People heading towards separation and divorce often tell long-time marriage educators, Byron & Francine Pirola, that they simply aren’t the same person as when they married. Their unspoken reaction to this comment is “I should hope not!” Change is part of life. They explain how to create a marriage that endures through the seasons.
Seasons of Marriage
Change and growth is part of life. Ever since our conception we have been changing. Goodness, how different were we as 20-somethings to who we were at 15? And how different are we again today?
We all get a bit nervous about change and understandably so. Change introduces uncertainty about whether we will be better off… or worse. Everyone likes change that advances their situation and no one likes the other kind of change. Even so, we cannot avoid change and it is unhealthy to do so, especially in our relationships.
Just as people change, so do the relationships that involve them; especially marriage. And just as our own growth involves conscious choices, so too does the growth in our marriage.
We are very different people to the young couple who stood at the altar in 1988 promising to love each other for the rest of our lives. And so is our marriage.
After almost three decades of shared life we are now into our fourth or fifth marriage…to each other! In fact Byron is fond of saying he has had many marriages… all of them to the same woman!
There was the ‘newlywed marriage’ where we were building a new life together, living in New York City and establishing ourselves as a couple. Then came the ‘new parents’ marriage’ where we learned the world no longer revolved around ourselves and sleeplessness uncovered some of our rougher edges. Boy, how different was that marriage to the first one when it was just the two of us discovering the world!
One day we noticed ourselves firmly living the ‘big family marriage’, side-by-side and perpetually exhausted as we took five children on the journey to adulthood. And there was the ‘Where’s Dad? marriage’ when work demands and extensive travel meant there were days and weeks when it felt like we were living parallel lives.
With this realisation comes the knowledge that there are more ‘marriages’ yet to come. We had dinner recently with friends who were in the process of transition as they came suddenly into ‘the empty nest marriage’. It was tough going for them but they were greatly encouraged by this simple insight: it’s not one marriage – it’s many.
With three out of school, two soon to be, and one out of home and another about to be, we recognise we are moving into what will become our ‘adult family marriage’. Who knows what that will bring? We don’t. We have not been there and no matter how many others have, this marriage of ours is unique and its path will be distinct from anyone else’s.
The Work of Love
Many couples assume that because passion and romance in their early years appeared to happen so spontaneously that it is something over which they have little or no control. Like the weather, they believe that they are subjects of their passion, not masters of it.
In truth, while the romance and passion may have appeared to be spontaneous, it wasn’t effortless.
When we reflect on our early years, we recall that we spent most waking hours planning for our time together. And no sooner than we saw each other, we were planning how to see each other again. We wrote love letters (those were the days before mobile phones, text messages and social media!), we organised surprises for each other, and we greeted each other with urgency and longing. We thought about what to wear, where to go and what to say.
In short, we invested huge amounts of time and energy in communicating our love and desire. No wonder it was such a wonderfully passionate period! And no wonder we were so much in love… we were working on it 24/7.
While it’s natural for our desire for each other to wax and wane in the different seasons of our life together, it’s important to remember that ‘being in love’ is not beyond our control. The passion we enjoy together is directly related to the investment we make in our relationship, in all stages of marriage is directly related to the investment we make in our relationship, in all stages of marriage.
In our experience of working with couples for more than 25 years, a great deal of trouble in marriage is caused by simple laziness and complacency.
We never noticed the effort it took to nourish our romance in the early stages of our relationship and so we mistakenly assumed that romance and passion would be spontaneous and effortless in our ongoing years together.
Change starts with me
Everyone loves change unless it involves themselves! The thing about these different seasons of marriage is that like all aspects of life, we can’t avoid them. They are not choices of themselves; they present themselves as our circumstances change. However, we can choose how to respond and grow with these external changes. And like all change, it starts with me.
While the seasons are obvious when we look back, at the time we never really understood when we were transitioning from one season to the next. Those transition periods were often miserable and confronting. They pushed us to new levels of virtue and demanded regular recommitment to our marriage vows.
In our work with couples we often have troubled spouses calling us or seeking us out at presentations wanting guidance on their difficult marriage situation. Almost always, their interpretation of the problem is their spouse. Some people want us to contact their spouse to ‘fix’ them or to ‘sort them out’. Others want their spouse to come along and hear the talk again so that their spouse will understand how they must change.
Whatever the situation, our advice to all these spouses is simple: you cannot force change on another – you can only change yourself. And when you change, it changes the dynamic of the relationship. It has to.
Marriage is like a dance. If one person changes the steps, it changes the dance and that changes the relationship.
Of course, we’re talking about the positive growth variety of change, not regressive change. All voluntary self-change should be towards fuller maturity and greater virtue. When your marriage is struggling, make it your personal credo to be the best, most mature person you can be. It may not save your marriage, but it will give it the best possible odds.
Banishing Marital Boredom
When we first fell in love we were on a journey of discovery. Who is this person? How do they work? What do they like? What are their fears and dreams? The trap for married couples is they think they know each other. In truth, they know who each other was, but who they are today, and who they will be tomorrow is still a mystery to unfold.
One of the most effective ways to keep the passion alive in a marriage is to foster a spirit of curiosity about each other. Curiosity allows us to wonder and question, to create space for surprises and the unexpected.
Passion flourishes in an atmosphere of mystery. And as the author Marcel Proust pointed out, “Mystery is not about travelling to new places but it is looking with new eyes”. The eyes of curiosity, of wonder, can banish the monotony of domesticity and revive any tired old marriage.
“In no way, then, can we consider the erotic dimension of love simply as a permissible evil or a burden to be tolerated for the good of the family. Rather, it must be seen as a gift from God that enriches the relationship of the spouses.” Pope Francis, Amoris Laetitia, 153
Falling in Love again… and again
Our marriage is redefined not just by the more obvious external influences such as children and work; it is just as much affected by our internal journeys of personal and spiritual maturation. What does it mean to be a mother or a father? How do we process the death of a parent or a child? What is my understanding of my own mortality? What is my relationship with God?
All sorts of questions are part of our ‘inner life’ and our individual interior journey taken side-by-side will inevitably affect our marriage – for better or for worse.
The author Mignon McLaughlin noted, “A successful marriage requires falling in love many times, always with the same person”. Thus the key to an enduring marriage is to embrace the inevitable periods of change with a spirit of adventure and courage.
“One advantage of marriage is that, when you fall out of love with him or he falls out of love with you, it keeps you together until you fall in again.” Judith Viorst
With growth comes risk
As we go through these seasons in our marriage we can often feel that the marriage ‘is not working’. Actually, the marriage is working fine; it’s helping us to grow.
It’s just that growth is tough.
We have learned that when our marriage feels like it is all a bit too much work that this is a sure sign we are in a transition phase. And transitions are confronting and uncomfortable. They are also absolutely necessary if we want our marriage to endure.
There is no instruction manual for our marriage. One of us may shift first or we may instinctually shift in different directions. One may be excited and the other fearful. As our first daughter lines up for marriage, Francine is looking forward to grandchildren while Byron refuses to countenance he could possibly be old enough to be a grandfather!
In today’s throw-away culture, with its eye on personal happiness and immediate gratification, it’s too easy to mistake a transition as a sign of failure. Too many people abandon their marriage before it has had time to come to fruition.
More often than not challenges in our marriage indicate we are in a redefinition phase. They’re difficult to navigate but are often the best opportunity to take charge and choose what sort of marriage we want to have.