What “Marriage Takes Work” Actually Means

It’s pretty obvious that bad things will absolutely happen over the course of a long relationship: illness, death, random acts of a furious and vengeful God/dess. The usual.

These, predictably, add stress to any relationship, but if your relationship is solid, you will weather every storm that the universe and/or your asshole family will throw at you.

That’s the dream, right? It’s just you and your love, facing the world together, a team, partners, the dynamic duo (or trio or quad or whatever floats your boat, no judgment on your sports team!)

Okay, but real talk: at some point, one or both of you is going to be the problem. And that’s usually what spells trouble in paradise.

Everyone says that good marriages take communication: what this actually means is, when your partner wrongs you, don’t be a dick.

Initially, it’s on you to clearly, concisely, and kindly spell out both the issue and a proposed solution. You also have to be willing to compromise some (because we all hate those people who get everything they want, not to mention issues of relational fairness), but adequately expressing your boundaries (without dragging the person you swore to love through the mud) is essential to your own mental health–and theirs, while we’re talking about it.

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You don’t have to hack and slash with the sword of truth: you can point with it too, or so writer extraordinaire Anne Lamott tells us.

But “communication” is only half the battle–and often when relationships fail.

Once one partner has spoken their truth, it’s on the other to actually do something about it. And that’s hard for anyone, because it sucks admitting that you’ve been a total asshole lately. (We’re usually assholes because we’re lazy; old habits die hard and it usually takes way, way more effort to do the right thing and/or work on a character flaw, right?)

The marriages/relationships that last not only have true communication at their heart, but also partners who are committed to making positive changes.

When your partner wrongs you:

  1. You are entitled to a proper apology. Jimmy John’s sums this up concisely:
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    My apology standards aren’t particularly high when signs at Jimmy Johns get it right.

    Fun Fact: Any apology that is followed with the word “but” is not an apology.

    False apology: “I’m sorry that I hurt your feelings by doing X, but what I really meant was…”

    There’s always a reasonable explanation — you can explain anything away after the fact. Your partner may not have meant to hurt you, but a repeated pattern of hurtful actions, intentional or not, needs to be addressed. Why? The hurt still exists; it turns out good intentions lay the pathway to marriage hell, so your partner needs to apologize without a justification. Also, side-tangent, any variation of “I’m sorry you’re overreacting [to this shitty thing I did]” is absolutely not apology, and if you hear something that consistently, it’s a big, giant red flag waving at you to run–your feelings are valid.

  2. The part Jimmy John’s beautiful and concise sign misses is this: there is no apology like changed behavior. Your partner needs to commit to making an effective, lasting change.
  3. Now, it’s back on you–once your partner has committed to making right what they can, you have to give them the chance to succeed, or so a marriage counselor once told me. It takes time, sometimes we humans relapse, but look for the patterns–what are they doing consistently to show you they are committed to helping you find peace?
  4. Just because someone is trying doesn’t mean it’s enough to hold on to a less-than-fulfilling (read: bad) relationship. Small efforts count for something, but absolutely not for everything.

So, for example, if your partner apologizes for, hypothetically, lying about taking their pretty new intern out to dinner, drinks, and ice cream while you were away on a trip, they may promise to never do that again. However, if said partner continues to text said intern during your date nights, while you’re making dinner, and on Christmas morning, that’s not exactly changed behavior, and it’s likely still crazy hurtful. That’s the bare minimum; just because someone doesn’t repeat the exact offense doesn’t mean they’re doing an adequate job.

Sometimes, love just isn’t enough and you need to remember what you deserve, and not just what you want. Divorce shouldn’t be your first option, but it also shouldn’t be your last, no matter what fairy-tale culture tells you.

Unpopular opinion: you shouldn’t stay with someone who is unwilling to 1. apologize for real, 2. meet you at least halfway with changed behavior when they have hurt you, AND 3. changed their hurtful behavior when you’ve given them multiple chances to do the right thing (you also have to do the kind and right things).

Yes, marriages that last take ample communication–and effort, aka changed behavior at some point from one and both of you at different points throughout the years. This is especially true when you both are in a cycle of doing thoughtless or hurtful things.

In happy, balanced marriages and/or relationships, both partners work to take care of their own needs/wellbeing, and also strive to bring joy into their partner’s lives.

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You are responsible for you; your partner is responsible for your partner; you both should work to make the other one’s life a little better each day. Without this powerful trifecta, imbalance occurs, and then over time, resentment.

But always consider this: no good marriage ends in divorce. However, lots of people stay in damaging ones because they believe that if they, alone, just work hard enough, love their partner enough, sacrifice enough, that they, singularly, can make a demeaning relationship work.

It takes two.

And you deserve someone who always strives to put just as much back into the relationship as you do. Really. I promise.

If you’re at a marriage/relationship crossroad and you’re not sure whether to give it the old college try again, start by communicating: tell your partner what you are willing to do, to sacrifice, to make it work. And then, see what they are willing to give you–and hold them to it. You are worth the follow-through of their promise to you. (You also have to do what you said you will. :D)

If they do or don’t fulfill their end of the bargain… you have your answer.

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Oh! I almost forgot this fun fact: at some point, you will be the problem. Which means turn about is fair play. Sometimes you are the problem at the same time your spouse is the problem. Be nice, be kind, be clear, be solutions-focused when you argue, and trust that your partner will do the same. If they don’t… well, we’ll talk about that another time.

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