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Marriage as a Transformative Experience




Excerpted from
The Good Marriage: How and Why Love Lasts
By Judith S. Wallerstein, Sandra Blakeslee

As I come to the end of writing this book, I think about my own marriage, as I have so often in the course of the study. I am aware of the physical changes of aging in my body: my right knee is getting stiff with arthritis, and I walk more slowly than before. When my husband and I walk together, as we do daily, I notice that he has slowed his pace because of my infirmity. Of course he is aware that he is getting less exercise, but that thought is not at the center of his consciousness, and he does not expect me to express my gratitude. It goes without saying that he will accommodate to my need and we will both walk more slowly.

When we return home, he usually has some tasks he urgently wants to attend to, and that is fine with me; I know that if he doesn't do them he will be unhappy. I am also aware that he, too, is less flexible than he used to be. So I postpone conversation until he has finished his work. I expect no appreciative comment from him. This is the give-and-take of life, and this is what marriage is about: keeping up, not getting too far ahead and not falling behind.

Marriage is made up of little things, and it is the little things that count, both the good and the bad. The little changes, too, add to the important rhythms of life. The changing interactions between my husband and me are part of this major chapter in our married life. We are building a marriage now just as surely as when we were younger, as surely as when we returned from our honeymoon and started out on our life together. The thousand and one changes in our relationship, in observing each other and adjusting to each other, are no different today. Except that we are better at it - we have had a lot of practice. Strangely enough, it is these little things, the ebb and flow of the relationship, that so many couples cannot manage.

I bring this book to a close with mixed feelings of exhilaration and sadness. From my encounters with the couples in the study I have learned a great deal about building a happy marriage, even beyond my own high expectations. I have also learned about the rigors of maintaining one's adulthood and of being a parent amid the pressures of contemporary society. It has been a wonderful experience to spend time with couples who are thriving, who have held on to friendship and love for each other and for their children in a society in which divorce has become commonplace.

The people in these good marriages did not all start off with advantages. They came from a wide range of backgrounds: a few rich, most modest, some dirt-poor. A lucky few had parents who loved each other, but more came from marriages they perceived as unhappy. Most were eager to create a marriage that would be different from and happier than the one in which they were raised. In this they succeeded. Each couple created an emotionally rich, enduring relationship that was designed to their liking. They were frank with me about the pleasures of the marriage and also about the areas in which they felt pinched or disappointed. Their generosity has led me to new knowledge that can be put to immediate use by other married couples. I take leave of them with affection and deep gratitude.

I will miss having almost everyone I meet at social gatherings ask me anxiously, "What have you found out?" - and then wait for a one-line answer. It is truly distressing to hear over and over again how worried most of us are and how eager we all are for a message that will give us some control over the most intimate aspects of our lives.

I shall also miss the wonderfully condensed responses I received when I turned the question back to the asker. My all-time favorite: "Do I know what makes a happy marriage?" said a woman, laughing. "A bad memory." She had a point. Surely, being able to forget the day-to-day disappointments and keep one's eyes on the big issues is what is needed to make a marriage go. And in fact separating the trivial from the important is one of the great gifts of a sense of humor. No one would gainsay the usefulness of humor in sweetening the stresses of marriage and raising children. But in truth there are no one-line answers to the question of what makes a marriage happy.

What then are the secrets? How do a man and a woman who meet as strangers create a relationship that will satisfy them both throughout their lives?

First, the answer to the question I started with - what do people define as happy in their marriage? - turned out to be straightforward. For everyone, happiness in marriage meant feeling respected and cherished. Without exception, these couples mentioned the importance of liking and respecting each other and the pleasure and comfort they took in each other's company. Some spoke of the passionate love that began their relationship, but for a surprising number love grew in the rich soil of the marriage, nourished by emotional and physical intimacy, appreciation, and fond memories. Some spoke of feeling well cared for, others of feeling safe, and still others of friendship and trust. Many talked about the family they had created together. But all felt that they were central to their partner's world and believed that creating the marriage and the family was the major commitment of their adult life. For most, marriage and children were the achievements in which they took the greatest pride.

For these couples, respect was based on integrity; a partner was admired and loved for his or her honesty, compassion, generosity of spirit, decency, loyalty to the family, and fairness. An important aspect of respect was admiration of the partner as a sensitive, conscientious parent. The value these couples placed on the partner's moral qualities was an unexpected finding. It helps explain why many divorcing people speak so vehemently of losing respect for their former partner. The love that people feel in a good marriage goes with the conviction that the person is worthy of being loved.

These people were realists. No one denied that there were serious differences - conflict, anger, even some infidelity - along the way. No one envisioned marriage as a rose garden, but all viewed its satisfactions as far outweighing the frustrations over the long haul. Most regarded frustrations, big and small, as an inevitable aspect of life that would follow them no matter whom they married. Everyone had occasional fantasies about the roads not taken, but their commitment to the marriage withstood the impulse to break out.

Above all, they shared the view that their partner was special in some important regard and that the marriage enhanced each of them as individuals. They felt that the fit between their own needs and their partners responses was unique and probably irreplaceable. In this they considered themselves very lucky, not entitled.

Their marriages had benefited from the new emphasis in our society on equality in relationships between men and women. However they divided up the chores of the household and of raising the children, the couples agreed that men and women had equal rights and responsibilities within the family. Women have taken many casualties in the long fight to achieve equality, and many good men have felt beleaguered, confused, and angry about this contest. But important goals have been achieved: marriages today allow for greater flexibility and greater choice. Relationships are more mature on both sides and more mutually respectful. A couple's sex life can be freer and more pleasurable. Today's men and women meet on a playing field that is more level than ever before.



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