Is This Normal Marriage?

Here’s a brief inside-scoop article to validate you right now.

By the time couples get into marriage counseling, they’re usually demoralized. They’ve spent weeks, months or years questioning everything with a lens of whether THIS or THAT is why they’re in a bad spot. Given this brooding, it’s a surprise to most couples how much of what’s stressing them is NORMAL, to be expected, and sometimes actually a sign of a healthy marriage.

This begs the question…what is normal?

Normal marriage includes disagreements, annoyances, resentment, loyalty binds, different ways of perceiving home life and the wider world, sibling-like competitive behavior, and differences in capacity to talk about heavy topics.

One feature a lot of people don’t realize: it’s completely normal to experience brief or even long, dark periods in your marriage due to internal struggles or outside forces putting enormous strain on your relationship.

You may be reading this and thinking, “Geez, why on earth does anyone stay married?”

Here at Modern Commitment, we have a belief about marriages that underlies everything we do. Call it a radical self acceptance of your own limitations and your spouse’s, to form a perfectly imperfect union.

Marriages aren’t meant to be conflict-free, perfect unions between two souls who see everything the same way, experience the same emotions together, and fill each other’s every logistical, spiritual and emotional need.

A marriage at its finest is where you can be the most raw version of yourself, and feel at home with your partner, who has seen you at your best and seen you at your lowest. A union with a shared history and a shared vision for the future offers a stability no other relationship can, because not even a parent or sibling is as close as our live in partner, with whom we share every aspect of our lives.

We see a dark force at play in modern culture that turns a lot of “good enough” marriages into painful relationships or, worse, divorced families that simply didn’t have to split apart.

We know there are impossible-to-live-with situations that require divorce as a safety net to prevent lasting damage. If your spouse is cheating on you and won’t stop, or is beating you physically or emotionally, you may not have a choice but to leave.

Our tough love here is that normal marriages often go south in part because of unrealistic expectations and the criticism and defensiveness that come from not accepting one another.

Our outside lives can be enormously stressful and if we’re not careful, we bring that stress into our marriage and blame our partner’s inability to deal with our exhaustion well. The key difference between a normal marriage and a dysfunctional one isn’t the amount of life stress either of you have. It’s that you do not hold the life stress as a fundamental flaw in your marriage and “proof” that you shouldn’t be together.

Normal marriages do not judge the present situation as revisionist history that you should never have gotten married or that the future will be as dark as today. Just as our children go through rough developmental stages (say, all of newbornhood and most of the teen years), we can see beyond the present and know brighter days are ahead. A good, normal marriage goes beyond the present woes and does not let it sink the whole ship.

Disagreements are par for the course on everything from which if any pets can sleep in bed with you, all the way to how to raise children and which values you prioritize when there are competing life forces hitting down on your marriage. These issues are normal. But again, if you don’t believe these are normal, but turn them into signs and signals of dysfunction, you will create your own self-fufilling prophecy. Your view of the disagreements becomes more of a pain point then the actual content of the unshared opinions!

Even top flight therapists in great marriages have ongoing problems that they learn to deal with rather than fully solve.

The tragedy, in our eyes, comes when every day, normal marriage difficulties rise to a new level of “meaning making.” Your irritation turns to resentment and eventually loathing because you are convinced that your differences are unacceptable and that your way is the right way. A perfectly fine marriage can be brought down this way, given enough time to marinate the conflict.

What then, does a normal married couple “do” with all these negative moments or challenging personality differences?

In normal marriages, negative emotions may flare in the moment, but with some distance, most spouses go back to neutral or positive feelings. They see these moments as negative but not as ominous.

In normal marriages, we learn to appreciate that our spouse will never “fully get it right” or “see things our way” and over time, we sometimes learn, shockingly, that our spouse is clever and has great insights, too!

Conversations sometimes resolve long standing issues, but as the researcher Dr. John Gottman has found, more than two-thirds of marital problems will never go away. People just learn to accept them and take the bite out of them. They realize that they are married to a person who mystifies them. As parents, we can see this with our children who may not be mini-me’s and for whom life is very different than our life.

As we said, some marriages also have long, dark periods. If you appreciate this can be in the normal range, and realize that “this too shall pass,” your attitude changes from one of despair to patience and hope.

Too many people misinterpret stress and struggle as “doomsday” and get out without knowing what possibilities they had.

Of course, marriage is a lot more than grin and bear it!

We at Modern Commitment believe that marriage can be the most connecting, most stable, most crisis-blocking relationship you can be in.

No matter what life throws at you, having someone else who shares a history, shares a vision for the future with you in it, and who can be there for your most vulnerable moments.

Being married offers tremendous growth opportunities, which translates to better relationships with others and a more confident way of being in the world.

Just as we don’t throw away our kids when times get tough, so too should we appreciate marriages are, for the most part, capable of surviving many natural conflicts and differences, with rewards far greater than the unpleasant times.