Marriage Is Hard, But It Isn’t Work

Marriage is Hard But It Isn't WorkMy friend Tara, from Relative Evolutions, wrote a recent essay on how marriage is work. She ends with this question,

“Marriage is work. So why do we congratulate those who leave a dead-end job while shaming those who leave a dead-end marriage?”

It’s an excellent thought and worthy of a response. 

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In several ways, I agree with the creative symbolism she uses to connect work and marriage. She writes:

“First, you have to prove yourself worthy, then you get hired and everyone rejoices because a vacancy has been filled.  There is hope and optimism that the team will move forward and accomplish great things together. You have to show up every day, even when you don’t exactly feel like it. You have to use the skills you have as well as learn new ones as you grow. There are changes to roll with, likely in the form of surprise projects and revised deadlines. If all goes well, your work is (mostly) enjoyable and appreciated, and everyone is (mostly) happy.”

It is most certainly true that marriage is hard. Anyone saying otherwise isn’t doing it right. Marriage – as with a job – demands sacrifice, dedication, commitment, and, if it’s a good, will stretch the limits of what we think is possible within ourselves. It is no less true that a new job, as with a new marriage, begins with an abundance of hope and enthusiasm. That’s why the end of either brings a sense of loss, no matter how bad they might have been. Yet we also know marriage isn’t the same as our job. There’s an expected selflessness in a marriage that would be thought unhealthy in our careers. It’s perfectly ok to love our jobs, so long as we don’t love our jobs; because we know it will never love us back. There’s an anticipated ordering of our marriage and careers. One should be more important than the other. My job doesn’t care when I’m sick, depressed, or tired. My career hasn’t cried once in the two decades we’ve been together. My job makes no promises, but will greedily take everything from me, and still want more. When it comes to a job, dedication flows only in one direction. Our jobs are routinely flippant, unruly, unpredictable, and at any moment can abandon us for someone else or no one at all.  Furthermore, how many of us go into a job with the slightest expectation of it being lifelong?

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Tara continues, “Sometimes resignation becomes a necessity for well-being. One employee might hold out hope until the last possible second, then declare “I quit!” when the proverbial straw breaks the camel’s back. Another will secretly search for a new job, taking care to secure greener pastures before having The Talk with the boss. A third option is to resign and take some time off for classes before transitioning to a more fulfilling career.”

Marriages, as with jobs, have ups and downs. There are good days and bad days. I once heard it said, and tend to agree, that the best we can ever sincerely hope for is that the good ones outnumber the bad. Both must be entered into with a certain amount of realism. The trip will not exactly be like the brochure described. The new job will not always be as gratifying or challenging as the recruiter led us to believe; promotions and raises may not come as quickly as we were told. Likewise, marriage isn’t going always be as fulfilling as we hoped walking down the aisle. He may not be always loving and attentive. She can’t be forever seductive and sexy. In both our jobs and our marriages, there’s a bit of ‘over promise and under deliver’ that comes with the territory. We must realize that in each disappointment is inevitable. By resetting our expectations to that reality, instead of what we observe in the movies, on Facebook or Pinterest, we might be less inclined to turn in our two week notice at the first sight of discontent.

But perhaps the most fundamental distinction between a marriage and job, and why they can’t be viewed as parallels, rests in this fact. – A job is about ourselves. A marriage is about the other person.

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At it most basic level, every job, from both the employer or employee, is egocentric. An employer hires only the person who best fits its unique needs. They are looking for someone who can satisfy the role most effectively, and to be completely honest, most cheaply. The employee chooses that job because it is most beneficial to his or her own needs and wants. The pay is compelling, the hours reasonable, the benefits extraordinary, the responsibilities challenging. This transaction between an employee and employer, and it is most certainly a business deal, is ultimately the end of a negotiation for who can most take advantage of the other and give what is contractually demanded, but nothing more. Most employees wish to work their 40 hours and go home. The employer is only going to pay what it must. Raises and bonuses aren’t guaranteed. And as most of us have experienced, the moment those needs go unmet that relationship between employee and employer turns ‘dead end’.   When we really think about it, is there anything more narcissistic than our jobs? Perhaps it’s for this reason we celebrate leaving one that’s considered to be a ‘dead end.’ It’s the reflection of our courage and dedication to that self-centeredness.

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What makes marriage feel so much like work isn’t because of any percieved similarity or parallel that may exist between it and a job. What makes marriage so difficult is that it’s first and always about the other person. Marriages simply will not thrive or survive if both spouses treat that relationship with the same self-preservation and self-interest they would their careers. Success in the job is ‘me before you’; success in a marriage is ‘you before me’. In marriage, we’re called to put our wife’s needs ahead of our own. To think of her before thinking of ourselves. That’s hard because most of us completely suck at living that way. We are all centers of our own universe while wishing, and often believing, we’re the center of everyone else. This is why many find it easy, in the vacuum of a failed relationship or no relationship, to ‘focus on work.’ It’s the ready-made alternative because it so naturally fits with who we really are – raging narcissists.

Marriages that are believed ‘dead end’ are those looked upon in the same way we do our jobs. A ‘dead end marriage’ is one that no longer meets our needs. It no longer provides us with the benefits and fulfillment we expect, so like a job, it should be discarded for something that will. But is this really what marriage is all about? The attainment of our individual wants and desires? I think most would agree it isn’t.

Instead, is marriage about something greater, something far larger and more beautiful than our petty wants and hopes? Imagine how marriage might be viewed by culture, if every spouse lived as if their spouse was more important? If our aim wasn’t to reach for our own selfish goals but to be the agent in our spouse achieving their hopes, how might marriage and ourselves be changed? I believe that just as parenthood can bring out the best in who we are, uncovering a love that we couldn’t imagine we possessed; marriage, and specifically lifelong marriage, is perhaps the greatest of human achievements since it serves as the catalyst that can propel a husband and wife towards futures far surpassing what either might have reached alone.

The end of something that wonderful must never, ever, be celebrated.

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