My wife and I recently celebrated our twenty fifth wedding anniversary, and I’ve been giving thought lately to the lessons I’ve learned in our marriage. Many of them were hard fought lessons, further complicated by the fact that my parents weren’t necessarily the ideal role models. Married just over twenty years (that actually doesn’t tell the whole story and probably for another time but suffice to say it was the second of three marriages for my dad, each lasting over twenty years), they never imparted any particular wisdom to prepare us for a lifelong commitment together. Further, now that our three kids are entering adulthood and will hopefully be finding lifelong companions for themselves, I am feeling compelled to do what my parents did not–provide advice on how to prepare for a life in relationship.
As such, following are the key lessons I’ve gained along the way that have helped me in sustaining our marriage thus far:
You are NOT responsible for your spouse’s happiness
Of all the lessons that would have helped me early on, this is the one that would have saved us a lot of angst. There is so much to say here that I am not even sure where to begin. Perhaps with the moment it became painfully aware to me… It was about five years ago a number of things conspired to bring things to a boil for us:
- The business I had started a couple of years prior was on life-support and the financial pressure it had created in our marriage was virtually unbearable. We were living off the equity in our home with no foreseeable change in the future. Further, I was the only income earner in the household.
- The menagerie of unfinished house building projects hit overload with my wife–especially after the latest equity loan was diverted from finishing the addition to paying for living expenses due to the aforementioned lack of business income.
- The impact of having lost my parents in 2002 was finally becoming apparent and I felt more alone than at any other time in my life.
I’m sure there were a few other things going on but they were not as central as these. At any rate, there was a clarifying moment while in marriage counseling when, after hearing my wife relate how many times I had promised her that things would get better, and after they never really turned out like I had assured they would, it became clear to me that the root of all this was my insecurity and need for her approval.
If, on the other hand, I had just simply believed that she would be happy and content to be with me as I was, accept me for who I was, it would have lifted an immense burden on our relationship. This was not her doing–it was mine. My own hyper-need for validation that created the space for over-compensation in the relationship. I realized at that moment in the therapist’s office that I could never, ever, achieve all that I had promised her because it was for all the wrong reasons.
It was what came next that was perhaps the most difficult thing I have ever said to my wife. “I am not responsible for your happiness.” Truth be told, I’m not sure that is verbatim of how it went down and I am certain she would have a different version. But that is how I remember it.
My mom used to remind me of the refrain, “when the student is ready, the teachers will appear.” Certainly in this case, it was true. Subsequent to this confession, the resonant messages began to appear, essentially communicating the same thing: happiness is an inside job. I am responsible for my happiness. You are responsible for yours. We can rejoice in the other’s acceptance of responsibility for our own, but we cannot adopt the other’s. And like many things I have learned, it comes down to letting go. In acknowledging that I don’t have control over most things that happen to me, let alone to someone else.
From this place of owning your happiness, and not someone else’s, and your spouse doing the same, you will focus on the important things from a much more grounded, and pragmatic place. Just the simple act of asking yourself, “why am I doing this?” allows for a different conversation. One that, between two people that love each other, leads to mutual and beneficial outcomes.