One of the leading causes of death for marriages is consumerism. We get so caught up in consuming our spouse that we lose track of what it means to serve them. We forget the original vows we told each other, and we start thinking about ourselves first.
When my wife and I got married, we exchanged vows and promised each other the following: I want you in my life, to have and to hold, for richer and poorer, in sickness and in health, forsaking all others (i.e. don’t be intimate with other people!), as long as we both shall live, as long as you meet all my needs first.
Okay, maybe not that last part. But isn’t that what we end up doing all too often in our relationships? We start out with the rose colored glasses on, thinking only of our partner’s happiness and security. We give of our time, energy, and affection regardless of how tired we are or how much we are looking forward to doing something else at the time. Our partners know they are our top priority. But then things change.
We get into routines. We get busy. Maybe we have kids. Few things can get in the way of a couple’s relationship more than those adorable little bundles of joy. In fact, research tells us that often the lowest point in terms of satisfaction in most marriages is in the child-rearing years. But it doesn’t have to be as bad as we often let it get.
What’s the problem here? It’s not actually the kids. It’s not the number of hours you or your spouse are working. It’s not money. Granted, those things can often be difficult to deal with. But what I remind many of my couples is that there are plenty of marriages out there where both partners are happy and their situation is objectively more despairingly difficult than most couples’ situations. So what is different for those happy couples? What is the problem, really?
What I’ve learned from reading the scientific literature on relationships and from the couples I’ve worked with, is that the biggest problem facing married couples is not what stressors are in their lives, but whether they face them together. Are you and your partner connected in such a way that you both feel safe and secure in the marriage no matter what happens outside of your relationship?
If you lost a job, a home, a child, would your relationship survive? Would you draw each other closer in that time of need? Would you reach for one another? When one of you is tired and having a difficult time meeting the other’s needs, does the other understandingly pick up the slack? Or is there resentment? Bitterness? Frustration and withdrawal?
If happiness in your marriage is based on consuming your spouse like a product, you’re in for a disappointing and lonely time when you and/or your partner hit a rough patch in life. If you’ve secretly added the “as long as you meet all my needs first” section to your vows, it’s going to be hard to do your part in the relationship when they are unable to fulfill theirs.
The bottom line is that we cannot be consumers of our marriages. We must instead be investors in our marriages. We must be entrepreneurs and constantly invest, sometimes in new and creative ways, in our marriages.
This may not be easy for you, especially if this is not what was modeled in your home growing up. But what needs to happen is for you and your spouse to begin to truly live up to your vows to put each other first. Even when it’s not fun or easy. In sickness and in health. When money is overflowing and when you’re scraping pennies for mac-n-cheese dinners. When you’re happy and when you’re not. There are no contingencies in successful marriages.
To be successful in this, you need to cultivate the safety and security that are the foundation of healthy communication. Consuming your spouse only puts pressure on them and drains them. Investing in their happiness, their success, and their emotional health puts them in a much better position to be able to meet your needs. Be an investor in your marriage, not a consumer of it.
Dr. Robert Pate is a licensed Clinical Psychologist (PSY27089) practicing in Orange County, California. For more information about Dr. Pate’s practice, call 657-200-8080 or visit www.cavfamilytherapy.com.