Be Yourself. Let me be me—for that is all that I can be.
Trust, I will be there when you need me. I will hold to the same.
Let me be who I am; as I will, for you.
There are so many theories, opinions, and statistics on what makes a marriage last and thrive. In fact, it’s probably impossible to distill all of the advice into one most helpful bit. However, I am going to make the attempt.
MY #1 BIT OF MARRIAGE ADVICE
After studying marriages for almost a decade, it is my observation that it is essential for a successful marriage to be based on mutual support and individual freedom. Happiness in marriage comes from trust and a mutual commitment to one another. You need to be with someone who will support you in your individual interests and passions; not someone who is trying to transform you into something that you are not. Both partners must allow one another their differences of opinion, their unique interests, and their “silly” ways of using their time—from collecting bat-mobiles to creating the perfect cupcake.
Wouldn’t the top advice be to “do everything together—become purely as one in all things?” This advice goes contrary to the first marriage book I read as a newlywed, prior to pursuing a career in marriage counseling: His Needs, Her Needs. This book advocates that couple’s should only be involved in hobbies they both enjoy and should cut out any other personal interests altogether in order to “build an affair-proof marriage.” Although the book has several suggestions that are very helpful in a marriage relationship, I adamantly oppose Willard Harley’s opinion. So basically, the wife should give up her love for singing and the husband his pursuit of pickleball because they are not both equally passionate about their hobbies? Utter Nonsense!
WHY IS THIS SO IMPORTANT?
Let me explain why this sense of freedom is so important in marriage:
As soon as a spouse puts their foot down on the other’s interests, the power becomes imbalanced. It begins to be a parent-child relationship, rather than a marriage. Partners begin to feel they are being controlled, or that the other is controlling. Resentment ensues. Harbored resentment and being controlled leads to a feeling of being trapped, which leads to a “need to get out of the marriage.”
Let me be clear, I am not suggesting selfishness. I am not advocating for a damaging interest that diminishes trust or leads to insurmountable debt—whether that be emotional or financial. Marriage needs to be the top priority to both partners, or you don’t really have a marriage. A sense of connectedness and attunement to the needs of your spouse is needed. But, not at the expense of losing the individual! You need to feel freedom and liberty to be your own person. In our culture, it is a must.
So, how can you have both marriage and individual freedom as your top priorities at the same time? Isn’t that a paradox?
Freedom and trust are not mutually exclusive. In fact, when combined (as in rock-climbing), you have security and safety to explore. Both partners in a marriage need to feel trusted and self-actualized. When you have mutual trust, you are in a position to let your spouse pursue their interests without a controlling fear—insecurity.
CONFIRMATION FROM MARRIAGE EXPERTS
As Dr. Sue Johnson often cites, marriage is like a dance—a tango, more specifically. A strong connection allows for a safe platform and launching pad for courageous exploration by the individual. Having the support of a spouse lends the confidence needed to go for that job you have always wanted; or to pursue that passion you have always had burning. Connection is absolutely needed, but not at the expense of individual expression.
John Gottman said it succinctly: “When you bury your spouse’s dream, it just resurfaces in disguised form—a gridlocked conflict.” I see it time and time again in my office. If conflict isn’t resolved and freedom restored, it becomes a miserable existence.
This dark cycle of feeling trapped can be avoided by allowing one another to be who they are—not trying to change them or mold them into what you want them to be. There still needs to be connection and consideration for one another, but you want to be your spouse’s greatest supporter, not their biggest obstacle.
If a partner in marriage begins to feel that they have “lost their own identity,” they try to find it by breaking outside of the marriage. Resentment and a sense of being controlled is one of the, if not THE most common causes for seeking out an affair. If an adult feels that they are being controlled, they will try to find somewhere else to be, where they can feel free.
SUPPORT ONE ANOTHER (DON’T TRY TO CONTROL)
There is a place for power differentials in relationships—parent-child, boss-employee, and teacher-student. Marriage just isn’t one of them. A healthy marriage relationship cannot be based on one partner dominating the other. The minute you start to place rules and regulations on your spouse, you become the detested boss or the teacher that everyone talks bad about behind their back. Marriage is unique, in that it requires complete equality. Your spouse’s interests are just as important to them as yours are to you. Don’t criticize their pursuits; encourage them. On the flip side, don’t take advantage of the trust and support your spouse gives you.
Contrary to what you may think, couple’s enhance love, trust, and respect in allowing one another to pursue that which makes them feel most alive. As soon as I tell my spouse that they can’t do the thing that makes them feel most joy in life, I have undermined trust and laid the foundation of resentment. Successful couples have a sense of confidence in their partner. They want them to be happy and enjoy life. They have established trust and are experiencing the benefits of mutual support and love.
Amidst individual pursuits, remember that the marriage is still the #1 priority. A spouse who wants to stay married will know not to take advantage of individual pursuits at the expense of damaging the relationship. A supportive husband will allow his wife to pursue her golf passion, but a wise wife will not make golf her #1 priority over the marriage. A simple sensitivity to the needs of the relationship acts as an intuitive guide of what is “too much” when pursuing individual interests. Your relationship is more important than any other pursuit. This priority is the sacrifice you made when you said “I do.”
If you are having a difficult time acquiescing your opinion and control in your marriage, let go of the need to be in control and you will find a mutual love and respect grow. The more fulfilled each of you feel, the more fulfilling your marriage.