When my husband and I were engaged, the pastor who married us did 2 very smart things.
First, he asked us, “What is the most important thing in a happy, healthy relationship?”
And secondly, he had us take an online assessment of sorts that would show us any problem areas in our relationship. We answered dozens and dozens of questions about our upbringing, our personalities, and many other topics before we were given a score on our compatibility, blind spots, and the likelihood of our relationship being successful.
We got the highest score possible! Yahoo! Like all people who are freshly in love, we were sure our romance was the greatest of all time. So of course these results made us feel even more sure that we were the stuff fairy tales were made of. There was, however, one small red flag that had come up in the area of “potential problems” that our pastor wanted to bring to our attention: expectations. More specifically, we both had unrealistic expectations about how easy and magical marriage would be. Even though my husband and I are literally opposites in basically every conceivable way, our compatibility score was basically 100%. And yet, we still had work to do: we needed to address our expectations.
When the pastor asked what the most important thing in a marriage is, our answers were also different: love and communication. My husband figured a happy marriage definitely needed love, and I figured a happy marriage couldn’t be possible without good communication. But the pastor’s answer to his own question surprised us both.
What’s the secret to a happy marriage?
Love and communication are great, and essential for sure. But what would happen, he asked, if Tyler came home a week after we were married and told me he had had an affair? In that scenario, would those newlywed loving feelings get us through? Would communicating about the affair get us through? Probably not. But if you have unconditional devotion to your partner, you can get through anything. We took his words to heart and several of my vows were a reflection of his advice:
I promise to be your #1 fan; I will always seek to understand you, and give you the benefit of the doubt. I promise to be devoted to you as my friend and lover, putting you before our children, family, or friends.
Armed with the two truths we learned in pre-marriage counseling – that we had extremely unrealistic expectations going into marriage and that a good marriage needs unconditional devotion to one another – we were married!
The first year was bliss.
The second year was bliss.
The third year was bl- well, we had our first baby. So it was exhausting. But still, bliss!
The fourth year was bliss-ish. Well, hard-ish.
The fifth year we had another baby and it wasn’t hard-ish, it was hard. Two kids in less then two years, and 5 years of marriage under our belt and things were starting to get less magical and more difficult. When my husband and I were newlyweds, we would have the odd fight, but for the most part we didn’t bicker or squabble. We weren’t petty. But by our 5th year we bickered, squabbled, and had gotten really good at full on screaming at each other (well, I did the screaming). I don’t think it was necessarily the birth of our children that caused the rubber to meet the road in our marriage, as much as it was just the passage of time. If you’re with someone long enough, they’re going to start to fail your expectations. They’re going to hurt you. They’re going to stop being the person you fell in love with while dating and become the person who never puts their shoes where they belong. And 5 years into our marriage, the small things started to add up.
What changed? Did kids make marriage more difficult? Sure, sort of. The romance gets harder, the finding time for each other gets harder, and nothing sucks your energy quite like carrying for a tiny human who relies on you for their every need. But it was more then that; over time, the day to day grind of doing life together, becoming parents, and conflict had worn away our high expectations and our unconditional devotion.
For the first few years of our marriage, I thought that anyone who said marriage was hard or seemed to struggle to love their spouse was just not trying hard enough, in my newlywed opinion. By the fifth year, I realized that marriage is hard. Incredibly hard. And if you’re not aware of that and prepared for it from the start, it will sneak up on you and crush you and your lofty expectations. At least that’s what happened to me.
Smack dab in the middle of our fifth year of marriage, I had an epiphany. We were sitting on our living room couch having our most common fight. You know the one, you say all the same things you’ve said before and your partner counters will all the same things they’ve said before and you get absolutely nowhere? Ya, that fight. I was crying, my husband was frustrated, and we were getting nowhere. I was feeling SO hurt, SO misunderstood, SO exasperated that we were having this fight again… and then it dawned on me:
This is why people get divorced.
That’s the thought that popped into my head. Clear as day. Not with a malicious intent attached to it, just a fact. One of those AHA moments that smack you in the face and you have a sort of out of body experience where you realize the pivotal nature of the moment you’re currently in.
We did the date nights. We worked on our communication. We invested in sexual, emotional, and spiritual intimacy. We had interests and hobbies outside our relationship. We had interests and hobbies that we both shared and pursued together. We went away once a year. We supported each other. And yet, as we sat across form each other that night and tried to hash out The Fight that never seemed to quite resolve, I felt further away from my husband then I ever had before. And even thought nothing had really happened, I realized in that moment that people don’t get divorced primary because of big, explosive, crisis type issues. They get divorced because over time we stop being truly devoted to one another, and start being more focused on The Fight then on our partner. (Which is also probably why the big crises end up happening.) This is why people get divorced.
My epiphany: I could keep going down this same path and keep having this same fight that slowly chips away at our marriage for another 5 years, and maybe not get divorced but certainly not have the marriage I want to have, or I could remember what our pre-marriage counselor said. The key to a good marriage:
Was I still devoted to my husband? Was he still devoted to me? Of course we were. Nothing had really changed since we sat across from that pastor as annoyingly in love engaged people. But yet, everything had changed. Because our high expectations for married bliss had met reality five years later, that marriage wasn’t always happy or easy. It was work. It was sacrifice. And with the extra blessing and pressure of kids in a marriage, it’s more work and more sacrifice – and less sleep! We hadn’t had any major issues or crises in our marriage, and yet it felt like we were growing farther and farther apart as time went on, instead of closer together.
Over the next few weeks my husband and I continued to have a lot of conflict. And no mattered how much I communicated my needs and expectations, nothing seemed to change. It wasn’t until we spent the weekend away without kids, that I was able to see what the true problem was. The weekend away was not what I hoped it would be; I spent the entire time focused on my expectations and as a result I was miserable. Our romantic getaway ended with a fight, me crying for a good hour while my husband packed up the car, and a feeling of despair. Would things really never changed? We loved each other, my partner is a truly good man, and yet I found myself on a romantic weekend getaway feeling like my marriage was really not working out the way I had hoped it would.
We drove back to pick up our kids and I stewed in silence over the weekend that was a failure in my mind. Over the next few days I felt isolated and very down. Why was marriage so hard, why was I always so frustrated, why was I the only one trying so hard to make our marriage the best it could be?
And slowly, but clearly, it dawned on me.
I was the problem.
I had lost perspective. I had become so fixated on problem solving, improving my marriage, and communicating to my partner on how he could love me better that I had lost sight of the most important thing. I had started viewing my husbands perceived short comings as evidence that he didn’t love me and that he wasn’t trying hard enough. And that will kill any relationship. It was an uncomfortable thing to realize; I had lost my ability to root for him, to believe in his best self, to be devoted to loving him even if it cost me something. Over the next few days I spent time in introspection and realized if I didn’t return to a perspective of unconditional devotion things would just continue to decay and I would never be happy or satisfied in my marriage, no matter what my partner did. That was a hard pill to swallow but working through my own selfishness helped me refocus on what it means to unconditionally devoted to my husband.
What does it mean to be unconditionally devoted to your partner?
It means you:
1. Focus more on your partners well being and their greater good, then you do their faults, flaws, and failures.
This means your partner is no longer your project. It is not your job to fix or improve your partner, to show them their weaknesses, to remind them of their failure in the past, or to focus on the ways they make you unhappy. This is easily the hardest one for me. My husband and I are true opposites, in all ways when it comes to personality. We have different love languages. We have very different expectations as to what makes a good relationship. I am extremely high maintenance and intuitive, my husband is the most low maintenance creation on the earth other then Ron Swanson and is astoundingly unperceptive. I have spent many years thinking I could make him think like me if I just explained myself better. And while there is a lot to be gained from clear and open communication, you can only say “I really need you to do ______” so many times before you realize that it’s not gonna happen. That may seem bleak, but the freedom comes in playing to your relationships strengths and focusing on what you DO have.
2. Tend to what you do have, not what you don’t have.
Whether you and your partner are opposites or not, there are likely things about them that you adored while dating that you’ve come to despise. You knew your partner was a slob when you were doe eyed in love, but 10 years into cleaning up their mess and you don’t find it as endearing. BUT MAYBE YOU DON’T HAVE TO CHANGE THAT. You married a slob, it’s done. You can divorce them and find someone tidy – OR, you can play to the strengths of your partner and let go of your hope that they will change. And maybe they will change! A lot of time in human behavior things tend to get better when we back off. But if they don’t, it’s still on you to work on your reaction and frame work to their inadequacies and idiosyncrasies. So if they’re a slob, but an excellent support to you or a fantastic parent, you focus on THAT. (And hire a cleaning lady!)
3. Do your own work.
This is where the magic happens. 9 times out of 10, when we’re talking to our friends about whatever bonehead thing our spouse has done or said recently that has us mad at them, we are the hero of the story and our partner is the villain. It’s natural. But in marriage, this tendency to project all the issues of our relationship or the blame in all our conflicts onto our partner is especially unhelpful. Being right cannot be the goal in a marriage. You don’t win a fight, even if you win a fight. What that means is that if you’ve come out of the fight as the WINNER (and maybe even made sure your spouse knew you won) you have lost the fight and you have lost sight of what matters. It takes a radical shift in perspective to take responsibility for our own work (healing, therapy, self discovery, self improvement, spiritual growth) in marriage and stop waiting for our spouse to do their work so that we can be happy. You can be happy even if your spouse does not do their work. Yes we want our partner to grow, yes we want our partner to want to improve and to take responsibility for their own work and baggage, but you are not in charge of that and the sooner you realize that the sooner you can shift your focus to doing your own work and to loving your partner out of the overflow of your work.
If you’ve made it this far, and you’re a person in a committed relationship, you’re probably thinking, “YA RIGHT. This sounds a little too idealistic. Maybe if I was married to the perfect person I could love my partner with unconditional devotion.” Let me just say, I’m right there with you. I am not successful at this. I am not perfectly loving my partner and giving him the benefit of the doubt and showing him love and respect even if I don’t think his actions deem him worthy of it. But, I want to. I want to be the type of person who loves well and loves with a ton of grace, because that’s how I want to be loved. And I’ve done it the other way – where you keep track of who’s being more selfless (irony), where you remind your partner that you did something generous for them last week so they definitely owe you a foot rub, where you spend your days focusing on how they’re failing to love you like they promised in their vows that they would. I have gone down that road and I 100% didn’t see my marriage flourish because of it. And in another 5, 10, 20 years I don’t think I would’ve been in the marriage I want to be had I continued down that road. So I at least want to give this other way a try.
Now real quick, before I get an email from someone saying “ya but my husband/wife is a real jerk, I certainly don’t have to love them unconditionally because they did ________”. Listen. That may be true, Maybe they have failed hugely or are actually a total jerk. That may very well be. And no, you don’t have to love them if that’s what you choose. But it’s your choice. You can’t expect to land in a happy marriage if you don’t change anything and as someone who is married to a unicorn of a man, an actual good guy who is so good to me, let me tell you that I struggle to love him like this and he’s not a jerk. So while there are certainly situations where major change needs to happen in a relationship before it can become happy and healthy (see below), I submit to you that if you can’t offer your partner unconditional devotion as they are
It does NOT mean you
- don’t have or vocalize your own needs, or never have conflict
- don’t have any boundaries and become a doormat
- stay in an abusive relationship
I am not doing this perfectly. I’m not a saint! And my husband, though a lot closer to sainthood then I am, is also no saint. But what has changed since I started to focus more on unconditional devotion in my marriage is how I feel about my marriage.
I’ve shifted from an attitude of “If he loved me, he would do ________” to, “I know that he loves me, even if he isn’t doing ________”. I am choosing to see the best version of my spouse, because I am unconditionally devoted to him. That might seem small, but if you get so caught up in the day to day conflict and maintenance of your relationship that you’ve forgotten to remember that your partner loves you and is invested in your happiness, you’ve lost perspective. I had lost perspective. And while this is difficult because I would rather be selfish and prioritize my own needs, I also know that being critical for the first five years of my marriage wasn’t leading down the road I wanted to go. Once I realized that I was on that road, I knew I could make a change. That’s the encouragement here: you are already in this relationship, and assuming that you’re committed to making it work, you get to choose how you go forward. It might take a lot of honesty and some self-evaluation, but you can choose to stay on the road you’re on, or take a new path.
If what you’re currently doing in your relationship isn’t working, you can make a change even if your partner doesn’t. That’s so freeing! Yes, you can wish and hope and demand that your partner change and believe that that will make you happy, finally. Or, you can shift your perspective and take responsibility for your own happiness and invest in your partner’s happiness in the process by focusing on unconditional devotion. Remember why you chose your partner in the first place, recommit to loving their best self, even if they aren’t showing up as their best self, and make unconditional devotion your focus. When we shift our focus to that of unconditional devotion, we can prioritize our partner’s well being instead of wishing they would just change. When we begin to see our partner through the lens of unconditional devotion, we become the change.
Tell me, how would unconditional devotion change your relationship?