In Praise of Marriage: Insights from a Pathetic Housekeeper

Yesterday I got a call from my best friend from college, a brilliant, charismatic, fabulous woman. She was distressed because she was at a turning point in the first truly serious relationship she’s been in in the last ten years. Should she stay and work towards marriage with this good guy who has some annoying habits, or throw the whole thing aside and find someone who is a better match? (He’s not much of a cuddler, he doesn’t like talking in the morning, he has problems getting to sleep and is consequently pretty controlling with the light switch, he doesn’t tell her she’s beautiful, etc.) All these things worry my friend, who, however, is also quick to talk about all his good, steady qualities as well.

As I was trying to be a good sounding board, I was also trying to communicate that these annoying habits can improve with time. I didn’t want her to throw away a chance for a great marriage because of these irritations that occur in practically any relationship. In the back of my mind was also the thought that I sure have plenty of annoying qualities as well, and that I am quite glad that my husband took the risk, married me, and stuck with me, despite them.

Chief among my annoying qualities is my failure as a considerate house partner. I began my marriage with no sense of keeping common space clean. I had dirty underwear, crusty dishes, and who knows what other disgusting items strewn across the apartment. I knew my husband liked the place clean, but that wasn’t enough to motivate me to pick up. Cleaning was my lowest priority. And I functioned fine in chaos, why couldn’t he just deal? It’s no big deal, just step around it, I’d think.

Well, it’s taken ten years, and I am proud to say that I am now better at housekeeping. Not great, but I do sometimes make the effort to make the bed or wipe the counters or shove toys in closets. (Sadly, I attribute my change of habits to watching HGTV and thus realizing how much nicer a space is when it’s clean, rather than to selfless love for my husband.)

Anyway, reflecting on this has made me feel rather friendly toward the institution of marriage.* I’m grateful that marriage has given me the space and time to improve on my annoying qualities. Because marriage (ideally) entails working out these problems and taking the commitment seriously, I think it often serves as a strong motivating force for people to work with their partners and be patient and give them time to grow. I appreciate that about my Mormon tradition, this emphasis on one partner. There’s a lot of stretching, compromising, and love that comes as we give our partners a safe space to slowly evolve, explore, and grow.

I hope my friend will understand that marriage is always a risk and a compromise. Her partner will annoy her, no doubt, and she’ll annoy him in return. They’ll both inevitably be disappointed with one another at times. But in the end, after 50 years of marriage, I have every hope that there will be much satisfaction in building a life together, hanging in there, and watching one’s partner and oneself evolving and improving throughout the years.

*I’m sure other long term relationships can likewise afford similar chances to grow.

Caroline

Caroline is a PhD student in Women's Studies in Religion and mother of three.

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22 Responses

  1. Carla says:

    I don’t know about this. What you mention about yourself is more of a practical matter, while the things you mention about your friend’s guy are more to do with the relationship itself – not communicating or complimenting each other and not cuddling are problems with personal intimacy. A clean house might be a nice perk, but communication and intimacy are essential for a good relationship, no?

  2. Caroline says:

    Carla,
    Yes, communication and intimacy are indeed essential. And I think they do have that, just not at certain times of the day and in the ways she would most prefer.

    For me, those things I listed about the guy seem like details. Details that are annoying but not essential in making a marriage work. I’m pretty pragmatic when it comes to these things. If the guy is nice, steady, and reliable (though not the most exciting romantic partner), I tend to favor giving him a chance. But as you are alluding, different people definitely have different needs. I might be able to put up with this guy just fine, but others may just be perpetually dissatisfied.

  3. Angie says:

    That saying “keep your eyes wide open before the wedding, half closed after” has a lot of truth to it, I think. My other standard for my marriage is Dr. Laura’s list of non-negotiables: addiction, adultery, and abuse. Although some marriages have recovered from the three A’s, these are IMHO reason to call a relationship “bad”.

    Well, in the end, who can judge the worth or health of another’s relationship?

    • Caroline says:

      I like that phrase, Angie. That was the point I wanted to make to my friend: that you don’t have to marry someone who is perfect. People can improve, and also people can learn to live with irritations, so long as the foundations of the relationship are strong.

      • MJK says:

        I guess what I always said to my friends was that no one is perfect, everyone has faults and annoying habits. The trick is to marry someone whose annoying habits aren’t deal breakers for you personally. I know my husband has faults that I am kind of “meh” about but that would be grounds for divorce to someone else.
        The “eyes wide open before marriage and shut after” is excellent advice.

  4. Corktree says:

    I think that’s a good point from Carla, but even those aspects of a person that can seem like deal breakers are not always set in stone. I think if both people entering a committed relationship are able to see the need for compromise and are willing to take steps toward each other, it can work out.

    Just like you did with the cleaning, Caroline. Communication may seem to have more weight, and it does, but it’s something that can be improved and learned like anything else. When my husband and I were dating and considering marriage, I absolutely knew it was right to move forward, but I was terrified over the moments of silence that came between us, or how hard it was to have a heavy conversation when my husband lacked the verbal cues that let me know he was listening and following along.

    So, I knew these things weren’t ideal for me, but we moved forward and now, after years of working on communication together, we have both come a long way and it’s amazing how much better that aspect is. Once I got him to acknowledge that it would be helpful to me and our relationship to at least work on it, future efforts were easier. It isn’t always perfect, but now he is much more comfortable expressing himself, and I’m more comfortable with appropriate silence.

    • Caroline says:

      Corktree, I love your story about communication improving over time. I wish the YW in our church could hear more stories like this. Things just aren’t always perfect when we marry, but we can work towards improvement.

  5. Deborah says:

    I like this, Caroline. Have you seen your husband adjust in similar ways to your needs?

    • Caroline says:

      I think my husband has shown great forbearance about the house stuff. I really am pretty bad a lot of the time. For years, he would just quietly pick up (including my stuff) and do more than his fair share. With minimal complaining. I hand it to him. Now we’re at more of an equilibrium – things are messier than he’d like, of course, but cleaner than I would ever naturally be. And he understands that now that we have kids, things just get inevitably messy.

      I think he’s also learned to be more verbally affectionate than he would naturally tend to be.

  6. I relate to your cleaning habits. Marriage has also improved my housekeeping. My husband can’t concentrate with chaos, so if I want to have a nice heart-t0-heart with him at the end of the day, I need to do a little cleaning. Also, I used to swear more often. But this offended my husband, so now I don’t swear so much. Of course, my husband has changed for me in countless ways, but it’s been a slow process of coming together on issues. Not a ZAP! CHANGE… ta, da.. we are married.

    • Caroline says:

      “slow process”

      Yes, indeed. It takes time for things to evolve. I have a lot of faith that if both partners are committed to the relationship and willing to communicate, there can be movement and change.

  7. Jessawhy says:

    Caroline,
    What a great post about marriage. Housekeeping is a difficult task for me, too, because sweeping and mopping are things that prevent me from blogging 🙁

    I’m not sure I’ve grown in this way, but I’ve learned to accept that I’m doing the best I can and it’s going to be good enough for me.
    I do find myself not always giving my husband the benefit of the doubt as I do myself. That’s something I’m getting better at, too.

    I will say that some things are easier to grow and improve when a third party is involved. In fact, I recommend to all of my married friends that they have a counseling “check-up” every year. It’s been a great experience for us and has helped us work through some assumptions we didn’t know we were making, work sharing, and parenting issues. For some people it’s hard to get over the stigma attached to seeing a marital therapist, but it’s similar to a physical therapist, they’re just there to make you stronger and work better as a team.

    • Caroline says:

      Jess, I love your description of marital counseling. I would love to try it. Even the best of relationships have room for improvement, I’m sure, and a third party can give important insights.

  8. EmilyCC says:

    I wonder if we talk about this enough as we prepare our kids for marriage, that the relationship isn’t a static thing. In a healthy relationship (marriage or friendship), both people will grow and chance in unexpected ways and ideally, benefit from the other’s feedback and example.

    I’m afraid this isn’t quite on topic, but your post got me thinking…when I first married I expected our personalities and our roles to always remain the same, i.e. one of us was the messy one or the nice one, the one in charge of household finances or the one with the career. Over time, we’ve each had those roles and character quirks, and I think we’ve benefitted from those reversals (whether intentional or not).

    • Caroline says:

      I think role changing is healthy as well, Emily. Probably leads to greater compassion towards our partners, as we understand more of what they deal with. And stretching ourselves is always good too, I think.

  9. Rebecca says:

    “I love being married. It’s so great to find that one special person you want to annoy for the rest of your life.” -Rita Rudner

  10. dasunrisin says:

    Thanks for sharing! This is quite insightful. I hope your friend finds happiness in her life, and that you continue to do so as well :).

  11. Who doesn’t have annoying habits? And who says that you can’t lovingly communicate about them and improve upon them? Anyone who isn’t comfortable with the idea of changing/improving themselves for someone else isn’t ready for the long term commitment and polishing process that marriage is.

    I’ve never been a great housekeeper myself, but it’s so important to my husband and I’ve learned and am still learning. That’s my way of expressing my love (and commitment) to him because that’s how he understands it.

    I finally got done reading “The 5 love languages” this week, and I highly recommend it! While I hate spouting out taglines I’ve learned from books (self-help books irk me in general), sounds like your friend cares about certain expressions of love that isn’t in his “loving” vocabulary. Cuddling (physical touch), talking in the morning (quality time), telling her she’s beautiful (affirming words), etc. Don’t we all have those things we wish our spouses would do a little more, despite all the other ways he shows us he loves us?

    We can communicate those needs and request those things we care about! But our partner will only be willing to give so freely if we ourselves are willing to do whatever it takes to meet their own needs and speak love to them in the language they understand.

    • Caroline says:

      Great points, Fei. I read The 5 Love Languages a long time ago, but I remember it being a bit eyeopening to realize that my languages were definitely different than my husband’s. I should recommend the book to my friend.

      “And, the most important traits we should look at when choosing a spouse are: common goals/values, good communication, and a maturity in *selflessness*.”

      Amen!

  12. I thought I might add that being a good housekeeper might be something extra important to a person who’s primary “love language” is acts of service. Like my husband.

    And, the most important traits we should look at when choosing a spouse are: common goals/values, good communication, and a maturity in *selflessness*.

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