What do you use as the benchmark for judging your marriage? I have two that work pretty well for me and one that I used to use and no longer will.
Benchmark One – The Minimum
Let’s start with the bare bones minimum benchmark: You have no reason to fear rape, broken bones, dislocated joints, bruises, pain, or uncensored angry or contemptuous words from your spouse. You have no reason to fear your spouse will spend or give away money needed for basic living expenses. And you have no reason to fear retaliation by others or a visit from law enforcement for illegal or unethical acts committed by your spouse against your will. And your children are safe when alone with your spouse.
You are not safe around anyone committing any of these acts. Nothing you do causes them. And no apology excuses them. Get yourself to a safe home elsewhere or bring in someone who can protect you until your spouse is successfully treated for the real cause (which might be addiction, brain tumor, dementia, mental illness, or a personality disorder).
If you are free from these fears, your marriage is still alive. But how good is it?
Benchmark Two – Suddenly On Your Own
Imagine that tomorrow morning your spouse dies without warning. There is nothing more to fight about or worry about, and you get all of your shared assets. You also get all of your shared responsibilities. You also lose whatever optimism, kindness, social intelligence, learning, leadership, teamwork, gratitude, forgiveness, playfulness, adventurousness, awe, bravery, love, respect, gifts, camaraderie, and sex your spouse provided. If it’s a net loss, then right now, with your spouse alive, you have a very good marriage.
This can be a tough benchmark to adopt for anyone currently using the one I gave up, because of our fantasies about marriage.
Benchmark Three – Fairness (The Misery Maker)
My old benchmark was this: does this marriage offer me a fair allocation of responsibilities and assets?
Let me tell you why I gave up this benchmark. And it wasn’t easy; I was sure fairness was key to a good marriage. I gave it up because it made me really unhappy, and it threatened to kill my marriage.
It made me unhappy because it’s really not possible to define fairness in a loving relationship. The very same chore that feels dreadful when I think it is unfair has me beaming when I feel in love. If I do it while I feel dreadful, it saps my energy and makes me resentful. If I insist my husband do it, instead of me, it makes me feel spiteful, not loved.
One day while I was shoveling snow off the sidewalk because I felt it must be done quickly and my husband had no intention of hurrying his Sunday morning, I felt that anger growing in me. For the eleven years between husbands, I had been shoveling snow and watching other women’s husbands shovel the other walks on my block. And this sidewalk was even longer, but I was still the one shoveling it.
The shovel suddenly weighed more and the wind felt colder. I thought about going back to my shorter sidewalk in the house where I had lived alone (benchmark #2, that is), and I knew I did not want that. What I had now was so much better. I had love every day and shoveling maybe ten times a year. And with that, I began shoveling to the tune of All You Need is Love.
My mood lightened. The snow got lighter. And then, like the bluebirds showing up in a Disney movie, a neighbor got part of our sidewalk with his snow blower and the fellow who shared our driveway asked me to toss him our other shovel, so he could get what the plow had pushed into the driveway. My son, who had just arrived jet-lagged from overseas, got up and started cleaning off the back steps and a path to the car while his wife enjoyed her first ever snow.
And when I came in for a break, my husband met me with a cup of hot cocoa. Later, after a few more inches of snow had fallen, he did the second shoveling, and my son, my daughter-in-law, and I joined him to play in the snow. Play. In the snow.
For eleven years, I had felt cheated because I was a widow and had to shovel my own snow while the other women in my neighborhood stayed indoors. And now, because I let go of my story about what’s fair and met him with a sunny attitude instead of my resentful one, I was playing in the snow with a man who really knows how to laugh and have fun. And I had to shovel less than half the snow.
I have noticed it a bunch more times. If I look for fairness, I can always find a way to see myself as the angry victim. If I look for how much better I am doing than I was on my own after my first husband died, I feel happier, more loved, and more loving. And when I feel more loving, the chores and earning a living actually feel easier to do.
What’s your benchmark for a good marriage?