Preparing for Marriage
by Phil Costello
"Life is suffering", or so says one interpretation of the First Noble Truth taught by Buddha.
That’s a bit dark, especially when you are contemplating the eternal bliss of marriage. But, at some level, we know there is truth in it, and that we cannot expect to go through life in a constant state of euphoria - to think otherwise is unrealistic.
Unfortunately, we live in a culture that says otherwise: buy, buy, buy to be happy. Of this, Buddha says the second truth, desire, is the reason and cause of that first truth: suffering. Certainly food for thought.
As well as our culture, we also have our very natures driving us on to be perpetually happy. We just don’t like to be unhappy and continually act in ways to avoid it. That’s not a bad sounding plan, but it’s just not always possible in reality.
This brings us back to marriage and relationships in general. We all want the same things - love, fun, security - but the real question is, how can we achieve these goals in a marriage?
Happiness and Expectations
Let me suggest that a big part of it can simply be adjusting our expectations and realising, even planning for, the inescapable fact that there will be plenty of unhappy times in our marriage.
At first glance, this may seem like a cop-out: settling for less, surrendering to a pessimistic outlook of marriage.
Interestingly, though, we already ‘adjust our expectations’ in other areas of our lives. We don’t go into jobs expecting them to be a constant source of merriment and good times. And we don’t tackle new projects without the knowing that a lot of it will be hard, possibly even tedious work, even if it’s just painting the back fence.
Another good example to describe this distinction between realism and fantasy is, believe it or not, the weather. Imagine going into summer and thinking, ‘every day is going to be a cracker’ - when reality meets expectations, disappointment follows.
I have noticed that when it comes to relationships, our focus is lopsided, always looking for the contentedness; the gratification. When it’s not always there, the conclusion is that there is something wrong, perhaps fatally so, and it’s time to move on, escape.
This might very well describe the status of marriage. It does get a lot of positive spin as we’re growing up, from fairy tales right through to the cultural expectation of monogamy. Over the last forty years, a lot of this has changed for the better and we’re now free to marry whomever we want or not marry at all.
But, if we’re in a relationship and we want it to last, we need to view it realistically.
Marriage: The Ups and Downs
So, what if instead, like a silly movie I saw years ago where in the face of death, the lead guy quickly reminisces on his forty year marriage, saying that it went in waves, with some years good and some not so good, noting as he was about to die that he and his wife were in the middle of a good year and, ultimately, he was thankful for that. What if we could create this more balanced mind set before going into a marriage, embracing the fact that there are going to be yuck times. How would that work out?
My experience is that it would better prepare us for the long haul. There will be down times but, rather than seeing them as fatal, we should instead roll with them, knowing that the lows will pass and there will be good times again.
In fact, without meaning to get too philosophical, it’s just not possible to have all the highs of an intense emotional relationship without the downs. Quite simply, we wouldn’t even recognise the ‘highs’ as highs without the ‘downs’ to contrast them with.
As well as this, it is the very wave-like nature of relationships, the troughs particularly, and how we get through them together, which creates higher peaks. Everything is more satisfying when we have had to work hard to achieve it.
This shouldn’t be read as surrendering to the inevitability of unhappy times and the futility of making any effort to avoid or minimise them. There are a billion good books on the maintenance and repair of loving relationships. Rather, it is more about ensuring that we view marriage realistically, understanding that fairy tale ever-afters are just that, fairy tales. The reality of a successful marriage has far more to do with the enormous complexities of our natures and the price we must be prepared to pay if we really want something lasting and rewarding.
Humanity has known this for centuries, hence the words ‘for better or worse’. Our ability to weather those ‘worse’ parts will ultimately determine if we make it or not. Going into marriage with a clear idea of the ‘occupational hazards’ can only be a positive as we begin to think in a more balanced way about spending the rest of our lives with another person.