This is not a post about blue-pilling and red-pilling. a cynical look at marriage as a way that some of us stay asleep or enslaved to consumption, procreation and social control. (Though, that would make for an intriguing post, wouldn’t it?)
Nope, this is pretty straightforward: It’s an explanation of my matrix of the four things I think a marriage (or any committed, lifelong relationship) needs in order to last. I don’t know if you need all four of these things for a marriage to work, or three out of four, or two out of four. But I can tell you from experience that only one won’t get you far.
Now, ‘matrix’ is a little misleading because this isn’t actually a 4×4. But this also isn’t a checklist. I’ve used it as a way to reflect honestly—sometimes brutally—on what elements my marriage had and whether that mix called me to stay in it or dissolve it in both parties’ interests.
Also, ‘marriage matrix’ sounds cool.
my marriage matrix
- Do you live well? If you live together well, you delight in each other and are compatible in the day-to-day. There are myriad ways this can work out, but life is comfortable and makes you feel that your relationship is characterized by love and enjoyment. You could probably expound on this one and add requirements like sharing interests and hobbies, knowing and speaking each others’ love languages and having independent relationships and activities of your own and outside of the relationship. Family psychologists Julie and John Gottman have also identified consistently responding to each others’ “emotional bids” as critical to a relationship’s success.
2. Do you fight well? The Gottmans say they can watch a couple fight for twenty minutes and tell whether they will be together in four years. Conflict is not inherently bad—it’s how you inhabit conflict as a couple and whether you move through conflict in a way that results in deeper intimacy and learning. This kind of productive conflict does not co-exist with what the Gottmans call “The Four Hoursemen”: Defensiveness, Stonewalling, Criticism and Contempt. These behaviors are like a cancer and will rot a marriage from the inside-out. Of them all, it’s good to know Contempt is the best predictor of divorce.
3. Do you fuck well? No, seriously. Are both of your sexual appetites met in your relationship? Are you both climaxing regularly when you do have sex? Awesome, satisfying sex with a partner you’re deeply connected with will both calm and revitalize your central nervous system, and make you feel connected and like you fucking matter. Even if the sex isn’t mind-blowingly amazing every day, it needs to meet expectations most of the time. And those expectations shouldn’t be tempered expectations based on a pattern of disappointing performance within your relationship (i.e., settling). These expectations should be based on what you know works for you (assuming you have had a variety of experiences and gotten to know your own needs and preferences) and the role that you know sexual or physical pleasure plays in your emotional, psychological and spiritual life. If the sex doesn’t meet expectations, or you experience consistent rebuffing, rejection or the feeling of falling short for or being let down by your partner, you’re in trouble. The opportunity for vulnerability, unity and joy will eventually be replaced by things like doubt, a gnawing hunger to be met and/or resentment.
4. Do you have a shared vision of the future? This is not a shared vision of the future in the sense of something you both compromised on and think will be best for your family. It’s about who you want to be in the world and the circumstances that will allow you to be that person, outside of your identity as a partner, child or parent. This is about how you and your partner see yourselves and whether these visions sync up. And they should sync up before you redefine yourself as a part of a couple, or vis-a-vis your partner. I have found this to be really tricky. We learn tremendously about ourselves, our triggers and the stories we carry with us but can be let go by being in relationship. And this learning can change our vision of our future selves, where we’ll be and what we’ll want. I struggle significantly with this one because I’m so damn flexible and like to say yes to everything/have a hard time saying no. It’s a challenge to stay focused on what I truly want. For others, it may be a challenge to give your partner the chance to stay clear on their vision, without constantly working on them to adopt your own.
It’s probably feels dangerous or foolhardy to take relationship reflections from a woman in the midst of divorce without a healthy dose of skepticism or judgment. I do know that before going through it myself, I often saw divorce as failure to take marriage “seriously” or as a sign of unwillingness to do the hard work of relationship-ing. I admit to casting judgment on those divorcing, without the ample empathy and trust they deserved. I regret this. And now I know that—as a wise friend recently told me—the only people who truly know what’s going on with a relationship are the people in it.
I hope this helps someone in relationship get to know their relationship better. It’s not a way to just decide if you should stay or go, as it ended up being for me. Ideally, it’s a way to figure out where interventions and dedicated work can be applied to save a relationship, too. I’d love to hear your thoughts.