Daniel Catalaa

What I learned from my marriage

(Authored by Daniel Catalaa on December 31st, 2009)
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I got married very young, when I was 23 years old. The main reason I tied the knot was that I found somebody that I liked and wanted to be with her. A factor that precipitated events was that her international visa was going to expire and I did not want to see her leave and lose the opportunity to get to know her better. Beyond that, there was not much conscious thought that went into the decision. One of the main understandings that I came to later in life was that marriage is not the best way for me to relate to another person, specially with an intimate partner.

Pre-programming

Having grown up Catholic, there was an implicit expectation that I would follow a certain script. I would fall in love, get married, and have children. I would then raise my children to be Catholic, to fall in love, and to get married so they in turn could have their Catholic children. In so doing I would help to perpetuate the religious-biological merry-go-round I happened to find myself on.

There had also been abundant mental programming from secular sources, but my self-awareness was too low at the time to be cognizant of it. Countless numbers of fairy tales, romantic comedies, dramas, the example of my own parents, and advertisements had infused into me a whole host of expectations regarding what marriage was supposed to be like. And the same had happened to my wife. When some of these expectations did not materialize we felt puzzled and disappointed with each other.

Some of these fantastic expectations were that we would communicate telepathically and automatically understand what each needed without much need for explanation. Or that we would want to be together every moment of the day and we would never desire anybody else. Or that out of the billions of inhabitants on this planet there was only one perfect partner or soul mate. Do these beliefs sound familiar? More importantly, at a gut level, do they sound healthy and reasonable?

Security vs. Authenticity

Marriage is very contractual; it is actually a legal entity. When one spouse gets massively in debt, the credit of both is affected. When one spouse is sued, the assets of the other are in jeopardy. Your spouse is by default first in line for inheritance and can make medical decisions for you if you are incapacitated. So why would a sensible person decide to enter an agreement with such far reaching consequences?

One big reason for marriage is security. There is the illusion that because solemn vows were taken publically, that somehow the other person will not leave. The deterrence to leave is in fact real, but it is more legal and financial in nature than based on emotional ties.

By making security a priority I experienced a loss of authenticity during the last two years of my marriage. Because divorcing would have been such a convoluted process involving separation of assets, relocation, and possibly lawyers and alimony, I postponed a messy healthy separation in exchange for a stable unhealthy marriage. Pride was also a factor. I did not want to fail at marriage and at relationships in general. At the time I also held the limiting beliefs that divorce was insurmountable and that divorced people had done something unethical, they were untrustworthy, and generally speaking, bad people. Little did I know that soon I would be joining "their" club.

Mutually inhibiting dependence

When your partner is decidedly better at something then you are in a certain area of life, you have a unique opportunity to observe them an learn from them. What may happen however is that you take their presence in your life for granted and, instead of learning what is difficult for you, you ask the other person to do it for you. In return you do what is tough for them so at the end of the day you have created a partnership that fosters dependence where neither of you is growing in the areas where you need it the most.

For example, I was dragging my feet with house chores and maintenance tasks, and my wife would pick up the slack by always washing the dishes and doing the deep cleaning. She, on the other hand, felt inadequate in some social situations, like going to a party where she knew few people, or when communicating messages that had a potential for conflict (e.g. returning an item to a vendor or making an out-of-the-ordinary request). The reality was that I should have been taking full ownership of housekeeping chores and she would have been better off practicing her social courage by facing awkward and controversial situations without my holding her hand.

Loyalty

As a marriage approaches its final stages, a concept that many struggle with is loyalty. Are we going to be loyal above all to our heart (how we feel), to a person (our spouse or children), or to our values (e.g. sense of duty)? The choice I made initially was to be loyal to my values, to be a person that keeps his word independent of how he feels. However, vows are exchanged while you are surrounded by a certain set of initial conditions such as being in love, understanding each other, feeling attractive to one another, admiring the other person, and learning from them. The expectation is that these conditions will not change, but they do, and marriage is a very rigid structure to renegotiate and reevaluate the initial promises made.

Point of new return

There may come a time when the rapport you have with your spouse has degraded so severely and has become polluted to such an extent by the past that you have reached a point of no return. Even heartfelt initiatives are misinterpreted and there is nothing that you or your partner could say or do to make things better. That is when you take what you have learned to your next relationship instead of insisting on staying with the same person (a misguided strategy I pursued during the last two years of my marriage). I know that the girlfriends I had after I divorced benefited from the relationship experience I gained during married life. And I imagine that the same holds true for the people my wife met after we divorced.

Any regrets?

One positive aspect of marriage is that it forced me to mature. When issues came up I could not force my way or run for the hills. Issues had to be faced and resolved, otherwise we would both have to live with the consequences. Our skills in understanding each other and negotiating were necessarily honed over time because they had a direct correlation with the degree of harmony we experienced.

Being married was a necessary step in my development as a person. As usual, I am always thankful for new knowledge and better self-understanding. My qualm and only question is if I could have acquired this wisdom in a shorter and overall more pleasurable way.

Is marriage the best vehicle for love?

If 2% of the population crashes their cars, you can correctly conclude that they are probably bad drivers. But if 50% of the population is crashing a car you know that the car is defective. By analogy, if 50% of couples end up in divorce, it means that marriage is not a good vehicle for intimate partners to relate. So I invite you to expand your horizons and consider these alternatives:

  • Domestic partnership: Very similar to marriage, but no license is required and your partner can be of your same gender.
  • Concubinage: Cohabitation without legal marriage.
  • Polyamory: Having more than one intimate relationship at a time with the knowledge and consent of everyone involved.
  • Swinging: Non-monogamous sexual activity, treated much like any other social activity, that can be experienced as a couple.
  • Open relationship: Participants are free to have emotional, spiritual and/or physical relationships with other partners, often within mutually agreed limits.
  • Serial monogamy: Series of long or short-term, exclusive sexual relationships entered into consecutively over the lifespan of a person.
  • Children as a choice: Consider coparenting adopted children or even not having any.

And here is a crazy thought, invent your own type of relationship together with your partner(s). You can try to live life like a mythical creature such as Snow White, Cinderella, the Knight in shining armor, or the Virgin Mary. You can default to the choices made by your parents, your neighbors, or those you see on TV. Or you can summon the courage and creativity to design, negotiate, and navigate a new type of connection that is uniquely suited to promote your growth and capacity to love.