suggest that self-growth and self-fulfillment have taken front and center stage, and children and family life seem less important.  
  • And finally, one last example. I would maintain that the same-sex marriage issue that our country is grappling with is intimately related to this subtle value shift. Particularly, it is my contention that when the same-sex marriage issue is distilled down, the essence of this debate has everything to do with a choice that our country must make between protecting and promoting adult rights vis-à-vis children’s right’s and the institution of marriage as we know it. Right now, many who follow this debate closely are speculating that adult rights are carrying the day. Once again suggesting to me that self-fulfillment and individual rights are of paramount importance, despite the fact that a change in the definition of marriage could have a detrimental effect on children’s well-being, as well as on the institution of marriage and family life. 

The Bottom Line

So here’s the bottom line. Timeless values like commitment, sacrifice, fidelity, love, honor and respect have always helped couples strike a balance between individual, marital and family needs. While other values like self-fulfillment, self-determination, self-sufficiency and self-improvement take our attention off of our spouses, children and families, and place an inordinate amount of attention on self, ultimately compromising marital and family life. All of which doesn’t imply that I’m somehow suggesting that these values are not important. They are. It’s only to say that they’ve been given too much importance.

If you’re in agreement, then here’s one last suggestion. When it comes to the way that you view marriage, consider taking an inventory of your core values. To identify your core values, consider these questions. How would you like to be remembered?  How would you like others around you to know you? Do you act in these core values daily?

After completing this exercise, then ask yourself these questions. Are your core values self-centered, or do they help you strike a balance between your needs, your marriage’s needs, your family’s needs and your children’s needs? In other words, do they help you live a balanced life?

The time you spend on this exercise could make a difference in your efforts as become a better spouse and couple, rather than a bitter spouse and couple.