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December 12, 2012

Marriage is a Team Sport

by guest blogger Mark

What's Wrong With the Team?

In today's modern (post modern) culture, we have elevated individual rights and expectations to an art form. For many couples, the transition from single life to married life somehow fails to take place, and it really is "all about me." The early days, filled with chemical rushes that cause what more closely resembles mental illness than a long-term relationship filled with love, somehow become the standard for what the relationship should be like forever. These unrealistic expectations are soon dashed by very real difficulty of integrating two totally separate lives in a way that lets each contribute to the relationship.

These early years are often spent testing limits, finding leverage and setting limits on personal investment instead of using that time of passion and newness to work out how to put what's best for the relationship above what feels good for the individuals in it. The assumptions that come from past failed relationships set the stage for keeping secrets, blocking true intimacy and connection, and maintaining an individual identity are more important than the roles each will play in raising a family together.

The marriage becomes more like two super-stars, each vying for a bigger contract, more notoriety and more fan recognition than a team working together for a common goal. Somehow we model ourselves after the examples presented in sit-coms, books and anecdotes shared by unhappily married couples or, even more damaging, divorced and bitter ex-spouses of abusers or philanderers. Early on, we establish weekly guys' and girls' nights out, but fail to schedule a night out together. We share the duties of parenthood by taking turns at being free of the burden, and so our most enjoyable time each week is spent with other people rather than the time we spend together.

Somewhere along the way, we place "me" above "us," and what I want is in conflict with what you want. We turn what should be a team working toward a common goal into two people, each with an agenda unrelated to the goals of the other. We feel threatened to give part of ourselves away because we fear we'll never get it back. The marriage exists to support the individuals, but neither is willing to support the marriage relationship. The marriage is there for me. Who is there for the marriage? Who will do what it takes to make it survive in a brutal and unforgiving world where affairs with coworkers and online relationships are tearing marriages apart at ever-increasing rates?

The Trouble With Commitment

Whenever we have difficulties in marriage, we see our choices as being limited to just two. We see either happiness or remaining committed to each other as the possible options. Commitment then becomes staying together and being unhappy, or ending the marriage or walking away to find happiness. We face changes along the path of life, and the truth is that happiness is a fleeting thing that comes and goes depending upon circumstances. Couples who work through the most difficult of times by finding a way to solve problems together typically report years after they faced hardships that they are happier and more committed to each other than before the crisis appeared.

Seeing a happy future together as one of the choices we face has to do with they way we see commitment. When commitment means remaining together at any personal cost and things are not going well, we feel trapped and unable to get away from life's problems. The commitment itself causes us unhappiness and distress. If we could just walk away, like we do from other people when we feel abused, mistreated, or emotionally hurt, we would simply use our boundaries to get away from a bad situation. We cut people out of our lives when we haven't promised them that we will stick with them. We will quit a job where we feel unappreciated, or stop hanging out with friends that are too needy and demand more of us than we are willing to give.

When we get married, we say that we are tying the knot. We tie ourselves and our future happiness and satisfaction to that of another person. The two of us are connected in a way that makes the relationship unlike any other relationship we have. The relationship with our parents is the closest to this, yet so many leave a parental home as soon as they are capable of doing so, often for far lesser problems than living with a person who seems unconcerned with our emotional security. Having made the choice to remain together, through better and worse, sickness and health, richer days and poorer, good and bad forever, we have nowhere to go and must deal with whatever life with this other person brings our way. As Al Turtle might point out, this makes our lizard feel less than safe. We can't flee. We refuse to submit. All we have left when our emotional well-being is threatened is to fight.

A Winning Team

Just like all the members of the team win when the team itself wins, in marriage, when the marriage wins, both spouses win. So often, we act in order to gain something that our spouse ends up paying for. If it were as simple as whose paycheck paid the bills, it would be easy. It isn't money they are paying with, though. The check partners have to write is an emotional one. So many things we do without thinking costs our spouse further emotional investment with nothing or very little in return. The things we do hurt her or him emotionally in ways we often don't recognize.

Eventually our spouse draws a line in the sand and refuses to let us enjoy what we seek at their expense. Now we try to negotiate or coerce, or just do whatever we had planned as if he or she didn't even exist -- and certainly as if his or her feelings about things don't matter. The more connected and closer our spouse feels to us when we act selfishly and without regard for what they feel, the more the toll on the emotions.

What a winning team does is set aside immediate gratification and personal desires in order to make the team more successful. If we begin to view marriage as not just two individuals but two members of the same team, the things either of us does should promote the accomplishments of the team goals. So often the stuff we fight about and the things we do that hurt each other are about what each of us wants, things that are detrimental to the team becoming more than just two folks hanging out at the playground in a pick-up game.

Just like the baseball team where each of the players has a role to play, so too in marriage do we have differing roles. The traditional roles that stood for generations are being redefined, turned inside out and crumbling more every day. Marriage, it seems, is under attack from all sides. Long periods of travel in order to earn a living keeps couples apart and lets each build a life separately from the other. When they do get to be together they find they have nothing in common and little to talk about. The role of wife as nurturer and homemaker while the husband earns the paycheck has been replaced by two-income families. In some case we have house-husbands raising the children while the wife pursues a more lucrative career. Divorce has become so typical that nearly half of all children will be raised in a two-family environment. Mom and Dad living on opposite sides of town, or opposite sides of the world, is becoming the new normal for a generation who will face problems that previous generations have handed down to them along with the challenges we all face when we venture into a relationship with another person for life.

More than at any time in recent history, couples are avoiding getting married. They opt instead to cohabitate to make it simpler to separate their lives when the passion and commitment fail them. The family, like the family home, has become a temporary rental unit where the lease lasts only as long as the benefits outweigh the investment.

A New Kind of Commitment

Instead of seeing commitment as the rope that binds us to another person who makes us feel unsafe, unhappy, dissatisfied and unfulfilled, what we need is a new form of being committed. This new commitment needs to be not only to remain together, but to find ways to work together as a team. At times it requires placing the goals of the team ahead of personal satisfaction. It means that we can't always live the kind of life we might live if we remained single. It is a commitment to making it work, and work better by learning to rely on each other, and each playing the role required by the team instead of trying to become that famous super star who parties till dawn and disrupts the clubhouse till management trades him to a rival.

This new commitment isn't really new at all. It is what has made successful marriages for generations. It is a commitment to finding ways to become compatible instead of demanding that the other change to meet our every whim. It is a commitment to working on solutions that let the team win instead of turning the partners against each other as they vie for personal satisfaction at the other's expense. It is learning to play as a team.

Because when the team wins, we both win. And our children win, too

Copyright © 2012 by Mark. Excerpted from "Marriage is a Team Sport: Becoming a Team Player" at Marriage Advocates. Reprinted with permission.

Mark is a contributor to Marriage Advocates, a community for people who are passionate about promoting healthy marriages and supporting those in crisis.

2 fabulous comments:

  1. I LOVE this! My hubs and I learned the hard way on what the true meaning of marriage really is. It was a long hard road but so glad we traveled it together, so glad we are still traveling it together ;-) I always heard of marriage being a partnership but never understood how encouraging him would help me aspire and our marriage to grow until the 2 of us started putting each others needs before our own. It has def made a HUGE difference in our lives, not only our marriage.
    Thanks for stopping by, I look forward to reading more of your blog!

  2. Mark, I love the way you put the two partners on the same team. I could visually see two people on the same said, and I think the doubles tennis picture above really sums it up. Work together, the ball goes back over the net - score! Try to be the star, the ball gets missed or bumbled and knocked out of bounds.

    Thank you for sharing. My husband and I have transformed our marriage from mediocre to marvelous in the past few years. We are now excited for every single day and commit to making sure we put our marriage first.


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