Whenever I work with pre-marital couples, we spend a fair bit of time pondering whatever a marriage actually is. Is it a social contract? A political statement? A business agreement? A holy sacrament? Of course, it’s all of those things and they each have their own implications and consequences. More thematically, we explore whether marriage is a right, a privilege, a gift, a responsibility, a burden – there’s a reason the ball-and-chain metaphor exists. Mostly, we work on exposing the attitudes, biases, and expectations for the relationship.
If you’re a newlywed, or about to be, I encourage you to explore each of these ideas even if you don’t read another word of this column. Minimally, you need to acknowledge and talk about the fact that marriage is complicated. That said, if I were to argue for simplicity – which I am – I would say that marriage is, above all, an opportunity.
Dr. Gottman’s Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse is an allusion from book of Revelation – the last book of the bible. There is some ancient wisdom from the first book of the Bible as well. In the book of Genesis, when Adam and Eve are going through their pre-marital counseling, God basically says marriage is when “a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh.”
Leaving theology and gender issues aside for the moment, let’s take a look at the wisdom of this definition:
1. Leave Home
One of the reasons that Dr. Gottman’s Sound Relationship House metaphor is so effective is that it implies a structure that belongs to you and your spouse alone. The only way to build your Sound Relationship House together is to ensure that you’ve created healthy boundaries around your relationship. This starts with mom & dad. Marriage is an opportunity to declare that someone else is taking the role of “the man in your life” (or the woman, of course). Sometimes, it’s tough to “leave” your mother and father, especially if they are good parents, who have loved and supported you throughout your life. But I’ve actually found it’s tougher to “leave” parents who were less than perfect or even harmful.
Leaving home isn’t just about your parents. It also includes your old boyfriends and girlfriends. Maybe the band you were in during college. Maybe it’s the fact that you usually spend every Saturday with your sister. It could be the actual physical structures that you are living in. Shirley Glass has famously noted that the healthiest relationships are the ones partners keep a window open between each other while erecting walls that protect their privacy from the outside world. Relationships get in trouble when walls and windows reverse and boundaries become messy. Think of your marriage as an opportunity to draw healthy boundaries and build a strong foundation for your very own home.
2. Seek Unity
Most of us want to find a compatible partner, someone who also likes chocolate and Ghostbusters and long walks on the beach. Personally, I think compatibility is overrated. What’s required is unity. Unity doesn’t mean you’re the same. It means you’re together. The top level of the Sound Relationship House focuses on creating shared meaning. Don’t underestimate the value of this opportunity.
With the confidence that comes from healthy boundaries, you can take creative risks in establishing new rituals. How will you make “The Holidays” uniquely your own? You can get ambitious about setting goals. Where will celebrate your 5th, 10th, and 50th anniversaries? You can get courageous about defining (and re-defining) your roles in the relationship. Who cleans this week? What happens when we switch the bread-winner role?
Unity means defining together the ideas of “home” and “money” and “family” and “sex” and “autonomy” and even “unity.” This is hard work, because it means having to give up some of your own ideas in order to accept your spouses. If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a whole bunch: The hardest lesson I learned during my first year of marriage was how selfish I was. Unity means letting go of your selfishness in order to become a better version of your self. Again, what a wonderful opportunity.
3. Have Sex
This may seem like a no-brainer, and indeed, you may already be having sex, but I wisdom “becoming one flesh” is a specific invitation to have married sex. I’m not trying to spark a moral debate, but I do think there is something inherently different – and better – about married sex. Even Hollywood has figured this out. Think of all the times you’ve ever seen two people making love on screen. It can be explicit or implied. Probably hundreds, right? Now think of how many of all those hundreds depicted married people having sex with each other. Pretty small percentage, I bet. Hollywood is either implying that married sex isn’t sexy, or that it’s somehow too sacred to sell commercials with.
The Gottmans have done a beautiful job advocating for married sex that is both sexy and sacred. They argue for “personal sex” by shifting the focus away from intercourse and toward intimacy. Dr. Gottman is a champion for erotic and emotionally connected sex that comes from a strong sense of trust and commitment. Indeed, you should practice the techniques of sex, but think of your marriage as an opportunity to have different – and better – sex by focusing on your long-term friendship and emotional connection.
NOTE: Many of my colleagues and friends encouraged (i.e. dared) me to write an “O is for Orgasm” column this week. I would have argued that a focus on achieving orgasm misses the point of married sex. The ability to talk about orgasm in a safe and curious is a much stronger indicator of sexual health for a couple.
Regardless of how you feel about the Bible, there is some important wisdom about how we are meant to be in relationship with one another. Genesis gives us a glimpse of what a marriage should be. Revelation reminds us of what it shouldn’t.
But let’s take the Bible out of it and weigh the opportunities available to anyone willing to commit to a long-term relationship. There’s a freedom that comes from leaving home and establishing healthy boundaries. There’s an exhilaration and maturation that comes from seeking unity by creating shared meaning and establishing new patterns. There’s an intimacy that comes from investing in emotional connection and prioritizing personal sex.
Every opportunity comes with a cost. In this case, it’s the work of exposing your attitudes, biases, and expectations for your relationship and then leveraging those things toward the construction of your very own Sound Relationship House.
Happy to bat these ideas around with you, especially if you’re a recently or about to be married and need some help thinking through how to leverage your new opportunity. Feel free to email me at [email protected] anytime.