As some of you know, I am authorized to perform weddings in the state of Florida. I originally obtained my credentials so I could perform the wedding between my daughter and her husband, but since then I have performed weddings for others. I find officiating weddings to be one of the most joyful activities anyone can do, but it comes with great responsibility.
For many years, I have paid very close attention to marriages that fail and marriages that seem to work. I always wanted to be married, but after a long succession of bad relationships, I decided that I needed to pay more attention to what makes marriages work and fail to help me avoid any more painful mistakes in my own personal life. What I learned not only helped me find happiness and success in my own marriage, but also helped me provide a measure of guidance to those whose weddings I officiate.
First of all, let me acknowledge that different people have different definitions of success and failure. Not all failures end in divorce – some people stay married (legally) for a variety of reasons (e.g. financial considerations, child rearing and custody reasons, etc.) long after the love has gone from the relationship. From my perspective, a successful marriage is one where the couple remains in a loving, committed partnership, and an unsuccessful marriage is one where the love and commitment are lost through the actions, or inactions, of the couple.
While there is no guarantee that the observations I’ve made apply to every situation, these are the consistent themes I have seen while trying to understand why some marriages succeed and why some marriages fail.
Recipes for Failure.
- The Difference Between a Wedding and a Marriage. It is astounding to me how many couples (especially brides) don’t understand the difference. They spend tens of thousands of dollars on creating a pageant in which they are the center of attention, only to find they have forgotten about the realities of married life. It’s like spending all your money to build a gate to your property and having nothing left over to build the house you’re supposed to be living in for the rest of your life. Weddings are just the gateway you walk through to reach your new life together, which is the marriage. Weddings are simply a legal and moral requirement to be married; marriages are life. The priority must always be on life, not an event that lasts for a few hours and is quickly forgotten. It’s sad that the more expensive the wedding is, the shorter the marriage seems to be. There are exceptions, but a marriage which starts out on such a bad foundation often leaves the couple having to work doubly hard to build the foundation needed for a happy and healthy marriage partnership.
- How Do I Fit A Spouse Into My Life? I see this all the time. Two people with active lives come together and try to “fit” the other person into their existing lives. This will not lead to a successful partnership. Why? Because it is, at its foundation, selfish. It’s saying: “I have this great life and I want to fit you into it without having to give up anything I already have.” That makes one person in the relationship little more than an accessory in the other person’s life, and that doesn’t change after the wedding. Successful marriages are partnerships – not where each spouse gives 50%, but where each spouse gives 100%. Marriage is not about two people living their old lives with another person. It’s about leaving behind who they were before and creating a totally new life together with their spouse. That’s not to say that each spouse has to give up everything in their lives from before the marriage, but it means that those parts of their old life that are retained must be things that fit into the context of the new life that the married couple builds for themselves together. Marriages are all about the couple, not about the individual spouses, and too many married couples don’t understand this at all.
- The Disposable Society. Let’s face it… between paper plates, styrofoam cups, plastic forks, microwave meals, disposable diapers, etc., we are a society that is conditioned to use things briefly and then discard them. If something has outlived its usefulness, we throw it away. If jobs get too hard, we leave them and find new jobs. And if relationships hit bumps in the road, we bail out of them and move on to the next one as quickly as possible. Divorce is just another way of discarding something we no longer want. While some divorces are absolutely necessary (e.g. spousal abuse, child abuse, illegal behavior, etc.), the divorce statistics show that many divorces are caused by couples who, somewhere during the marriage, just gave up and stopped trying to work together to save the relationship. Often, this is cause by at least one spouse being unwilling to maintain the equal partnership of marriage and put forth the effort to work through the issues and keep the marriage strong and healthy. Well no one ever said marriage was easy! Marriage is constant work, and sometimes it’s hard work. But things that are worthwhile require hard work, and if the individual spouses are not willing to spend the rest of their lives working to keep the marriage strong, they shouldn’t get married in the first place.
- Love And Lust Are NOT The Same Things. I was once struck by what the Irish refer to as the “Thunderbolt” when I met a young woman who was the daughter of a close friend. It even left a physical mark on me. The emotional scars left by that relationship, however, brought home a painful lesson about the difference between physical attraction and the mental connection that separate lust from love. The carbonation of our hormones may feel euphoric, but this is not love. It is a purely physical response. It has one purpose, and once that purpose has been satisfied, it goes away. It cannot be used as the foundation for a lasting relationship. In fact, it’s probably for best if people in lust with each other don’t even know each other’s last names. Love is not about physicality at all. It’s the recognition of a common purpose and common destiny in another. Physical attraction may accompany love, but it is not part of love. Love lasts, and it promotes those touched by it to become more, as a couple, than either could become as an individual. Love speaks to our higher reasoning abilities, whereas lust is an instinct that makes us little more than animals. Successful marriages are built on love and all that love does for us, not lust and all that lust does to us.
Recipes for Success.
- We’re One Couple, Not Two Individuals, And We’re In This Together. If a successful marriage is an equal partnership where each spouse gives 100% to the relationship – and it is, by the way – then the couple must work together on both the mundane items and the monumental decisions that each couple will face. When one spouse becomes the dominate partner, then the equality of the partnership is damaged. Both partners are equally responsible for every aspect of the relationship, and both partners must not only step up to that responsibility, they must make certain that they are not creating an environment where the other partner cannot contribute or participate 100%. Dominance in a relationship is selfishness, just as passiveness in a relationship is servitude. Equality is the only environment where both can grow together and achieve together. This does not mean that both partners must agree on everything, but there must be a process in place where disagreements are allowed and discussions can occur to find a mutually agreeable compromise or alternative. Each partner must put the needs of the relationship above their own needs, just as they must put the needs of the other partner above their own needs. Marriage is about unselfishness. If both partners put the other partner first, each partner will have everything needed to ensure happiness in the relationship.
- All Problems Are Communications Problems. I have found this to be true in business, marriages, parenting, and in most other activities. We speak with certain filters and we listen with certain filters, and often the speaking and hearing filters cause the true meaning get lost. So many disagreements between marriage partners stem from misspoken or misunderstood communications. Only open, honest, loving, and frequent discussions between marriage partners can minimize the impact and reverse the damage caused by things that are said or heard improperly. As a wise person once said, “we listen to respond, we don’t listen to understand.” Until we begin listening to understand, we will never fully grasp what someone is trying to say, and our filters will cause misinterpretations and trigger inappropriate responses. Technology, in its attempt to improve our ability communicate, has only succeeded in improving the ability to deliver messages. At the same time, it has nearly destroyed our ability to communicate ideas effectively. Interpersonal communications have been replaced by texting and emails, none of which effectively convey the emotion, humor, or affection in our messages. For marriages to work, frequent interpersonal communications are paramount, because if all problems are communications problems, then it is only through communications that these problems can be solved.
- Patience Is A Virtue. Technology has accelerated our whole society to the point where things that once took years now take weeks. This has had a profound impact on relationships, leading to sex on the first date and couples moving in together after only a few dates. We rush into things and are surprised when we find out later that we made a terrible mistake. No one seems to take the time to get to know each other before jumping headfirst into a serious relationship. Now, I am the first to admit that some couples are destined to be together and do not require long engagements or courtships to know that marriage is right for them. But even those couples (and my wife and I are among them), still have a lot to learn about each other, and it takes time to learn and understand the implications of all that we don’t know about each other. The relationship requires patience to build a firm foundation, and each partner needs to be patient with the other partner during the periods of discovery that mark the beginning stages of any successful relationship.
To summarize, marriage is not just joining two individuals together who are in love with each other. It is an act of creation, whereby two individuals throw off who they were before, and become one – the one they will be for the rest of their lives. This joining creates an equal partnership where each gives of himself and herself completely so together they may achieve more than either could ever hope to achieve as an individual. It is not just the sharing of the heart, or a name, or even an address… it is a sharing of a common destiny. Marriage is not about finding a sense of completeness in another, but learning how to surrender totally to something more important than ourselves. It is for this reason that no person should enter into marriage lightly or for the wrong reasons. Marriage is a solemn commitment to become a new person – to leave the old behind and start a completely new journey through life: together.
Marriage is a full-time commitment that requires constant attention to succeed. The world provides too many distractions that can tear a marriage apart, and it is the responsibility of each partner in the marriage to handle those distractions, rather than letting those distractions dominate the relationship. Marriage is not part of the life of each spouse – it is life itself. If you’re not prepared to look at marriage in this way, then perhaps marriage isn’t for you.