As part of a New Year’s Resolution to work on our marriage, Mark and I have been reading books about relationships, seeing a therapist, and working on other ways to tune-up our interactions. For the most part, this post will be an overview of our efforts, with vignette about a particularly important therapy session that helped me re-frame my relationship with Mark.
I’m happy to report that while the year has been full of ups and downs, it’s been more up than down. And beyond just having good times, it seems like Mark and I are drawing closer in a way that gives me confidence for the future.
A little background- Mark is a faithful yet nuanced latter-day saint. He is the best kind of Mormon, devout but kind, generous and humble. I’m always impressed by how seriously he takes his covenants and obligations in the church, although sometimes I resent the time it takes from our family. On the other hand, I find the LDS church incredibly painful and have a difficult time attending. I’m still not settled on how (or if) I believe in God and the Mormon God is most certainly not for me.
This has obviously caused us some pain over the last 5 years of my spiritual journey, as we were married in the temple and very much in the same boat on our way to the celestial kingdom.
But 12 years and 3 sons later, the marriage landscape looks much different than it did when we set off. Most of this time our marriage has been average. Nothing spectacular, but nothing terrible, either. When I decided to work on our marriage as a New Year’s resolution, I don’t think I identified our crisis over religion as part of my decision, but throughout the year it became clear that becoming closer was going to require us dealing with this looming issue.
Sundays are always the worst days in our home. I go to church with Mark and the boys out of duty and because I love some of the people there. When I come home, I rant, then Mark defends the church, and it’s just a mess. In addition to this, our parenting is not coordinated and sometimes we feel conflicted about what the other person is teaching the kids.
To be fair to Mark, however, he has been very supportive of my spiritual journey and really tries to accept me where I am in all of my pain, confusion, and disillusionment.
So, when we went back to our marriage therapist, whom we see every few years for a check up, the issue of Mormonism was at the top of our list. Fortunately, she didn’t really choose sides. She asked both of us to figure out what we really need in a partner and what qualities are “must haves” or “deal-breakers.” It was a fair approach, but I worried that if we didn’t meet these criteria for each other, divorce would be the next step. And that wasn’t what either of us wanted. It frightened me a little and so the next session I had a different perspective. What if we can’t be the partner that the other person needs? I knew that Mark was a good fit for me, but what if I can’t be the wife that Mark wants and needs?
It was in this session that we had a breakthrough, although I didn’t call it that until much later. When our therapist asked Mark if he had made his list of things he needed in a partner and his “deal-breakers” and I allowed myself to imagine what that would mean for us if I didn’t fit his list. Would that be the end? This question scared me and I realized how vulnerable I am, and how not vulnerable Mark is in this hypothetical scenario. Surprisingly, I didn’t resent him as I imagined him on the singles scene, a good dad, handsome, employed, smart, and a righteous priesthood holder. That was where I came apart completely. Through my tears I told Mark that I could see what an eligible bachelor he’d be in the LDS single’s scene. Of course I was being so unnecessarily dramatic that Mark was seriously puzzled. He hadn’t actually made the list he was supposed to. This was all snowballing in my head (yes, I do this sometimes, don’t you?). Ironically, I didn’t get any new information that day, for some reason I felt like I had been hit by a truck.
Of course Mark reassured me that he didn’t want to leave, that he didn’t even think about it, but for some reason, that didn’t help me much. I was really shaken. To his everlasting credit, Mark knew that I needed reassurance and support and offered both freely. He is still baffled by my experience and until this post, didn’t realize exactly what it meant to me. Thus, I shouldn’t be surprised but am still grateful that he has never held up my epiphany in that session as a bargaining tool, he’s never even hinted at the idea that our marriage is anything than rock-solid. In fact, when I wrote him a cheesy anniversary card, which usually makes him cringe, he kept it at his night stand and still reads it occasionally.
In the meantime, I’m not sure that I’ve been able to cognitively reconcile my vulnerable situation with my feminist sensibilities. Although I’m currently in school, working towards a career in the medical field, I’m still far from being able to provide for myself and my family. The vulnerability is very much still there. It almost sounds like this realization scared me back into a marriage that isn’t right for us. But that’s not it. Honestly, it was a wake up call. I’ve been taking for granted that Mark would travel with me, or at least support my travel on a road away from the church, away from God. In this session, I realized that he didn’t have to do those things and I can’t take that kind of support for granted. It was as if we had been reminded that we chose each other and still choose each other every day. In fact, squarely confronting the inequalities in our relationship has helped me to look past them, while working towards fixing them. We’ve compromised in many ways that have brought us closer together. Despite our different views on faith and religion, we have a lot in common and spend our free time reading and talking about what we’ve read. Honestly, I’d rather talk to Mark than almost any other person in the world. In some ways, it feels like we’re a better fit now than we were for the first 5 years of our marriage.
The month or two after that breakthrough therapy session were amazing. We really connected, emotionally, physically, and spiritually.
With that renewed interest in investing in our relationship, we’ve been reading “The Relationship Cure” which I highly recommend, and doing some of the quizzes and discussions. It’s nice to have some time to discuss relationship details when we’re not in the middle of an argument, and that’s what the book provides. The main idea is that people “bid” for attention by trying to connect with others in positive or negative ways. For example, when a husband makes a bid to his wife, “Can you make me a sandwich?” or “How was your day?”, the wife can either turn towards, turn away, or turn against him. The authors have 10 years of data on this theory of bidding and it is a good predictor of the quality of relationships, with family members, friends, and coworkers. Calling attention to how, when, and why we are bidding and responding to each other’s bids has helped me see my relationship with Mark in a new way and gives us a tool to use to better connect with each other.
Last month we attended a Codependency Workshop sponsored by some friends we know through an Open Mormon group. I really had no idea what codependency meant, but one of the books subtitle was about no longer trying to control others. “Sign me up!” I said. It was really useful for me to learn about what boundaries mean, both internal and external. How we establish our boundaries has a lot to do with our families of origin, which was another reason that I was glad to have Mark with me, since he’s been living near or with my family for the last 9 years. I’m working on making healthy relationship choices with my family which I hope will make me a better partner in the future.
In conclusion, I’ve just read through my New Year’s resolution post and I’m surprised at how well we did compared to how little I remembered is specifically as a resolution.
Here’s a list of some things we’ve done:
Marriage Therapy 3-4 times
Reading Relationship Cure
Listened to Marriage and Sex Therapy podcasts from Mormon Stories
Date nights weekly
Vacation with family, and alone
I read 50 Shades of Grey
Open discussions on church and religion
Developing other couple friendships that support our own
Mixed-Faith couples support group (via Mormon Stories)
Some of the things we did this year weren’t even on our plan, so that’s a bonus. Additionally, my mother has been living with us, so we’ve had in-home childcare and have gone on dates nearly every weekend, sometimes twice a weekend. We’ve done pretty well with budgets, planning, vacations, and even the squishy things like affection, support, and acceptance. As an important side note, our youngest child is a mature 5 year old and the intense demands of parenting babies and very young children have been lifted. I’m not sure that I fully understand the effects this has had on our marriage improving, but I don’t think they can be understated. For those of you with very young children, hang on. It gets better (probably until they become teenagers).
As this year draws to a close, I feel satisfied that I have made my marriage a priority this year as part of my New Year’s resolution. For those that may be looking for a tune-up I highly recommend making your relationship a deliberate focus for 2013. It doesn’t have to be a marriage either, just any important relationship to you.
I’m considering keeping this as a resolution for 2013, because it was definitely worth the work this year.