As a counselor of 30 years, I have had the opportunity to speak at many marriage seminars, retreats, and other similar gatherings. On top of that, I have counseled with hundreds of persons, as well as many couples, regarding their marriages. I have come to the conclusion that those of us who do choose to get married, do so with a dream in mind that often turns out to be elusive. We don’t exactly think carefully about how we were expecting things to turn out realistically, we just sort of had in mind that things would just work out okay. Some people, fewer than most, I will also admit, begin their marriages with fantasies of grand and wonderful relations which will get better and better, and more enjoyable as time progresses. You know the type, “He or she will love me for the rest of my life, they will always be on my side, they will always be romantically attracted to me, and only me alone, they will be happy just being married to me.” Then reality hits, and many times the persons are left devastated and angry.
Am I saying that there is no chance of a “happy” marriage? No, but it will depend on your idea of what “happy” means. Happiness is something we decide on our own. The dictionary defines it this way, “the state of being happy.” The word “happy” has two definitions: 1) “Feeling or showing pleasure or contentment,” and 2) “Fortunate and convenient.” The second definition is more about mannerisms, like, “He is a happy-go-lucky kind of guy.” So, I will concentrate on the first definition.
If you are married, especially those who now may have been married for many years, do you and your spouse “feel or show pleasure or contentment” regarding your marriage? Well, we hope so, right? Let’s look at the words carefully and evaluate their reality in real people’s lives and marriages. You can have a good idea of how you personally feel about things, even your marriage, but you cannot be completely sure of someone else’s feeling, no matter how enthusiastically they emphasize them. People have been known to lie, right? And, there is no human on the face of the Earth that does not tell even a tiny, small, white, lie at some time or other. So the question is, how can you be sure that your spouse really is “happy” with your marriage just because they say they are?
30 years of counseling has taught me that, too often, people will say one thing and mean another. I have had men and women in counseling sessions argue how much they “love” their spouse, and then in the same session, threaten to divorce them because they are so angry. I have had women who come to see me complaining that their husbands have been abusive and hateful toward them, while at the same time claiming they don’t want to divorce. I had one situation, which has unfortunately become an expectation of mine regarding many marriages, where a man came to counsel arguing that he wanted his marriage to get better and improve, but, after additional counseling, I came to find out he was hiding the fact that he had been “talking to” another woman. A person can argue that they want to save, or improve, their marriage, and at the same time continue behavior which is clearly damaging the relationship.
Marriage is hard work. Not impossible, but nevertheless hard. A marriage will not just work out okay, it will require both individuals to choose to make sacrifices and compromise on many issues. It seems, often, that many persons who get married think that they can be married, and get all the benefits which come along with it, and still be free to live in any manner they want. I often hear the argument, “But what about me?” Their question alludes to their belief that they should be able to live and do as they want, and that their spouse should just accept it, and not confront them regarding their beliefs. This is solely a selfish egotistic self-serving concept. The correct question should be, “What about us?” One person once argued, “Are we supposed to stop being individuals when we get married?” The person was expecting me to say, “No.” Instead, I said, Yes!” At least from a Biblical perspective, we are called to become “one.” The idea is that two persons decide to leave their individual separate lives aside, and begin new lives working together for mutually benefiting purposes.
Is it possible for couples to have a “happy” marriage? Of course, but certain things will have to happen. I have, for the purposes of this writing, identified four issues of marriage which any couple must resolve to have a “happy” marriage.
First of all, the couple will have to have a sit down session and carefully outline plans for their future. According to my own statistics, after 30 years of counseling, of the people who come to see me, only 2 percent have any semblance of plans for their future. This means that upwards of 98 percent of most couples who encounter problems in their marriage have little to no future plans. Why is this important? Because, couples who do not work out plans, will then not work together to achieve those plans. The result will be that each person will attempt to accomplish their own goals and plans within the relationship, while expecting their spouse to go along with them. It should therefore be no surprise that so many marriages end up with two people at odds with each other as to the direction of the relationship. Often, it seems, people marry with the idea that the other person will just go along with everything they think is right or okay.
And, even when they do start to discuss their “plans,” the argument usually turns to one or both complaining that the other is not listening. To a lot of people, if you do not agree with them that means you are not listening to them. The argument is that if you are really listening to them, then you would agree with everything they say. Uh, I don’t think so! They seem to forget that part of what drew them together was their differences in some aspects of their personalities. The Bible, in the book of Amos, chapter 3, verse 3, asks the question, (KJV), “Can two walk together, except they be agreed?” The answer to the question is supposed to be a clear, “No!” If two people don’t agree on the direction or means of travel they will not head in the same direction, or by the same means. Once while counseling a betrothed couple, I encountered one the funniest, and saddest, moments in my counseling career. The groom-to-be, a Mexican man, and his bride-to-be, a Chicana, sat in front of me as we went through our second session of Pre-Marital Counseling. I had asked the couple how many children they were planning to have. The man, in usual machismo attitude blurted out in Spanish that the couple would be having five children. The lady, in full Chicano form, stared at him as though he had three heads. “Five!” she uttered in English, “Are you crazy? We are not having five kids!” The man started at her for a moment, turned to look at me, and then returned his stare at her, “We ARE having five kids!” His face starting to turn a shade of red. “No were are NOT!” returned the woman. “Yes we ARE!” He emphasized the last word rather clearly. “Okay,” she said. She shot me a glance and then faced him with a smirk on her face, “I’ll have the first two and you can have the last three.” I steered them off that subject, with a caution to discuss the issue further among themselves and find a compromise of some sort. I then changed directions and asked the man what they had decided about working, whether one or both would get a job. His answer, once again, was quick and specific. “I am going to work and she will be staying at home. “You ARE crazy,” she said in a voice about two octaves higher than her regular voice level, “I am going to work. I ain’t staying at home!” “Yes you are!” he shouted back. “Who’s going to make me?” she responded. He didn’t say anything at that moment, but his eyes were on fire as he stared hard at her.
Most of the couples which I have encountered who do have plans for the future have been couples who had been married for some time. They did not start off with those plans though. They were just as blind and plan-less as most other couples. What changed was that they went through a difficult time. A near break up, a trauma of some sort, a difficult emergency, or some other similar thing, forced them to rethink their circumstances. One couple struggled through the infidelity of the wife. Right on the brink of divorce, the couple worked out some painful issues and began healing. Years later, the couple is one of the happiest I personally know. They have plans for the future, they know where they are headed together, and both are working to make those plans a reality.
Secondly, they need to work out certain rules and agreements between themselves, to which they will adhere with the intention of maintaining peace and order in their relationship and home. God has rules which must be followed (the Bible), countries have rules which must be followed (the law), businesses which want to succeed have rules which must be followed (their policies and procedures), even gangs have rules which must be follow. But, sadly, most families and homes have little to no rules at all. When I ask couples if they have any rules for their home or marriages, they will say, “Yes.” But when I ask them to show me a copy of their rules, they will tell me that they have these rules only in their heads. This means that two different persons, have a set of rules in their heads which likely do not agree with the other person’s definition or interpretation. One lady told me that one of their rules was that there had to be peace in the home. In the same session, the husband later said, “Peace? Peace is when she shuts up and quits nagging me!” Clearly they did not have the same idea of peace in the home or marriage.
90 percent of the folks who come to see me not only do not have rules for the homes or marriages, but they wouldn’t recognize a home or marriage rule if it came up to them and kicked them in the knee. Many of you, who are reading this are in the same boat. You don’t have a set of written (yes, I said written) rules or agreement for your home, much less your marriage. If you will go to my website – practicalcounseling.com, you can find a copy of suggested home and marriage rules. I have yet, in all these years of counseling, had a couple come to see me who was in desperate trouble, and who also had and followed their personal rules. I once had a couple who came to see me because they were living unhappily at home with the adult children. They came to me complaining that there was no peace in their home. After telling me the whole sordid story of the problems these adult children were causing, I told the couple that I was going to suggest something that would immediately, as of that same date, resolve their problem. I helped them write some rules for the home, which I told them to share with their children that very afternoon. Later that evening, as I watched a favorite TV show of mine, I received a call from the husband urging me to come over to their home. He sounded distressed and excited. I could tell that something big had happened. He sounded worried and troubled. As I drove close to their home I saw a car which looked as though someone had run it into the couple’s car on purpose. I noticed the screen door with a big rip in it, and the back door’s glass pane as broken. As I exited my car, the husband came out running toward me exclaiming that his wife was upset and needed to speak with me. As we spoke, his wife came out also. “Pastor!” she shouted, “look at what they did.” She explained that when she got home, and got her adult children to sit with her at the kitchen table, she started telling them the new rules when her son jumped up angrily and started screaming at them about how bad of parents they were. Her then got his things and left the home. As he was leaving, the screen door did not immediately give, so he punched his fist through it ripping it. Then the daughter also got mad and called her boyfriend to come and get her. Then she got into her car and rammed it into her parent’s car. The only other person there was the husband’s sister. When they told her the rules would apply to her as well, she became irate and took her son and her belongings and left screaming at them that they were terrible Christians. When the wife finished telling me the story, she waited to see what I would say. I looked over to the house, turned and glanced at the cars, and turned again to the wife. “Sister,” I asked, “is there anyone left in your home that will cause you troubles?” She frowned and said, quietly, “No.” I smiled and said, “There you go. Mission accomplished” I turned and went back to my car. To this date, this couple enjoys peace in their home.
Thirdly, they need to clarify their relationship with relatives, friends, co-workers, and others. I don’t have good statistics on this one. I can only tell you that relatives, friends, co-workers, and others, if allowed by either or both of the couple, can cause more problems than they should be able to cause. And, that was not a typo, I did mean, “If allowed.” As with my second point above, the “happy” couple is one who has worked out considerations and limits when it comes to other people. In-laws tend to stick their noses into a couple’s life because they think that just because they are related by blood there is some law somewhere that gives them the right to so do. Relatives, with their “good intentions” have, over the years, caused much distress with married persons. In many cases, by interfering, well intended relatives end up making matters much worse than they would have otherwise. I know of one couple which ended up in divorce due to that fact that the brothers of the wife kept threatening the husband. He decided that getting out of the relationship was best for his physical health. Another question regards “friends.” What is a friend, and do you know the difference between a friend and an acquaintance? A friend is given privileges that you would never give an acquaintance, at least I hope you wouldn’t. On top of that, when is it okay for a husband or wife to have a “friend” of the opposite sex, which is also not the friend of the spouse? How many affairs begin between friends who like each other? Hmm?
Couples who have “happy” marriages don’t deceive themselves. Any marriage can be destroyed by an affair. The way to avoid the possibility is to purposefully establish certain guidelines by which the couple will live and abide. Make it a clear point as to what is and is not acceptable in any relationship with relatives, friends, co-workers, and others. Have this discussion now, before something terrible occurs, rather than in my counseling office when you are both in trouble of divorce. One of the dumbest things I have heard from people who come to see me is, “This will never happen to me!” Every marriage on Earth is one decision away from a divorce. What will your decision be?
Finally, they need to agree on specific definitions for much of the language they will use with each other. A couple came to see me, with the wife complaining that her husband, “never communicates with me.” I asked her how many children they had, and she said four. I told her that there had to have been some communicating to get the done. Communication. It can be such a daunting word. To a counselor, the art of communication is more than just spending time talking with each other. There are some nuances which most people overlook. Let me prove the point.
Let’s use the sentence, “The time is right.” Depending on where you put the emphasis, you could be saying something different. For example, “THE time is right.” The emphasis is on the word “the.” This emphasizes the idea that there is a specific time for something or other. Such as id someone said, “NOW is the time.” But, if we say it this way, “The TIME is right,” we could now mean either that the hour on the clock shows the time to do something, or this season of the year is best for some action, or that some political opportunity is at hand, for instance. And, if we say it this way, “The time IS right,” we may be asserting that action should be taken immediately, and that there should be no hesitation. Finally, we could say it this way, “The time is RIGHT.” This would lend the understanding that there has been no error in the understanding of when something should happen.
This is the problem which plagues many couples. They have a vague idea of what communication means, but they become so angry that their spouse is not doing it. It is more than just speaking or taking time with each other. It requires at least two persons to consider and agree upon certain “rules of communicating,” such as no yelling, walking away, quitting, and so forth. It also requires those people to agree on specific definitions to generally used words. For example, you and your spouse each take a piece of paper and write these words down: love, faithful, adultery, abuse, and sex. Now without speaking or sharing your papers with each other, write down simple definitions to each word. What is it, what does it mean, what does it include, and are there any exceptions? You will find that you both will end up with different definitions. So you may both use the same words in what seem to be the same statements, but you will each have a different context for the use of the words. Good communication will require both persons to make some adjustments in conversation style, language, and intent. Even then, there will still be some confusion, but it should be considerably less.
So, what was my point after all of this? Marriage takes work to make it work. A “happy” marriage takes even more work, but the result is worth the effort.