GWAS Notes: Marriage is like Magda

Over the weekend, Husband and I got chatting with some friends of ours, a couple 10 years our junior, about marriage and love and what we've learned since tying the knot. While we've no doubt that we love each other, when asked how married life is treating us, we usually entertain people with a sort of skit (this must be said in southern American voices for added comedic effect)....

"Marriage is wonderful, isn't it honey?", Husband will say through gritted teeth, putting his arm around me.
"Oh, yes, I've never been happier!", I'll say, in the manner of a Stepford Wife, a big grin on my face.

The response is usually an awkward laugh followed by a conversational diversion such as the weather. Like Madgda Szubanski disguising the seriousness of her weight problems by saying she's "made by Cadbury's", we publicly mock our marriage to make the reality more palatable: it's laugh or cry.

But like the premature (and immature) Michael Jackson jokes doing the rounds after his death, playing along with this farcical scenario just got tired. And, really, it wasn't funny. We may have prided ourselves on our honesty and candor, but verbally reinforcing the idea that your marriage is crap to all and sundry does nothing to fix the problem. It feeds it. And cheapens it.

So, like Magda resolving to hop off the binge eating bandwagon, I declared an end to the marital tomfoolery. Who were we benefiting with such crude verbal behaviour? We were bringing ourselves down and the institution of marriage with it. It was time to grow up.

A small comfort came care of one of our young comrades: "You've shown us that no matter how bad your marriage gets, you can't just walk away from it," said the young man. And I wanted to cry. Gluttons for punishment we may be, but we do have that to our credit: a dogged commitment to honouring the oath we took before God. We're in this till death do us part.

Which brings me to a new study, which has found that a quarter of relationships will end within six years and 50 per cent by 25 years. Divorce statistics are nothing new (the commitment-phobes love to bandy them about as evidence of the stupidity of saying "I do"), but I do rather hope that after watching the Boomers and Gen-X make divorce de riguer for the even moderately discontented, leaving their children to pick up the messy pieces, that we might be able make some progress on the marriage-for-life front.

My main concern is that we tend to look for the quick-fix rather than committing to anything longer than it takes to upload a picture on Facebook. If we're not happy in our job, we jump ship to another one; we avoid signing up for phone contracts; the latest gadgets quickly render last year's model redundant; and we're not particularly brand-loyal, always looking for the better deal amongst a plethora of choices. Maybe marriage needs a cool marketing campaign?

In response to the story on ABC referencing the survey, WhatIsLove writes: "When people realise love is a verb - then marriages will last the test of time. If you do not feel there is love in your relationship - then love your partner. Take action! Take the risk of surprises, the risk of you taking action, and stop waiting for your partner to "make the change". People hate to hear this, but to love your partner is to sacrifice your time, space and energy for your partner - this also is why you "choose" a partner."

Obviously, the new survey stats are retrospective: we don't know how Gen-Y and their younger siblings will honour marriage (because, um, most aren't married yet). But if the precedent for divorce is set, who do we have to model ourselves on? Thanks to some boyhood delusion, Husband's idea of the perfect marriage involves me putting out in the kitchen and in bed (simple!). Meanwhile I was brought up witnessing the sort marriage issues the characters faced in Lantana (just short of Revolutionary Road dramatic extremities). Sex-on-tap fantasies or Ray Lawrence/Sam Mendes directed despair (or, as Beyonce sings, a "sweet dream or a beautiful nightmare")? Where's the middle ground?

The survey also found that people whose parents are divorced are more likely to call it quits on their own marriages, while couples in which both people had been previously married had a 90% higher chance of splitting than those marrying for the first time. "With few exceptions, the painful numbers indicate that statistically you have a better chance of finding happiness in your current marriage with all its challenges than if you move on to another one," says UCB Australia.

Thankfully, for me, the answer to positive role modelling lies in Husband's parents: they're the proverbial poster couple for a solid marriage. They've had more than their fair share of trials but they've stuck it out, and have rather enjoyed each other's company in the meantime. Granted, they are committed Christians, and God doesn't condone divorce, but their synchronicity just makes me want to give more to my marriage: darn it, I want what they're having! If my marriage has been a 2-minute noodle meal (my specialty!), there's is the three-course baked dinner.

What I've learnt from them is that the marriage is like a living organism (no, not orgasm) that must be fed and nourished and loved and respected: it's separate from the two of us (owned by God), yet we're both expected to invest into it – like relationship superannuation – by giving it time and our unselfish attention and sacrifice. No mean feat for two stubborn young people intent on doing their own thing most of the time! But Husband is the fruit to my nut: we could be the perfect Cadbury couple, if we'd just start acting that way.

Our 'Marriage Sux!' skit is going to be a tough act to follow (we really perfected that one). But, just as Magda said of her determination to shed kilos, "You need to love yourself and do it out of love for yourself, and love for your poor old body", so too we need to change our "miserable till us part" mentality for the sake of our poor old marriage, the love of each other and respect for God. I've no doubt there will be more genuine laughs along the way. And people might start asking us how we are again!

"Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails." 1 Corinthians 13:13

Yours truly,
Girl With a Satchel


Emma xx said...

i really enjoyed this post, it really gave me something to think about. i'm a gen y, still at uni, and way to young to be contemplating marriage but i have seen my parents performing the sort of charade you did once, making jokes of marriage to add humour to sometimes not so easy times. the amount of divorce worries me, and i do hope that i will be able to avoid this and really put effort into the relationship i ultimately commit to through marriage. thankyou for a great read, it really was food for thought :)

Anonymous said...

Erica, I really appreciate your candid honesty - it takes a lot of guts to recognise that a relationship (be it marriage or a partnership) is not on the path you'd like it be on. Good on you for sticking with it! I related to a lot of what you said. Perhaps if we all invested a little more into relationships we would see better results. And it's so true that marriages/relationships/friendships don't just run themselves - there need to be participants who can compromise and give. However, having seen my mother go through a demorilising and emotionally-destructive marriage, I'm pleased that divorce was an option for her. Sometimes things don't work out - and rather than an easy escape route, divorce is an the only way for women in battered marriages that I'm sure many women in the 1950's would have killed for. In my opinion, sticking to a bad marriage for moral reasons isn't always best in the long run.

Anonymous said...

Wow, Erica that was an amazing article. I truly believe that Marriage is special and its disheartening to see people just throw away their relationships so quickly these days because of one phase of unhappiness. You guys are an inspiration!

Anonymous said...

Great post, GWAS.

I've been married for two and a half years and I can honestly say that absolutely nothing about my husband's and my relationship is any different to the way it was before we tied the knot. He's my best friend, my staunchest supporter and the first person I want to see or speak to in every situation - but he was all those things before we got the bit of paper!

I love being married to him and wouldn't change it but, aside from the fact that our wedding was the best party I've ever been to, I honestly don't think there was much point!

Anonymous said...

Fantastic post Erica. Your honesty and commitment both to each other and to God is inspirational. Thank you.

Kelly said...

Great post! I think mindset has a lot to do with it. Divorce is not an option for my husband and I so we work through EVERYTHING and we have a stronger marriage because of it. It is something worth fighting for....

Anonymous said...

Hmmn I'm confused. As an about to turn 28 year old who only became a Christian about 2 years ago ~ I'm not sure what to think about this post. I'm pretty unhappy being single and all I want is to find a person who will stick by me for life rather than always having to rely on myself for everything. In fact I'm pretty annoyed at God as I never wanted to get married/have babies before I was a Christian and now it's the only thing I want (church culture probably doesn't help as everyone seems to marry young). So from where I am standing you have everything I want ~ and now you're not happy ?? I don't get it ?

Erica Bartle (nee Holburn) said...

Anon, you can absolutely find happiness in marriage. And Husband and I are in a really good place right now - we've just had to work through our issues. But marriage also isn't the miracle cure for fulfillment - individually, you have to be seeking a right relationship with God and satisfaction in your life, which feeds into the marriage. If one or both of you aren't faring well on that front, the marriage will suffer.

I've never made a secret of my struggle with eating disorder - a physical manifestation of my angst/worries - and it has certainly hindered the development of our relationship. But Husband has stuck by me and now we're travelling along nicely. Like everything in life, we and our marriage are a work-in-progress.

There is hope!

Anonymous said...

Hi Erica,

What a brave post. But also, are you alright? I hope things are ok.

I think I mostly agree with what you say, the essential point being that marriage is not all roses and you actually have to work at it sometimes. Definitely one important thing is presenting a united front to people.

But at the same time, I think you take your point too far. Increasing divorce statistics do not cause me much dismay. I think they are a sign that as society progresses and a married couple is no the essential economic unit that it once was, people are no longer bound to stay in partnerships that are frankly not working.

Divorce is more common, but the decision to leave a marriage is rarely one that people undertake lightly. Sometimes marriages are just not right, no matter how hard you try. I'm not talking about abusive marriages (and I assume you weren't either), because these are in a category of their own, but just standard marriages between two good, well meaning people, who perhaps just shouldn't have gotten married. People make mistakes in their lives, even ones concerning such fundamental things as who they marry. Sometimes it is ok to admit that things are just never going to work out. I don't think people should feel guilty for not trying hard enough in these situations.

This is all perhaps not relevant to your own experience, where it seems like you have a fundamentally solid partnership that just needs more nurturing. But that doesn't mean that all relationships would be successful if the people in them just tried a bit harder.


Anonymous said...

Great honest post..proud of you.

Love Beck

Unknown said...

As always, love your blog and love your honesty.
Love your work Erica, definitely food for thought :)

Must catch up with you guys for hang outs soon! x

Anonymous said...

Great post Erica, and something I have been thinking about a lot of late. I celebrate my 20th wedding anniversary today, in a relationship which can be pretty unsatisfying at times, but in what is a very strong partnership. I'm the child of divorce (gratefully - my parents had an awful marriage), and have always been determined that I don't go down the same path. 20 years feels like a real accomplishment and worth celebrating!

Erica Bartle (nee Holburn) said...

Anonymous, congratulations on your 20-year marital milestone! How inspiring! And thank you for all the positive feedback: it's a precarious and personal area for discussion. Perhaps we should aim for 'peaceful' rather than 'happy' marriages, in which we feel at ease, content and true to ourselves? I've found there's nothing more satisfying than giving more of myself (physically/emotionally/mentally) to others: Husband inclusive.

Lexi:: PottyMouthMama said...

I loved this post. I've been married for almost 4 years, and from time to time, we too go through our own struggles. But at the end of the day, we've taken our vows and we want to fulfill them, 'til death do us part. It's not a Hallmark card all of the time, but it works, with all the ups and downs, and that's ok. Thanks for sharing your view. It was raw and for that, it was beautiful.

Joselle said...

My fiancé and I are both children of divorce. My parents absolutely needed to get divorced and I am grateful they did. I don't at all relate to the stats about children of divorce being scarred for life or unable to succeed at relating to others. I think I would have been scarred more had my parents stayed together for longer.

That all being said, divorce does terrify me. Or, I should said, what terrifies me is the idea that I probably (okay, definitely) won't always feel so great about my partner, that I might not even always love him or want to be with him. And that I'll feel all of those things so much or something disastrous will happen that we end up divorced.

What your post highlights is the fact that marriage, love, divorce are not events that happen to us. They are ideas and feelings we create and must continually sustain. That's scary, too, but also liberating. Love is indeed a verb. What you want most from your partner must be what you're willing to give and give again.

I'm super lucky that I've found not only an amazing love but a true blue best friend in my fiancé. We've gone through family deaths, illnesses, distance, and lots of fears in our 2 1/2 years together. I'm just so happy that I know without a doubt that I want to marry him and that I can't imagine spending life with anyone else. As much work as marriage will be, I'm also looking to having even more fun with him. If you always work at a relationship, that's not great. There should be some magic, that intangible thing that keeps it going. I'm glad we have that, too.

Anonymous said...

Hi Erica,

Thank you for sharing on this subject, which is a "precarious and personal area for discussion." I acknowledge your courage and integrity.

I think you're on the right track when you talk about aiming for peace, contentment and full self-expression in marriage (as, in fact, elsewhere in life), rather than "happy" marriages.

I think part of the challenge in being married today is that two things have changed. People have greater expectations of what it will deliver, and, at the same time (and not surprisingly), greater anxiety about its durability.

My parents had their 50th wedding anniversary a few weeks ago. They were very miserable and frustrated at many times when we were growing up. But after they retired, and particularly since my Dad's heart attack, they've fallen madly in love with each other again. I wouldn't have thought it possible.

Best wishes,

dillpickle said...

Hi Erica,

It's really great to see public comment on the longevity and permanence of marriage when the majority of discussion seems to promote the 'until I don't feel like it anymore' attitude. Successful, ongoing, lifelong marriage is hard work, but oh, so worth it! We are 11.5 years in hoping and praying for many more.

John Gottman's 'Seven principles for making marriage work' is an excellent resource for good relationships and is based on empirical research rather than just someone's opinion. I'm not much good at taking advice that is just someone's opinion so I've found Gottman's stuff really useful :-)