Owning the Ebb and Flow of Your Relationship


A few weeks ago I sat across from the nice woman at the reception desk of my new doctor’s office in the new city where my husband and I recently moved. You know the drill: filling out the paperwork, answering the standard written and verbal questions with the nice receptionist at the intake desk. On this day, it was all the expected ones: Insurance? Yes, thank goodness. I slide my card to her, simultaneously pumping a dose of hand sanitizer from the gallon-jug positioned between us. Employed? Sort of. Long story. I choose to not explain. ID? Got one. I proudly hand over my new Wisconsin driver’s license, wanting to tell the full story of how many trips to the DMV it took to secure this little piece of precious plastic, but I resist the urge. Married or Single? Married, to which she says “perfect.” And I actually snort. I laugh out loud. Oh honey, no marriage is perfect.

Had a speech bubble appeared over her head, I’m confident it would have said: “Perhaps you’d like an appointment with one of our therapists? We can fit you in right after your mammogram.”

Here’s the thing: I’ve spent my entire 28-year career as a relationship researcher and professor teaching marriage micro-dynamics. Simultaneously, I’ve been building my own 27-year marriage, one that is without question a strong and joyful one thanks to daily butt-kicking-hard-work. Yes, ours is a thriving and healthy and happy one, now enjoying the extra shot of goodness that comes with an empty nest. YAY us! And

(There’s always an “and,” right?)

My “and” is the knowing one of anyone and everyone who’s ever been married more than three minutes.

Yes, marriage is hard. It’s going to ebb and flow: like one four-minute segment of your marriage feels the equivalent of a blissful afternoon nap on a secluded sandy beach, hands intertwined, sunshine warming you and a knowing peacefulness and sync between your person and you warming your soul. And then – thank you perfectly imperfect marriage dynamism – the next four-minute segment of your marriage hits you like a tsunami: anger. Disappointment. Epic irritation. All the negative human emotions, without warning washing over you when, just seconds ago, things were so … well … “perfect.”

And, what the research on long-term marriage reveals is that this messiness? It’s actually just part of the relationship gig.

And, it doesn’t necessarily mean you’re doing anything wrong.

And, it might indeed mean you and your partner need to find a really great licensed therapist to help you navigate the mess. Notice, I didn’t say help you “clean up the mess.” Because my own and others’ research reveals that believing we can “clean up” our relationships might just be setting us up for failure.

Yes/and, we can and must work hard – little by little, intentionally, and in the tiniest but most kind ways – at building strong connections and healthy relationships. Luckily, we also now have enough science out there to tell us precisely how to go about doing so (including what not to do).

And, and, AND …

Relationships: they will never be permanently all tidy, neat, and clean. Rather, every relationship is a bit messy. More than a bit dynamic. Often frustrating.

And, that’s okay – because that’s natural.

Yes, welcome to the natural ebb and flow of marriage. No, honey, marriage is never perfect. Yes, honey, marriage is never perfect. And, absolutely, I believe there’s really one thing you actually need to know: When marriage feels like it’s kicking your butt, go back in and keep kicking back. Not literally, like with a leg and foot of course. But/and, of course, simply with your energy, love, and positivity.

And, now I’m off to get that mammogram.

Images


Carol Bruess, a professor emeritus at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota, studies and writes about relationships, is highly fluent in emoji, loves parentheticals, and is preparing her best happy-dance for empty-nest-time next year (but shhhh—don’t tell her kids because they think she’s going to be all weepy). Check out her research, books and sewing/design shenanigans over at carolbruess.com.