17 years. Hundreds of clients. Thousands of conversations about really personal things. My career as a family lawyer taught me more about divorce than I ever thought I’d know. It’s also taught me a lot about marriage, and our view of ourselves in it.
This isn’t an article about how to be a good partner. Or how to know if your marriage is in trouble (though I’m asked about that one often). It’s just about 2 truisms when it comes to marriage. Which, by definition, means these things should be so apparent they go without saying. Experience, though, has shown me otherwise. We might be told something is true, but that doesn’t mean we believe it in our hearts. I’m willing to risk stating the obvious anyway, because maybe hearing it in a different way will help you believe it. Or be of some help to you if your marriage is feeling rocky right now.
1. There is no perfect marriage.
You know this objectively. But that doesn’t mean you’ve never envied someone else’s relationship, right? Most of us have. From what we see, it might look like what someone else has is a lot better than what we have.
That’s why it’s worth repeating that no marriage is perfect. Or even close. Not your best friend’s, not your neighbor’s, and certainly not the gal you follow on Instagram. (Some of those women have sat in my office and cried.)
Stop striving for perfection, in yourself and in your partner. And stop comparing. If your goal is to improve your relationship, comparison will only leave you feeling worse. And if your relationship already ended, maybe remembering that no one’s is perfect - and everyone’s is vulnerable - will help a little.
If you do find yourself envying someone else’s relationship, know this: a satisfying long-term relationship is the result of consistent, hard work over time. It’s not happy all the time. It includes its share of arguments, mistakes, and disappointments. The people in it don’t think it’s perfect either. More importantly, if YOU were the one in that relationship, it would look different than what you see on the outside.
Even President Obama revealed in his new memoir how the White House strained his marriage, and that marital tension was a previously hidden hallmark of his presidency: "That was the truth of our time in the White House." Who knew?
You never really know what’s going on in someone else’s marriage. Even the people you think you know best. You don’t know what’s going on in their homes, bedrooms, or bank accounts. I’ve heard pretty shocking stories from people who you’d never in a million years think would be telling them. Like the one about the candlestick and the police officers on Christmas Eve. 🕯👮🎄
Never compare your relationship’s behind-the-scenes to someone else’s highlight reel.
Whether your marriage is intact right now or not, this is really important to know. Because if your marriage didn’t live up to what you thought it should, using anyone else’s as a standard, you’ll probably take those same expectations into your next relationship. Which won’t be perfect either.
2. The first person you should work on is always yourself.
No one else can make you happy. (I warned you these were clichés.) And as hard as it might be to believe, no one else can make you unhappy either. We can’t control how anyone else behaves, but we do get to choose how we let their actions impact us.
These are hard times. For many, the pandemic has only increased tensions in already stress-filled homes. If you’re struggling in your marriage right now, work on your marriage. Give it everything you’ve got. It’s absolutely worth trying to save. Please note that I’m not talking about tolerating abuse. If you are truly in an abusive relationship, this doesn’t apply to you. And it’s critical you reach out to a trusted source for help.
But if you really want to improve your marriage, work on yourself first. Or at least at the same time. Speak to a therapist, read self-help books (I love anything by Brene Brown!), journal. Go to AA or Al Anon. Do the hard stuff. Take a really honest look at what’s going on inside.
Working on yourself might mean learning how to have healthier arguments. To set better boundaries. To accept financial responsibility. Working on yourself also means remembering what’s important to you and making yourself a priority. It means maintaining your friendships, keeping up your hobbies, and focusing on your goals.
Encourage your spouse to do the same. “Work on yourself first” works best when it applies to both people in a relationship. But if he won’t (“there’s nothing wrong with me”), it’s worth doing it anyway - for your own sake.
By the way, this holds true if you’re already divorced but would like to have a better co-parenting relationship. If you want to instill changes in any relationship, you’ve got to start on your own side of the street. Remember, you can’t change the other person, but working on yourself can help you better cope with whatever you’ve got to deal with on the other side.
The most important thing you will ever work on, is you.
The problems in your relationship really can’t be fixed if you haven’t done the work on yourself. Yes, you might put a Band-Aid on them, but they’ll still be there. Whatever it is you feel - resentment, doubt, frustration, insecurity - those things will still be waiting to crop back up.
There’s never been a more important time to spend some time on you. The end of the year is a time for reflection. And the new year is a time for growth. Here’s your opportunity to instill the changes you want to see in the only person you ever can control - yourself.