I recently read an article in the Huffington Post called, Ben Affleck And The Experts Are Wrong: Marriage Is Not Hard Work, by Ronna Benjamin. Within one day there were 2,336 comments; I think it touched a nerve.
A lot of people thought Ms. Benjamin was being smug. Irritation leaked through many of the comments as if people were bothered that the author could be having such an easy marriage, when many readers were not.
Other commentary sided with the author against the “experts,” legions of misguided therapists providing psychotherapy for couples choosing to work hard to improve their marriages. The implicit point? Struggling relationships are simply bad matches.
The article made me stop and wonder about whether I think marriage is hard work. The conclusion that I came to is that what really takes work, is less marriage itself, and more becoming an adult. Of course we all progress in chronological years, but that doesn’t mean we are necessarily maturing. And here is where I will sound like I am contradicting myself because, ironically, if there’s one thing that will really pressure you to grow, it’s marriage.
Here is what I mean…it’s a lot easier to be self-absorbed, or stubborn, lose your temper, or have any other irksome quality if you’re single. If you get some flack, you can say, “Hey, that’s just me,” and move on to the next friend with benefits. If you’re in a long-term relationship, chances are your partner will confront you with these gems and they will become points of contention. I guess this is good news and bad news: Your friends with benies probably won’t be important enough to motivate you to improve upon your shortcomings. Easier, yes; but also perhaps a missed opportunity. On the other hand, your marriage will ask you to grow and develop yourself, as nothing else will.
What are some of the tasks of growing yourself up? According to respected couples therapists, Dr. Ellyn Bader and Dr. Peter Pearson of The Couples Institute, developmental tasks of adulthood include self-differentiation–being able to know who you are as an individual and express your preferences, and other-differentiation, the ability to listen to, value, and empathize with another person’s perspective, even if it is in conflict with your own. Performing these abilities, well, requires a good dose of self-regulation. This means staying in the tension of conflict without shouting down your partner, or collapsing in resentful compliance. According to the Bader/Pearson Developmental model, when couples get stuck, the individual developmental growth of each partner will help the couple move forward.
Say you have a passive aggressive style because you never learned how to assert yourself. Eventually, it’s probably going to raise a ruckus in your relationship when for example, you keep forgetting to buy Rocky Road ice cream–your husband’s favorite, and come home instead with Butter Pecan, which you *forgot* he can’t stand.
Say you are just plain passive. You will need to learn to stand up for yourself or you will probably end up despising your partner or emotionally checking out of the relationship.
Say you tend to rant and rave and get truly nasty when you’re angry. If your partner is developed enough to confront you about this, let’s just say you will have some golden opportunities to grow.
Does this mean that “non-grown up” grown ups should never marry? Not necessarily, because guess what? Marriages can help people learn to grow themselves up! In fact, lucky you, your marriage will point the way. What your partner is asking for may be exactly what you need to do to grow. And yes, spoiler alert, this will take some work.
As we develop as people, we make better partners. This developmental growth is worth doing because we become our best selves in the process. Plus, it invigorates our relationships. As we become better partners, marriage gets easier. In the meantime, if you’ve got some growing to do and you’re married—get ready for some work. Just don’t blame marriage.