Matt and Lisa’s Wedding Ceremony

Keep things realistic.

Posted Oct 23, 2016

Dear friends, we gather today to unite Matt and Lisa in matrimony. They asked me to make some remarks about marriage, so here’s what I’ve learned about marriage so far. My main message to you two is to keep things realistic. Marrying your next door neighbor is a good start.

Let’s talk about romantic feelings. You may have noticed that certain aspects of marital union are quite pleasurable, but the truth is that no one knows why that is so. Perhaps the most satisfying answer is that mutual pleasure enhances pair-bonding, and life is more manageable for a couple than it is for two singles. If one is in a slump, the other may be having a particularly good year. If one is facing a weakness, it may a strength of the other. And if life colludes to make you feel as if you don’t belong somewhere, there’s always a home to return to.

But pairing up only works if the marriage doesn’t slip into one of the many traps that seem to await it. Chief among these is the trap set by marriage itself, the idea that two independent, self-obsessed organisms like human beings can pledge themselves to each other. Marriage among humans is like hiring a fox to guard the chickens or a sheep to guard anything. It’s against our nature to be other-oriented.

The only solution I can see to this problem is not to take the pledge too seriously. Oh sure, there are a few promises you’ll have to make and keep to protect the relationship—most couples can’t survive infidelity, for example—but don’t get sucked into promising things like relentless affection, always putting the other person’s needs first, constant respect, or doting on each other in illness. Promising what you can’t deliver forces you to live a lie; even worse, it induces you to blame your spouse or yourself for being merely human. A marriage based on a lie becomes a marriage soaked in resentment. So let’s face it: You’ll always be there for each other except when you’re not; you’ll honor each other except when you’re laughing at each other; you’ll comfort each other in illness without risking catching it yourself; and you’ll live in harmony except when you retreat to your private spaces where you can obsess about your Facebook friends or running conditions.

I think a lot of marital happiness depends on what you do when your spouse makes dinner and you think it needs more salt. Do you pretend it’s delicious? Do you sneak some salt from the kitchen and sprinkle it on your food? Do you offer to do the cooking in the future? Or do you talk about it? “Honey, this is good but I’d prefer more seasoning.” You’ll talk about it if you have a realistic partnership around having a good relationship instead of pretending that everything is wonderful. Collaborative feedback won’t hurt your love life, either.

One challenge you two will face is that you’re both so intelligent. It’s not always easy living with someone who can make you feel as if you are ignorant or as if you don’t know what’s going on interpersonally. I asked Janna, my wife, about this challenge and she said she wouldn’t know.

But I can tell you that a sense of partnership enables you to enjoy your spouse’s intelligence instead of feeling intimidated by it. And an effective partnership is a lot like ballroom dancing, where the couple only looks interdependent and both are actually responsible for their own balance, only occasionally lifting each other. I mean that metaphorically—you don’t have to pick him up.

I want to mention all the pressure that’s put on a marriage not from having to meet each other’s actual needs, but from trying to meet the expectations of friends and family. For example, you may find that neither one of you cares all that much about going on trips together, but one or both of you may get messages that good spouses don’t vacation alone. Or you may really not care if your spouse comes to your holiday party at work, but your colleagues act surprised and vaguely affronted. There’s enough to do in a marriage to please your spouse; don’t worry about what others think of how you go about it. Now, of course, it may really matter to you to have your spouse at the holiday party, so say so if it’s true, but if it’s not, figure out what you’re going to say to other people rather than how you are going to acquiesce to them. I blame everything Janna doesn’t do on her being deaf in one ear.

In marriage, it’s hard to stay equals. Every relationship tends to slide in the direction of what Sartre called a lover and a beloved, what might be called a satellite and a planet, a nurse and a patient, a manager and a diva, an audience and a performer. The next thing you know, one person is the main character of the marriage and the other is the sidekick. You two are off to a good start because you are both at heart managers and not divas, but if you constantly make space for your spouse or defer to your spouse’s wishes, you may find that whichever of you turns out to be the more accommodating of two very accommodating people has slipped into the role of nurse or manager or audience. You owe it to your partner and to your partner’s marital happiness to be a little more demanding than you are inclined to be.

You might be more inclined to make demands and to take up space if you identify your wishes as unreasonable—or unreasoned—instead of trying to justify them. Maybe it’s the way the toilet paper is rolled or maybe it’s wanting to be surprised on your birthday or maybe it’s wanting to spend Thanksgiving with your family—whoops, not a problem: insert joke about Canadian Thanksgiving here. Insert explanation of Canadian joke HERE. We’re told our whole lives not to make unreasonable demands, but with your spouse, maybe the best way to justify a wish is to acknowledge it’s merely what you want, that there’s no justification beyond that. Then you won’t need to come up with an argument that you know is lame: “We haven’t had pizza in a long time” can’t be said with a straight face, compared to, “I’m in the mood for pizza.”

It’s a terrible thing to fall in love with a human being. It’s much safer and more convenient to fall in love with your phone, as many people have done. Your phone may break or otherwise mess you up, but the disorder will be contained. Your phone will never greet you in the morning with, “We should train for a triathlon,” or with, “We should move to Denver.” Hint hint. Only a human being can introduce that level of disarray into your life.

So another big problem in marriage is that we choose human beings to fall in love with, because we want to be loved back, but then they keep acting human. They forget to empty the dishwasher or they aren’t in the mood for something or they didn’t notice that people at dinner wanted to talk about something else. The solution is simple but not easy. When your spouse acts all-too-human, mention it, but mention it with appreciation that you are not married to a robot and that you yourself are all-too-human. No one is perfect. No one is accomplished and easygoing, relaxed and buff, independent and available. When your spouse acts all-too-human, remind yourself that the same quality pays dividends in other situations. Someone who forgets a chore is likely to be someone who can play spontaneously; someone who gets angry is likely to be someone who cares about how things go.

I’m fond of saying “find magic in the ordinary,” but darn Google if someone else didn’t say it first. Oh well. It’s pretty ordinary to be not as original as you thought you were, but it can still be magical. In love, if you shoot for the stars you’re likely to crash. But if you aim for collaboration, you may well find yourself playing among the stars, as the songwriter said. And who would know this better than you two? As Dorothy learns in The Wizard of Oz, YOU found your heart’s desire without looking any further than your own backyards.