I recently learned that I am not alone in having mistaken television marriage for the real thing. Despite the evidence in front of me—my own parents’ marriage—I believed that real married couples functioned much like Mike and Carol Brady of The Brady Bunch (and that child-rearing involved a small misadventure followed by a parable, but that’s another story). A preconception that marriage involves reading in bed together and figuring out who’s driving the kids (with a humorous but seriously unsexy maid doing all the marketing, cooking, and cleaning) turns out to be not very helpful for adjusting to a marriage of the non-fiction variety.
In the real world, almost every marriage features a fair amount of stress, whether due to the interactions between the spouses or to the stresses of everyday living for which most of us lack an Alice. It was certainly a rude awakening for me. Furthermore, my parents had incorrectly described the possible prescriptions for marital success: marry someone who complements you, or marry someone with similar background and interests.
The problem with much of the advice my parents gave me is that life is never as straightforward as they suggested. There is so much to the formula for a happy marriage that they didn’t tell me. The first thing is that there is no formula. Some people who have no business being happy together make the best couples, and others who you would think should be perfect are disasters.
Anyhow, being complementary is a subtle thing. If one partner is social, say, and the other is not, this is not complementary; the two don’t combine to make a perfect social being. In fact, I would say that having the same social goals, or a complete willingness to roll over for your partner, are vital ingredients to a successful marriage. Because it feels bad to be held back socially by your partner, and it feels bad to be dragged to social events when you are the non-social part of the pair.
Socializing may seem like an area rich for compromise—and of course the ability to compromise is key to marital success—but I think it’s one for which few people on either end of the social spectrum actually want to compromise. Consider the following two offers:
You can still go; go without me.
This is fine for the anti-social person, but no good for the social person. Two things feel bad when you go alone and you are part of a couple: that you bothered to get married yet here you still are at social events as a single, and that the entire time you are out, you are thinking you ought to get home to your spouse (who is likely reveling in the time alone, unless kids are involved, in which case he or she is calling you every five minutes asking when you will be back).
Let’s just go for a little while.
This one is bad for both parties, because “a little while” has vastly different meanings for the social and the less-social being…and both parties know that. So the social person feels as if she (or he…yeah, right) is being dragged out of the event from the moment they arrive, and the non-social person knows that “a little while” means “pretty much the whole thing.”
To ensure success in a marriage, realize that being truly complementary is likely good—he prefers to cook the dinner, while she prefers to shop and clean up—but being opposites on key issues (religion is another one) presents a challenge.
My parents also underplayed the importance of common background. Differences in background can be overcome, but make no mistake: it is work to do so. Let’s say that one person had a significantly more healthy upbringing than the other. That can translate to a difference in the language you speak, and there are vast differences in the expectations for how you work together as a family. I think the best chance for success in such a marriage involves a therapist.
Finally, while it may be healthy for romantic partners to have their own interests, it is vitally important to have common interests. Otherwise, you end up living separate lives or you have the same problem that you have with social opposites: you drag your partner or are dragged to events in which you have no interest, or you do a lot of things alone.
That’s my prescription for a healthy marriage. My advice is subject to FDA approval, but you can still pay me the nickel it’s worth.