MORE THAN A FEELING
Introducing Marital Virtues
Myths are stories or metaphors that give society a way of thinking about life—they offer ideals and models of behavior that show individuals how to live. All societies have myths, whether they are conscious of them or not. These myths are passed on in the shared stories and symbols of society. Even today, there are certain ways of thinking about life that are shaped by the stories we share—especially when it comes to thinking about marriage and family life. Stories like Romeo and Juliet, poems and romance novels about romantic heroes and heroines, popular music, and particularly for us the films of Hollywood, tell us what love, romance and marriage can and even should be. The dominant story-line in our culture is falling into that feeling of love and finding complete satisfaction and ultimate fulfillment in a love relationship.
The idea that love is about a feeling is a big part of the Myth of Marital Happiness. But real love is much more than a feeling. It is a long series of decisions and actions. Happiness and satisfaction in marriage are a wonderful part of married life. But there is so much more to a good marriage than happiness and satisfaction.
Another important part of the Myth of Marital Happiness is the almost universal belief in our society that happiness in marriage comes from finding our true soul mate. Almost 90% of us believe we will find and marry this soul mate who will know our every want and fulfill our every need. Soul mates talk and communicate with each other with effortless ease. Finding a true friend to marry is important. But the problem is reality always sets in. Eventually, we find some flaws in our spouses, some surprising differences, and we learn that we don’t communicate as effortlessly as before. As a result, we may be tempted to think that we made a mistake, that he or she wasn’t our true soul mate. And if we could just find our true soul mate we would be endlessly happy again.
The problem with the Myth of Marital Happiness is that it convinces us that marriage should be first and foremost about happiness, and if we are not entirely happy, we are not in a good marriage. Often a belief in this myth leads individuals to abandon unhappy relationships in search of one they hope is closer to their expectations. Most people are aware of the high divorce rate in this country. Social scientists estimate that currently about 4 in 10 first marriages end in divorce, many of them in the first five years as young children come into the family. But we don’t need social scientists to tell us this. We all have been touched by the tragedy of divorce, whether it’s our own parents, a sibling, a close friend, or even ourselves. Clearly, some divorces are necessary, particularly in the case of abuse, addiction, or infidelity which can make marriage unendurable. But most divorces are more a result of disappointment. And people who divorce in search of a happier marriage find that happiness elusive in a new relationship. The divorce rate for second marriages is even higher than for first marriages.
So, what does this mean? Is a truly good marriage these days rare and random? Should we stop seeking for a good marriage so we are not disappointed? Of course not. Marriage is, after all, a deep joy for many, the foundation of the family and essential to society. But we can adjust the way we think about what a good marriage is to be more aligned with reality—a reality even more wonderful than the myth.
Right now is an especially important time to focus on your relationship. While you are preparing for the adventures of parenthood, take moments to strengthen your marriage. The quality of your marriage is no longer important only to you and your spouse. A strong marriage will be the most important gift you can give to your child. Research shows that most couples don’t anticipate the challenging changes in their relationships as they become parents. You probably expect that the birth of your child will bring you closer than you have ever been. Without the right preparation, however, research shows that most couples experience greater conflict and lesser satisfaction during this important life transition. Most couples are better prepared to give birth to a child than they are to deal with the changes in marriage caused by the birth of a child.
Obviously, most of the work of birth has to be done by mothers. Because of this, it’s a natural time for fathers to devote even more of themselves to the work of maintaining and strengthening the marriage relationship so that the child will be born into a loving and stable home. Mothers can support fathers in this work just as fathers can support mothers in the work of birth.
Couples in a good marriage do experience happiness, but it’s a feeling that grows in their way of being together, it’s not just what brings them together. A good marriage has four qualities or virtues: friendship, generosity, fairness, and loyalty. We can develop these qualities within ourselves by focusing on what is most important: creating a good life together with the person we love. While you prepare for the birth of your child, make it a point to cultivate these virtues and build a stronger foundation for your marriage so that your child has what every child is entitled to: two parents who are devoted to each other and to creating a loving, secure family.
The following activities will help you look at your own marriage and how you think about it as more than just the feelings you get out of it. They will help prepare you to work on the marital virtues in later lessons and activities.
1. My Marriage Meanings
Assume words like “personal happiness” and “emotional gratification” were never invented. List five other reasons why your marriage is important. (In other words, what is it about your marriage, other than how you feel, that makes it meaningful?) Feel free to share your list with your spouse, if you would like to.
Select another couple that you know who had a baby in the past year or so. Ask them questions like these and take notes. Then spend some time as a couple discussing what you learned—what surprised you, what your own expectations might be, etc.
2. Your “Philosophy of Marriage”
Look over each others’ lists from Personal Activity #1. Spend some time thinking and discussing the following questions. Then come up with a brief summary of your “philosophy of marriage” and record it in the space provided.
Our Philosophy of Marriage
3. Your Symbol of Marriage
Find an image or an object that seems to represent your philosophy of marriage. Display it in a place where you two will see it often.
(Sketch ideas for your image or object here)
Example: One couple felt that their marriage was about coming together in ways that brought out the best in each other so that as a couple they could provide something good for the world. They found a picture of a violin, which represents the way they bring out the potential in each other just as a master violinist brings beautiful music out of the instrument. They hung the picture in their bedroom over their bed.
Create Your Own Activity
You may have even better ideas than these for activities that will work in your particular relationship to strengthen your sense of the deeper meanings of marriage. Be creative! Think of something you can do either as individuals or together and write your activity here:
Meaning in Marriage Activity: