Everyday Marriage

When we take our marriage vows, we commit ourselves to the whole package—the highs, the lows, and the ordinary. In the heady glow and excitement of courtships and weddings, few of us really expect the unavoidable dailiness of marriage. Our parents’ marriage may have had its plodding moments—after all, we were hanging around during a lot of it and noticed that staring deep into each other’s eyes was not the ordinary method of communication. But caught up by the delight and wonder of falling in love, we tend to anticipate that our marriages will be high romance, week after starry-eyed week. It may come as a jolt when we finally realize that more of the texture of marriage is getting dinner on the table and paying utility bills than it is moonlight and roses.

In the clear light of the everyday, it’s easy to feel vaguely cheated when the responsibilities of married life crowd in and we inevitably find that we disagree about them. It’s even easier to feel dissatisfied when, in spite of a temple marriage, we find we didn’t marry an angel after all, but an ordinary human being who gets cross when tired, has peculiar little habits, and can speak sharply or remain mulishly silent.

The challenge of course, is to handle this life in such a way that, after it, we can advance further. To grasp the reward of eternal marriage, we must master the mundane details of daily life here—which may include coming to terms with such petty but irritating problems as whether bedroom windows should be open or closed at night or who is to scour the bathroom sink and how often.

Although some couples face major trials in their marriages, all of us have to cope with minor daily ones. And it’s easy to believe that the minor trials are the more difficult to endure. During a crisis, both of you can rise to your best, hanging on until things return to normal. It’s an entirely different challenge to sustain your best when there is no apparent crisis, when it’s a matter of a thoughtless word here, an outstretched hand overlooked there, or a silent evening spent because neither of you is willing to make a genuine effort to see the other’s point of view.

I remember my bishop counseling my husband and me just before our wedding that we need love most when we deserve it least. Seventeen years of marriage have convinced me that he knew exactly what he was talking about. When we marry, we promise not only that we will stay together, but that we will go on loving each other. Sometimes that means continuing to love somebody who is being anything but lovable at the moment. But it can be done: I know, because I’ve seen my husband do it.

To sustain us through the dailiness of marriage, our commitment to each other needs to grow deep roots. Christ’s parable of the sower describes the preaching of the gospel, but it could just as well describe the bright young marriages that seem to be doing fine at first, then suddenly fall apart in a welter of rancor and bitterness. “Some fell upon stony places, where they had not much earth: and forthwith they sprung up, because they had no deepness of earth: and when the sun was up, they were scorched; and because they had no root, they withered away.” (Matt. 13:5–6.)

A relationship is easy when both are on company manners and eager to please each other. The need for deeper roots comes when you discover, as all of us must, that company manners often are not sustainable twenty-four hours a day, and genuine consideration for each other must bolster surface courtesies. It grows as you find that pleasing your partner sometimes means doing things her way, when you would much rather do them your way.

One couple, married now for more than twenty years, learned this lesson the hard way during the first few years of their marriage, before they had their children. They were stationed in a big eastern city while the husband finished his tour of duty in the service, and she was lucky enough to find an exciting, glamorous job working with intelligent, sophisticated people. She loved it: loved the adrenalin of corporate life, loved the sharp competition, loved the fact that she was meeting people on her firm’s behalf and was expected to dress well. But while she was reveling in her work, her husband was counting the days until they would be free to escape the crowds and the noisy streets for the quiet, open landscapes where he felt at home.

As the time wound down to his discharge date, she felt more and more estranged from him, and wondered desperately if she could bear to go back with him to a way of life that now seemed hopelessly provincial and boring. Her employers were hinting that there would be a considerable promotion if she stayed. And there was a very attractive man in her office—not an improper word had been said, but she knew that if she gave him the slightest indication, something would develop.

“In the end, I went west with my husband only because he was my husband and we were married. As we drove back, I don’t think we said ten words for a thousand miles or more. I was wondering if I was making the biggest mistake in my life, and I had no idea what he was thinking. That was the longest, grimmest ride I’ve ever taken.”

Nor did things instantly improve when they settled down in their new home. Compared to the big city, the relatively isolated small town was boring. “We started talking to each other because I didn’t have anyone else to talk to at first,” she said, shaking her head a little. The more they talked, the more they opened up areas of communication they hadn’t touched since their dating days. Now, eighteen years and five children later, she is actively involved in church and civic activities.

But most important, she and her husband have a steady, reassuring love, obvious even to outside observers. He has fairly serious problems with arthritis; to watch her unobtrusively reach over to help and then tactfully move away as if she just happened to be there at the right time is to learn a great deal about interdependence and understanding. Had her roots of commitment been shallower, the richness born of twenty years of ordinary, everyday devotion would never have had a chance to grow.

Commitment to marriage means a lot more than determining to stay married, of course. It means commitment to making the marriage work at all levels, which is a lot harder to do than it appears.

We’ve all been warned that if marriage is to be a 50–50 proposition, each partner has to be prepared to give 100 percent. What we may not expect is that this sometimes means giving up something close to our heart—the vacation we’ve dreamed of? a specific career opportunity?—for no other reason than that your partner is not prepared to go along with it. Obviously, this kind of giving cannot be all on one side, with the taking all on the other. But in every marriage there is some of that kind of give-and-take, and it sometimes takes a while to learn the intricacies.

Commitment to marriage means commitment to continuing your love for each other. As President Spencer W. Kimball counseled in a 1973 fireside talk at Brigham Young University, “Almost all marriages could be beautiful, harmonious, and happy, and eternal ones, if the two people primarily involved would determine that it should be, that it must be, that it will be.”

Our attitudes are subtly shaped by television, movies, and best-selling novels, where love operates as an on/off switch. Once it’s off, it’s off, they tell us, and the only solution is to find someone else to turn us on again.

But love isn’t like that. Where love existed once, it can surely be revitalized. Being angry with the person you love is not a pleasant experience. It hurts. And sometimes it seems easier to wrap yourself so tightly with anger, with nursing old grievances, with silence and distance, that love is muted and eventually stilled. It takes courage to peel away the protecting shells of hurt and selfishness to let someone else in and, by reaching out, make yourself vulnerable all over again. It’s even more difficult to do it daily in the inescapable intimacy of marriage.

Marriage was designed as a tool for our perfection. As we move past the layers of superficiality that make up many of our relationships, our characters are finely honed by facing the opportunities and perils of everyday domestic life. It is not the irritations and disagreements that matter, but the way we cope with them. It’s one thing to behave well in Sunday clothes; it’s another altogether to be generous and unselfish and forgiving in jeans and housedresses.

None of us marry clones. Even when the opportunities are absolutely equal, we each will grasp them by different handles. A husband and wife are meant to be an interlocking whole joined together, not two identical pieces. Men may rant along with George Bernard Shaw’s Professor Higgins, “Why can’t a woman be more like a man?” Women may groan together over the nature of the men in their lives. Still, as a wife I have the job of getting along with the man who is my husband, and my husband has the job of getting along with the woman who is me.

Curiously, the reward is in the doing. What we discover is that the good days and the bad days and the ordinary days all mount into a cumulative total to build the strength and durability you just can’t get any other way.

The good days alone won’t make it. By stretching to overcome the bad days, and continuing to reach toward our best selves on the ordinary days, we enlarge our capacity for the charity Paul wrote about in 1 Corinthians 13. [1 Cor. 13] The more we hollow out that capacity, the more we can be filled. When we dedicate ourselves to the whole experience, we open ourselves to the possibility of preparing ourselves together to meet the challenges of eternity.

Let’s Talk about It

When you have finished reading “Everyday Marriage,” you may wish to consider the following questions and ideas individually or with your spouse.

  1. 1.

    Before marriage, many visualize it to be all “moonlight and roses.” What other preconceptions did you have before you were married? Have those notions proven to be realistic?

  2. 2.

    How can the overall commitment to your relationship with one another be obscured by the challenges and pettiness of day-to-day life?

  3. 3.

    The article talks about the need to grow deep roots of commitment to sustain a marriage through rocky times. Make a list of at least five specific things you and your spouse can do that will deepen your level of love and commitment.

  4. 4.

    Are there times when you have simply given up something “close to your heart” simply because your spouse was not ready to go along with it? In retrospect, did you and your spouse make a genuine effort to understand one another’s feelings? How did the incident affect your relationship?

  5. 5.

    From observing your example, do you think your children have a positive, yet realistic, view of what to expect in marriage?

[illustrations] Illustrated by Rob Colvin

Beppie Harrison, a free-lance writer, serves as a Sunday school teacher in the Bloomfield Hills (Michigan) ward.