Traditional marriages include vows that are both sacred and meaningful. Often with direct reference to biblical texts, Christian sacramental marriages seek the blessings of God through a formal liturgical service performed by a cleric, priest, or pastor. Some couples struggle with the inclusion of the concept “to obey” in these vows. As a couple’s counsellor, the reality is that most problems begin and grow when individuals behave in ways that run contrary to the wishes of their partners, and reasonable obeying might offset unnecessary trouble down the road.
Most couples today live together before or if marrying formally. Traditionally, people would live separately either independently or with their own parents while engaged to be married. Periods of engagement used to last anywhere from a period of months to several years, especially where distance, education, or financial obstacles delayed moving forward together formally. Living together does provide couples with opportunities to learn about partner-habits in very intimate ways. It is also a period to discover some potential problems that might intensify over years together.
Of course, the notion of “blind obedience” is troublesome, especially in marriages with serious issues of domestic violence or significant addictions. Reasonable obedience is an altogether different concept. It suggests that individuals respect and love the wishes of their partners. When a person promises to reasonably obey their partner, there is an accountability to self built into the promise. In this way, a person marries with promises, sacred promises that reflect the spiritual promises that God has made to people. The promise to obey is no longer about a loss of self-control or agency, and instead becomes a way to show that what is important to your partner is important enough for you to obey too. Reasonable post-marriage partying with buddies for example is an area that many people adjust for the sake of healthy relationship building with a new spouse. Most couples feel resentment and frustration when one person parties in excess. The same is true regarding issues of fidelity, sexual exclusivity, and casual relationships with friends. Disregarding the views of your partner when you choose to associate with your own friends is often a significant sign of incongruous values.
Couples who choose to obey usually do so without much difficulty. In fact, this lack of struggle to align one’s conduct with the wishes of a partner is often a tell-tale sign of compatibility. There is no real sacrifice for me to do what you expect of me, as in truth, I expect the same. Using your period of engagement whether living together or not as a time to assess aspects of your relationship that may in fact be problematical is excellent. Several couple’s decide to secure the services of a Couple’s Counsellor before getting married, even where there is little to no fighting or arguing. These proactive services can help couples to honestly review those areas of life that may become sources of problems over time. Learning to identify personal feelings elicited by one’s partner before marriage and how or whether you attend to and soothe normative separation distress in these early days will prove helpful long-term.
Are you able to regulate your own emotional upset independently, or do you need a partner who co-regulates your emotional distress in order to calm down, decompress, or de-activate? What are some of the ways that you currently help your partner to gain a sense of composure when life is stressful? Do you feel needed by your partner when things are tough? or Does your partner appear to cope independently enough without your emotional support, such that you wonder if you are needed at all in the relationship? Can you ask for support from your partner when you identify that you need some emotional help?
More fully understanding your own emotional style will help you in your relationship as a couple. People react differently emotionally, and your feelings are your guide to these differences. You may feel that you are marrying a person who is very even emotionally, or alternately, whose moods change in ways that are hard for you to understand. Even a few sessions with a seasoned clinical social worker will help you to deepen your own ability to cope, and the compatibility of your emotional-coping style with that of your chosen partner.
Marriage is truly a beautiful journey when it works well. The years go by too quickly, even as the relationship deepens with age. This seems to be a time when bad news is celebrated more than good news. The same seems to be true with good news marriages! There are many couples who simply get it right! They intuitively find a mate who is compatible, and love this person for years without much difficulty – even when challenging situations arise. Young couples are encouraged to spend more time with married people who seem to have gotten it right! There is much to celebrate in long-term marriages, and perhaps much to learn in an era where divorce rates soar.
Cheers to those of you celebrating a wedding anniversary this summer!
Lisa Romano-Dwyer, BSC, MSW, PhD, RSW Registered Social Worker, Psychotherapist (OCSWSSW)