The Secret (kind of)
A lot of couples that I work with come to therapy looking for the marital “magic bullet”. Whether they’re in a tough spot, or just looking to fine tune their relationship, most people would like to find that one thing that guarantees marital bliss. This may be because learning to live in marriage is a bit like learning to dance. All of a sudden we’re locked in movement with someone else and muscles that used to take care of only us now must function to hold the needs of both in balance. While I’m usually quick to assure couples that there really isn’t a ‘secret’, and there certainly aren’t perfect relationships, there is one thing that goes a very long way toward restoring and maintaining this balance.
My Own Marriage
Shortly before I was married, I sat down with my parents to ask them about what it was that really made their love ‘work’. My mother’s response was simple, “If I woke up tomorrow and lived only for myself in this relationship, I wouldn’t give you a dime for my marriage.” While this may be a bit of an overstatement (my parents never gave up, even on the most selfish days), it helped me understand what it took to have a balanced relationship.
If I had to name just one thing that, as a counselor, I’ve seen heal more marriages than anything else, I’d say sacrifice. It’s pretty hard to break a marriage when both people come to the relationship determined to love and care for the other no matter what.
A Balancing Act
Balancing needs first requires a balance of self-care and sacrifice. Sacrifice can be scary, especially if you’re not sure your spouse will reciprocate. Even if your partner has never given reason for you to doubt them, trust takes time. What makes many couples resist sacrificial love is the simple fact that they’re not sure they will be cared for in return. “Will I be provided for if I don’t provide for myself?” Loving this way means risking that some of our needs may go unmet for a time.* This means that, especially in the beginning, we must seek a balance of loving our partner, but also taking care of our own basic needs. As both partners grow and begin to care for one another more, each can relinquish more and more of the urge to take care of themselves as their spouse meets those needs.
Imagine that you are both standing, hand in hand, on a log spanning a deep chasm. You must make sure that you do not go over, but you also want to ensure the safety of your partner. If you pull too hard, you may both fall. If you push past your partner’s ability to hold you, you may also fall. Yet, as your muscles learn to balance your own body, you are ever more able to help balance that of your partner. Together, you are more stable than you ever would be alone.
*If needs consistently go unmet, it may not be safe to lean on a spouse for a time. If you are in a marriage that is way out of balance, it can be dangerous to hold on to your partner. This is especially true if there is abuse, neglect or other dysfunctional behavior. In these cases, you will have to address this before you can safely lean on one another. This is one of the ways marriage counseling can help.
Andy Brown is a professional counselor who specializes in marriage, sexuality and young adult issues. He and his wife, Caitlin, have been married since 2004 and have three lovely children. Andy enjoys swimming, coffee, kayaking, snowboarding and Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.