How to Stay Married (If You Want to)

by Gail Jankovski on August 25

howtostaymarriedYou have probably heard the statistic that 50% of all marriages fail, and although that figure is not accurate, it has become somewhat ingrained in our common consciousness.  Of course, this belief has contributed to questions about the role of modern marriage, and whether it is an outdated institution. Despite the gloomy predictions, people still seem to want to get married, and–I presume–to stay married. 

Aside from divorce rates, there is also the implication that most marriages, even those that stay together, are failures. If the 50% divorce rate isn’t bad enough, staying married is often portrayed as worse. Marriage is often fodder for jokes and media portrayals with the not-so-subtle implication that those who DO stay married are bored, trapped and resentful. The message that your marriage will either end in divorce, or last and be a sham, is everywhere.

Is it any wonder that I internalized that and projected it on my own relationship? By the time I was married for 20 years, I was actually embarrassed to tell people. I would joke (much to my proud husband’s dismay) that we had been married “way too long”; that I didn’t remember exactly how long, because “time wasn’t invented yet.” Sure, on the surface people thought our longevity was great and congratulated us—but deep down I felt like they were judging us as old, boring, and settling for something.

And I let myself believe that. So when we hit a bump in the road and the smooth sailing we had enjoyed for many years gave way to rougher times, I assumed that we had grown apart, and I moved unconsciously towards the somewhat foregone conclusion that we would split. I found myself in a situation that was unthinkable just a few years before, in a marriage that I had effectively “checked out” from, and I determined that it was time to move on. Then a therapist asked me a question that, in hindsight, saved my marriage, and changed my life: “What would be different?”

And what would be different, really, if I ended this relationship? I didn’t even know. I knew I was unhappy, and I assumed that changing my relationship would make me happy, but I didn’t know what that would look like. So I decided to push through (as much as one can struggle to stay with someone who continues to love and support them while they turn their life upside down), take the question to heart, and do some self-inquiry. And this is where it led me:

Divorce is not a failure.

First we have to stop considering marriages that don’t last forever as failures. If a marriage ends after 20 (or even 15 or 10) years, is that really a failure? Even as I write this I hesitate: what if I end up divorced in 5 years? Who am I to advise people when I have failed? But that is a ridiculous way to look at it, and I have seen the “failure” of a marriage haunt people for years, even decades, after a divorce.

I decided to see my marriage as a success even if it ended. Just as divorce is not a failure, so marriage is not an accomplishment. It is a journey with twists and turns, and 20 years of history cannot be judged as black or white, good or bad, successful or failed.

One might think that framing a divorce as a failure would inspire one to work even harder to avoid it, but for me it was the opposite. It placed on me an enormous pressure to figure it out and get it right, once and for all. It seemed there was one right and wrong answer, and now was the time for me to pick one, when what I really needed was time to explore and rebuild.

Reframing my marriage away from the failure/accomplishment dichotomy, to a work in progress, gave me permission to take each day as it came. It gave me the freedom to decide that, yes, today, this week, this is where we want to be, while we continue to work on the “forever.” And in that freedom, those days and weeks turned into months and years.

It’s not you, it’s me. Really.

Have you ever heard of someone who wakes up one day after 20 years of marriage and decides that their partner just isn’t attractive, fun, or exciting anymore? Or they decide that their marriage has become boring and stagnant? Of course, it happens so often it’s kind of a cliché. Well, relationships don’t get boring and stagnant and uninspired—people do. If your relationship is boring it’s probably because you are boring. How’s that for a wake up call?

We often fall into negative patterns as the years go on, and it’s easy to look outwards at something (our relationship) or someone (our partner) as the cause of that. The hard part is to look inwards and acknowledge our own role in the creation of a situation that we aren’t all that thrilled with. Life circumstances change, our focus can change as our families grow, and sometimes we need a push to change and challenge ourselves to keep growing.

My complaints about my husband’s “faults” were actually just mirrors of my own dissatisfaction. While that certainly could have been masked for a while by the lure of change, my relationship wasn’t what needed changing—I was. Everything that I found attractive in others, and presumed to be lacking in my partner, I was actually lacking in myself. I didn’t really want to be WITH that fun, ambitious, attractive person—I wanted to BE that person. So I endeavoured to become more of what I wanted to be myself, instead of trying to fill that need with others. And I’m pretty happy with the way I turned out.

A side effect of striving to become one’s “best self” is that it inspires others to do the same. Nagging and cajoling our partners to change never works, it just sets us up for a cycle of, well, nagging. And disappointment. You know what does work? Becoming the fun, ambitious, engaging, exciting person that you would find attractive. That is what inspires our partner to step up, and meet us in that experience.

What are you afraid of?

We all have fears and limiting beliefs, picked up through childhood and beyond, buried beneath the surface in our subconscious minds. Facing one’s fears never comes easily, and for me it took a lot of patience and some brutal self-inquiry.

What I discovered was that I was protecting myself from loss. For various reasons, including the death of my biological father as a young child, and my adoptive father as a young adult, my relationships all formed around a spectre of loss. As time went on fear reared its ugly head, my subconscious anticipation of losing my partner had built a wall between us. I didn’t want to, felt I couldn’t, go through that kind of loss again—so I pushed him away. If I was going to lose him it was going to be on my terms, by literally pushing him out of my life, rather than having to experience that kind of pain again.

How ironic that my love for my partner, even after all those years, was literally the thing I was most afraid of. But while my specific circumstances may be unique, my fears were not all that unique. Fears surrounding commitment, intimacy and vulnerability are often rooted in childhood experiences of loss and rejection. And those things don’t just fall by the wayside when we become adults, get married, and have children. Rather, our life journeys continue to trigger those fears and bring them to the surface, especially as we get older and enter new stages of life.

We all want to protect our hearts from loss and pain. But by bringing our fears to the light and acknowledging them, they begin to have less power over us.

So—what would have been different? Not much, actually. I would probably have ended up in another relationship, replaying the same patterns with my dissatisfaction with myself, my fears and my preconceived notions intact.

Our relationships, especially our most intimate relationships, are a mirror into ourselves—our hopes, our disappointments, and our fears. In that reflection I recognized that I was projecting my dissatisfaction with myself and my fears onto my marriage. It’s perfectly natural to do that because for all the trauma and grief that divorce can trigger in one’s life, changing the external circumstances of our lives is actually easier than changing ourselves. So we often move from one relationship to another, distracting ourselves from the real source of our discomfort, and never fully self-actualize. I am not suggesting to ignore uncomfortable feelings in our relationships, but rather to recognize that they are, perhaps, nudging us not away from our partners, but moving us closer to them, as we create better versions of ourselves.

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Gail Jankovski

Gail is a certified hypnotist, life coach, and aspiring writer and poet. Her approach to personal development is pragmatic: baby steps are OK—and small changes can add up to big rewards. She also keeps busy as an admin assistant, wife, and mom to three grown children.

{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

Jon August 26, 2015 at 12:22 am

Great post and points, Gail. 🙂

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Gail Jankovski August 26, 2015 at 12:49 am

Thanks Jon!

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Sue Rawlinson August 26, 2015 at 2:31 am

Thank you , Gail , for a wise and thoughtful article . Your capacity to work through your doubts and weather those difficult times is a great maturity which I wish I had had in my younger years and which I have had to learn the hard way. Congratulations.

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Gail Jankovski August 26, 2015 at 12:24 pm

Thank you Sue!

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Holly August 26, 2015 at 11:13 am

Like Sue Rawlinson said, I think you show a great deal of wisdom and maturity in this article. And, because you are my friend, I get to see pictures of you and your hubby enjoying your (relatively frequent, it seems?) holiday getaways 🙂 Good for you, guys! Eff those statistics!

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Gail Jankovski August 26, 2015 at 12:22 pm

Thanks Holly! Holiday getaways can never be frequent enough. 😉

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Diane August 26, 2015 at 11:21 am

So true! I do believe many are dissatisfied with themselves and project it on to their partners. Still, I’m always impressed with those who marry young and keep it working. So many changes we go through in our lifetimes. When we marry young, it’s a bit of a dice roll that we’ll change in the same ways as our partners. Congrats on working through these issues and its nice to know you have a life partner to support you! My definition of love is always, does this person bring out the best in me? (Okay, in a marriage we can have some bad moments!) A loving and supportive person will allow us to grow into ourselves without judgement or trying to keep us as we were. Excellent piece.

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Gail Jankovski August 26, 2015 at 12:20 pm

Thanks Diane. We definitely have not changed in the same ways, I always say that I didn’t so much “change” as “found myself. But I kind of think that the person who we really “are” deep down is what draws us to each other (hopefully!), and I don’t think that so much changes in form, as in expression. There is something to be said for waiting to become the partner you want to be before marrying, but I also think that there is something to be said for growing up, and into ourselves, together. But I’m a bit of a romantic so … 🙂

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