Ask the psychologist: Does marriage have to be a bore?

A psychologist talks about why we sometimes still feel unhappy in the best of marriages.

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Life is good for Margaret, on the surface: “We just finished decorating our apartment, and our son started first grade and is so far doing well. The future is ours for the taking—we’re even planning an exotic vacation with some friends,” she says enthusiastically.

And yet, Margaret isn’t happy.

“My husband is a true gift from God, but I miss my college days of carefree, romantic love,” she says. “I loved this one particular guy like crazy. But he was young and I couldn’t depend on him. He left without a word and it took me a long time to get over that hurt. And yet I sometimes think that that was a real feeling. I created a family with a good man and I blame myself for not being able to appreciate it. I really love him. I still find him attractive as a man. I like his arms, the way he laughs or the way he hugs our child, but … What am I missing, if I have everything? Something must be wrong with me,” worries Margaret.

The poet Goethe once said, “Love is an ideal thing, marriage a real thing; a confusion of the real with the ideal never goes unpunished.” But does a psychologist agree?

Does marital love have to be humble & boring?

I feel Margaret’s dilemma. It’s hard to tell if this is resignation, capitulation, or a cry for help. It’s important that she herself hears her own voice and sees herself as she is, a 30-year-old woman. I think her self-image is distorted, that she doesn’t see the real proportions. All because she is overwhelmed by routine, curled up with longing for a life long gone. Perhaps she’s not really missing the college flame, but herself from those years, and the carefree life, focused only on him and all the fun dates and weekend getaways.

It’s completely natural for the initial intense fascination between a man and a woman to die down after two years. Long-term relationships have a different dynamic than do short infatuations.

Maggie idealizes the past because she is not dealing with the present that well. She doesn’t know how to change it, make it better, and how to adapt to the changes happening within herself—in her body, personality, and temperament.

When fascination ends

Strong nostalgia for love can surface when we fear losing our attractiveness, or panic over the passing time—it is a lack of acceptance of the losses we experience all the time. Those moments of not feeling like herself are like a refrain in a woman’s life. They accompany our 18th, 30th, 50th and 70th birthdays. It’s a common feeling among all women that doesn’t often discriminate, regardless of how predictable or crazy their love life is. Which is why, when we feel such discomfort, we find a scapegoat, often our husband.

Margaret is restless and tense, because theoretically everything is going good, but something is making her question her path in life. Successes big and small, and lack of serious worries or failures do not always compensate for sexual intensity and fervor. Margaret is retreating into the romantic bucolic tale of times gone by. She has a strange longing for what was, and at the same time, guilt towards her husband mixed with anger that he isn’t a leading man from a Harlequin Romance. Margaret is supressing anger—at herself. That entire bitter cocktail of conflicting feelings does not help to nurture a relationship. Rather, it is an explosive mix that can blow up even a well matched couple.

It’s natural for the initial intense fascination between a man and a woman to die down down after two years. Long-term relationships have a different dynamic than do short infatuations. Romantic letters, champagne and oysters in candlelight will not make us feel the way we used to. But things don’t have to be the same to be good. There are new experiences, new feelings and values; responsibility, intimacy, mutual plans, investments, sharing of everyday life. Those things may not be spectacular, but they are still important.

Proof of a good relationship

Marriage, like all other relationships, gives you some things but not everything. That’s actually proof of a good relationship. You don’t detach emotionally from your husband because he can’t satisfy all of your needs. That’s impossible! Believe me, he has his own unrealized dreams and complaints related to you, as well.

Margaret idealizes her college sweetheart, but she herself is not the person she used to be. Maybe she was more playful, carefree, and laughed more. Perhaps she was more spontaneous, likely to surprise, or even jealous. She might be just a good wife and mother now. Sounds boring, right?

Humility doesn’t add blushing cheeks to love. A romantic vision promises faultless relationships, but a real closeness also has disappointments, monotony, and boredom.

Husbands and wives are easily blamed for what they are not, and what they do for the relationship is belittled.

What is important is how we deal with what we are not getting from our partner. We shouldn’t escape into fantasies, frustrations, or doubts that we made the wrong choice. The “man of our dreams” wouldn’t have been perfect, or have given us the perfect life, either.

My sense is that Margaret believes her youthful love was true love, and the marital one feels like a task. Why is this? Unassuming, everyday love is underestimated. It is easy to miss it, extinguish, quash by fantasizing about the one that was so strong. What we don’t remember is that it was accompanied by fear, anxiety, and uncertainty.

Going beyond the stereotype of marriage as ‘boring’ is the key to a better relationship

In a marriage we have responsibilities, but we also have the obligation to not take each other for granted. We need to notice each other, make the effort to add some fire and energy to the relationship. As always, you should start with yourself. Self-examine your feelings and action regularly. Try changing something, giving something up.

Children don’t leave time for a life as a couple. Margaret and her husband are planning vacations with friends, but maybe they should be going alone. A simple camping trip for a week. Why wait till summer? A winter weekend getaway in another city will do just fine.

We like to exalt youthful love, give it priority, even though it’s only advantage is that it was first. How easily we forget the pain, the suffering, the panic that he won’t call again, and the worry of how to keep him.

Perhaps that’s the best advice to leave you with: amnesia in marriage. Instead of thinking about what’s miserable, remember that love doesn’t have to be a cure-all. When we get so much that’s good, other things are worth giving up.

Zyta Rudzka
Zyta Rudzka
Zyta graduated from the Academy of Catholic Theology with a psychology degree. She was winner of the Gdynia Drama Prize for her drama, “Cold Buffet.” The television version of her play, “The Sugar Bra,” won a gold medal at the prestigious Worldfest Independent Film Festival in Houston. Her works have been translated into German, Russian, English, Croatian, Italian, Czech, French, and Japanese.

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