A few weeks ago, my wife and I watched the Oscar-nominated film, Marriage Story.[i] We should retitle it “Divorce Story,” as it is the tale of a couple’s divorce. I found the film extraordinarily frustrating. The movie began with each spouse expressing what they loved about the other. First Charlie:
With so much to love between the two of them, Charlie and Nicole lead us to believe they will work things out. And even though there are a few negatives in their expressions of love, the positives far outweigh them. If they will only listen to each other, this is a marriage that can make it.
Or so I thought.
I soon learned that expressing what they loved about each other was the result of an exercise suggested by their couples therapist, but things break down, and they never get a chance to hear what the other said about them until it’s too late.
No matter. Nicole and Charlie remain confident they can work things out between them.
But then the lawyers get involved, battle lines are drawn, and compromise becomes impossible. The marriage crumbles beyond repair, and I become embarrassed to be called a lawyer.
This week I also watched the remake of Alfie[ii] for the first time. The film is about a young man who is looking for love, but being unwilling to commit to anyone, he confuses it with sex. The film is far from one of my all-time favorite movies, but I did enjoy this scene where Alfie gets some unsolicited advice from an older man who just lost his wife:
“Find someone to love and then live every day as if it were your last.” Good advice, for sure. And notice Joe says find someone to love, not fall in love. Too often, we only want to fall in love, as if it were a passive state you live in. But true love requires action. We must love someone, not just be in love. And then live every day as if it were our last.
And I also found Joe’s last statement in this clip to be thought-provoking. In discussing his relationship with his departed wife, he says, “We were not that fond of each other. But we were very close if you know what I mean.” Joe’s statement reminded me of what a good friend and therapist, John Dehlin, once told me: “If you and your spouse are the same, there is no need for one of you.” In other words, the best relationships are those where each partner’s differences compliment the other; not where both partners end up the same.
Here is the final scene of Alfie, where the lead character realizes that all his past relationships have been about what his previous girlfriends gave to him, and how he gave nothing in return (no need to watch the credits unless you like to hear Mick Jagger sing):
Alfie concludes that he has a lot going for him, but he lacks one thing: peace of mind, which I interpret as true happiness. He then asks, “What’s it all about?”
So, in honor of upcoming Valentine’s Day, and to help answer Alfie’s question, I set out to discover, when it comes to our love relationships, what’s it all about?
I began by asking my family what’s the best marriage advice they have heard or given.
One of my favorites is from my sister-in-law. “If you have to argue, argue naked.” That advice alone might save many marriages. But loving someone usually requires us to dig a little deeper.
My nephew offered this great advice: “Something that helps me to find joy and contentment in my marriage is to inwardly focus on me being my best self while striving to be generous and patient with my wife. People fall out of love when they impose their expectations on the other.”
My daughter emphasized that it is often the little things that matter most. “Find someone always willing to take care of you, no matter the circumstances. Someone who will bring you water, your toothbrush over and over again, and rub your back when you are in one of your least pleasant states. And not only do it but do it willingly and with an attitude as if there is no place they would rather be.”
My daughter continues: “It’s ok to ask for what you need in your marriage. That goes with anything as little as, ‘Please, can you take out the trash?” to bigger things like, ‘I need you to acknowledge my feelings and validate the way I feel.’ Your husband or wife can’t read your mind. And they don’t love you any less because they can’t. Instead of getting upset that they aren’t doing what you want them to do, ask for it. I think we get caught up in the fairy-tale love that our partner will always know what we need and do everything we want them to do and all this would happen because they love us, but that’s not reality. I’ve learned that our marriage is a lot better when we communicate what we need and stop huffing and puffing around while we wait for the other person to magically know what we want.”
John Dehlin also taught me there are three common myths people tell themselves about their spouse:
1. You belong to me, and I belong to you (our wants/needs/interests need to be the same).
2. You’re going to meet all my needs.
3. If you don’t achieve numbers 1 and 2 above, it means you don’t love me.
John’s comments are similar to the psychoanalyst, Esther Perel, who said that, up until the 1970s, we used to think of our partners as fulfilling just one part of our lives. Now, we subconsciously expect a soul mate who fills all of our needs. They need to be our best friend, our confidant, our intellectual resource who’s always reading the same books, our passionate lover, our co-parent, and also make us a better person. If they are not doing all this, then we feel cheated or they aren’t the “one” who must still be out there somewhere. Likewise, if we aren’t meeting all these needs for our partner, we have this identity crisis of not being “good enough.”
The TV miniseries, Howard’s End (based on the classic novel by E.B. Forrester), has a great scene that emphasizes these points and teaches us a more realistic way of approaching marriage. In this scene, Margaret tells her sister, Helen, about her recent engagement to Henry Wilcox. Helen is not pleased to hear the news. In response, Margaret says:
There’s a wonderful feeling knowing a real man cares for you. Remember, I have known and liked him for a long while now…. I know Mr. Wilcox’s faults. He’s afraid of emotion. He cares too much about success. Too little about the past. I’d even say spiritually, he’s not as honest as I am…. I don’t intend for him or any man or any woman to be all my life. There are heaps of things in me that he doesn’t and never shall understand. So with him. There are heaps of things in him, more especially things he does, which will always be hidden from me…. I don’t intend to correct him. Or to reform him. Only connect. That is the whole of my sermon. I have not undertaken to fashion a husband to suit myself, using Henry’s soul as raw materials. It would be contemptible and unfair.
Here are a few more ideas from my family and the experts:
- Remember, no one wants to be married to a teacher, a parent or a missionary (typical roles we play in relationships). We want a partner, a friend and a lover. (John Dehlin)
- There is a difference between criticism and a complaint. Criticism is an attack on one’s identity (you are a lousy person vs. you never put the toilet seat down.) (John Gottman)
- The ratio of positive comments to a spouse compared to negative ones needs to be twenty to one. Humans remember criticism much more than praise. Said another way, an ounce of criticism equals a pound of praise. (John Gottman)
- The great secret of a successful marriage is to treat all disasters as only incidents and no incident as a disaster. (Harold Nicolson)
- Choose your battles wisely. The only certainty in relationships is that there will be times when your blood beats red. But when it comes to small disagreements with your partner, you’re better off just shutting up. (Michael Thompson)
- If you were paddling a canoe together, the important thing is that each paddle in the same direction. In marriage, if each has a different goal, they will always be in trouble. (Dr. Paul W. Popenoe)
Food for thought for all of us. If you have some great marriage advice, please share it.
In closing, remember these words from Justin Bieber (yes, that Justin Bieber): “Flowers are great, but love is better.”
[i] Marriage Story:
- Production Companies: Heyday Films, Netflix
- Director: Noah Baumbach
- Screenwriter: Noah Baumbach
- Starring: Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver
- Release date: December 6, 2019
- Production Companies: Paramount Pictures and Paralex Productions
- Director: Charles Shyer
- Screenwriter: Bill Naughton
- Starring: Jude Law, Sienna Miller, and Susan Sarandon
- Release date: November 5, 2004