One of the biggest myths perpetuated by classic children’s stories – and by Hollywood – is that, once they are married, couples live “happily ever after.” The reality, as we’ve all heard by now, is that nearly half of marriages in the United States end in divorce. Many obstacles factor into that dispiriting statistic, but one of the greatest challenges to a lasting relationship is an expectation that many people bring – consciously or otherwise – into a marriage: “Now that I’ve found my soulmate, we will ride off into the sunset together and always be happy. My spouse and I will value and desire the same things. We will have sex as often (or not) as I want to.” In short, “we two will become one.”
In a way, fairy tales like Cinderella and Hollywood romances like Pretty Woman do us all a great disservice, because nothing could be further from the truth. Marriage is not a magical, alchemical transformation of two people into one being that automatically meets its own needs. In fact, one of the biggest challenges in any marriage is figuring out how to stay true to yourself while remaining in relationship with someone else – another, different person who often does not think or behave the way you do, feel the same emotions you feel, or want the same things you want.
The ability to compromise is essential in any enduring relationship, but compromise can come from two very different places. There is a world of difference between, on one hand, “I’ll go with my spouse to the Arnold Schwarzenegger movie – even though I’d really rather chew off my own leg – because I’m afraid that, if I don’t, s/he will leave me and I’ll fall apart” and, on the other hand, “I’ll go with my spouse to the Arnold Schwarzenegger movie because s/he really wants to share the experience with me, because it won’t exactly be like drinking battery acid, and because I would actually like to develop a taste for action movies – I’m getting a little bored with the biopics I usually watch.” In the first scenario, the reluctant spouse fears that asserting her/his strong aversion to Schwarzenegger movies will lead to rejection and abandonment. In the second scenario, the biopic aficionado chooses to step outside of her/his comfort zone in the interest of growing herself/himself.
Knowing who you are (what you think, what you feel, what you like, what you don’t like, how far you’re willing to go) and being able to communicate that information to your partner are crucial elements of a healthy relationship. A strong marriage is about two, separate selves choosing to be with one another because they want to, helping each other to be the best they can be, willingly expanding their concepts of themselves. It’s not about giving up values or behaviors that are deeply meaningful to you because you need to be with someone in order to function.
Finding the balance between individuation and interdependence is always a work in progress. It’s one of our main tasks while we are here on this earth. Rely only on yourself, and cater only to your own needs, and you’ll feel pretty isolated. But always give yourself up, twist and contort yourself to be whatever you think someone wants you to be, and you’ll eventually feel resentful, angry, and as alone as if you lived on a desert island. The key to a lasting relationship is in knowing yourself and knowing when to bend.