Stop Working on Your Marriage!

A friend of mine is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist. In a recent Facebook post, he included the statement: “The truth is . . healthy marriages require work.”

I respectfully disagreed and posted my comment:

I agree with everything except the word “work.” Great marriages require effort. It may sound the same, but there is a profound difference. No one wants to hear that their spouse will have to work hard to love them, but who wouldn’t want to know their spouse will put a lot of effort into the relationship? We often put as much effort into our vacations as in our vocations, but we call one play and the other work. I don’t want my wife to think it will be so difficult to love her that I will have to work at it every day. My 42-year marriage is a lot of fun and enjoyable effort.

Every time I hear the seemingly common-sense statement that a good marriage requires “work,” I tense up. Words are important. In fact, if it weren’t for a handful of words, none of us would be married. As a lay religious leader a few years back, I was suddenly granted the power in the state of New Jersey to marry people. I felt anxious when, after the first marriage ceremony I performed, a couple went away “believing” they were married. I thought to myself, “Is it something I said?” I couldn’t wrap my mind around it.

By simply saying the words, “I now pronounce you husband and wife,” two people were joined together for the rest of their lives. My words to them were so powerful, they caused the formation of a new family unit. A new “family tree” was planted and generation after generation of posterity would owe their existence to seven little words.

If marriage required “work,” I would need to attach that word and all of its connotations to my experience with my wife. So, let’s see if the word fits:

  • Is it “work” when I look into her bright blue eyes, see my dearest and most intimate friend, companion and lover, and remember those early dates when we would talk late into the night about our dreams and ambitions?
  • Was it “work” when I spent two years away from her, serving overseas, and couldn’t wait to get a letter from her in the mail? How about when we were finally reunited on the sidewalk of a college campus, tearfully running into each other’s arms as her classmates cheered?  
  • On our wedding day, was it “work” when I was unable to catch my breath because she walked into the room dressed as a queen in white, and I knew she would be with me forever?
  • Was it “work” when we joyfully, eagerly and unitedly accepted the challenges of  parenthood and welcomed six children into our home who stretched and expanded our love for each other?
  • Could it have been called “work” when, hand-in-hand, we held each other up to face financial disasters, the life-threatening illness of a child, physical disabilities, a missing child, kidnapped grandchildren, persecution and violence? The trials themselves might have been work but having her by my side to face those challenges certainly was not work.
  • Is it called “work” when I am able to share my deepest fears and struggles with her and she responds with amazing strength, wisdom, and an occasional kick in the pants?

No, it doesn’t fit. From my perspective, the word “work” is not appropriate to describe a healthy marriage. It is true that we need to put forth effort in marriage, but with love in our hearts, that effort can become enjoyable, fun, stress-reducing and even lifesaving.

When a dour college professor taught about the difficulties and hard work of marriage, my wife spoke up. By then she was a 55-year-old student completing her degree in Family Science. Surrounded by marriage-phobic twenty-somethings, she raised her hand and from years of marital experience that far surpassed her professor’s, she confidently stated, “Marriage is NOT hard! LIFE is hard! It can be so much easier when you have someone to share it with.”

Marriage is a force that combines the strengths and cancels out the weaknesses of two people. Marriage is greater than the sum of its parts, and therefore a powerful catalyst for change in a world that desperately needs it.  

Marriage isn’t a liability, it’s an asset. Young people contemplating marriage often think of it as a future drain on their finances, emotional well-being, and freedom. Consequently, they look for the ideal time to get married—a time when they are flush with cash, have accomplished enough of their “fun” goals, own their home, have completed their formal education, and feel ready for the “liability” of marriage. Nothing could be further from that scenario than when two committed people love each other and experience the power of a truly life-affirming marriage. Not only are they more likely to enhance their temporal situation, but also their emotional, spiritual and physical well-being.

When we adjust our words about marriage, we can adjust our thinking, and ultimately access the power of our marriages. Let’s plan to put effort into our marriages, but let’s not mistake it for work. 

But what about those who feel their marriage DOES require work? Maybe they haven’t found their spouse to be the supportive, loving person they had anticipated. We need to remember that a checklist of behavioral “do’s and don’ts” will not a great marriage make. It’s not what you DO, it’s how you feel about what you do that counts. Remember the vocation and vacation analogy. When, in our hearts, we know we’re on vacation, we can expend a great deal of effort while feeling refreshed and exhilarated. If your spouse saw you as a refreshing and exhilarating partner, do you think she/he might exhibit a different attitude and have different feelings about you?

Stay tuned for more articles and helps on how to improve relationships through better emotional literacy. What are some tools you can use to change the way you feel inside?