The Only Thing That Prepares You for Marriage is Marriage
I was married for 27 years. The first time. I’d say that makes me the perfect person to give advice on marriage. Doesn’t matter that it ended in divorce, it’s the 27 years that count in a long-haul game like marriage.
When I look back, I realize that marriage is one of the best ways to grow a person. Humans are messy and difficult and growing them into people can take a lifetime or an entire marriage in my case.
External vs. Internal Validation
One of the ways I grew the most in my marriage was learning to take care of my own feelings. I learned that being responsible for my feelings is an integral part of maintaining a long-term relationship.
Marriage is not about dependence. Many of you may disagree with me on this, but it’s true. Ever since people started marrying for love, they’ve slowly drug all these other emotional needs into the marriage bed such as security, acceptance, and validation making so many people dependent on their spouses for their emotional needs.
When we pursue the perfect ceremony, the perfect vows, and the perfect venue, we perpetuate the expectation that our perfect spouse will be our everything. She will soothe us when our emotions run high, will validate us when we’re feeling fragile, and will accept us when we can’t accept ourselves. Heck, we even expect our spouses to never do anything that could possibly make us feel insecure or upset.
Here’s a radical thought: if you’re dependent on someone else to make you feel better or wanted or needed, what happens when they’re not there anymore? What happens when they fail to soothe, validate, or accept you?
I remember a painful time in my first marriage when I was struggling through treatment for breast cancer and depression at the same time. Talk about a need for someone — anyone! — to soothe, validate, and accept me, well, this was it.
One afternoon I was leaving to pick up our daughter from school. As usual, I was quiet and withdrawn, going about my daily tasks with little to no interaction with my spouse. I’m not justifying, just sharing the facts.
As I was leaving he asked, “How much longer is this going to last?”
“What’s that?” I inquired, my hand on the door.
This comment was what first led me to the idea that perhaps I would need to be my own advocate and my own support system throughout this ordeal. If I wanted to survive, I needed to develop a pathway of internal validation that was mine and mine alone. In a sense, marriage is the force that pushed me toward self-growth in a challenging situation, prompting me to respond to my needs and pushing me to protect myself during this time.
I learned that if you depend on the external validation of another person for the security and validity of your being and your marriage, you are likely to discover much misery. If I let the remarks of my spouse control my feelings, then I would have to relinquish my integrity and my ability to hold on to myself.
In no way am I promoting that a spouse shouldn’t be accepting and validating. They should. Of course they should hold you when your mom dies and be the sounding board when you lose your job. They should be on your side; they should be shouting your praises. This is external validation and it is part of a healthy relationship . . . but just a part! Internal validation is the other part — the part that healthy relationships need for ultimate success.
The difference is you shouldn’t have to depend on external validation for your happiness and well-being. You need to find your own place of internal validation. This place of internal validation is your safe place where you can self-soothe during hard times, where you can validate yourself when your self-esteem is threatened.
Internal validation provided me the flexibility to change and grow beyond the values and beliefs that I’d held for so long about myself and about marriage in general. It allowed me to gain knowledge about myself I hadn’t been privy to before such as a solid knowing of who I am and what I’m capable of.
But I quickly discovered that internal validation wasn’t an easy lock to pick and it would require the work of growing as a person.
Marriage is a complex system and being responsible for our feelings is a vital part of what makes people able to be a part of a healthy marriage. The idea of taking responsibility for my feelings of security, acceptance, and validation was exciting, it meant that I could live according to my own values and beliefs, even in the face of opposition (i.e., a difficult marriage.)
When I was in nursing school one of the more interesting subjects for me was biology. Studying cellular differentiation left my mind whirling and my mouth hanging open with awe. The human body, although gross at times, can be amazing.
Cellular differentiation is when a cell undergoes a process of change from a simple organism into a more complex system of cells and tissues. Differentiation occurs over and over throughout the development of multicellular organisms eventually creating something incredible.
The most popular example of this is the zygote, you know when sperm meets egg and results in a fertilized ovum. The differentiation process of a zygote produces a human being. Pretty amazing!
I began to see marriage as a process of differentiation for me, where I could change and grow into something better. Slowly I became more uniquely myself. I took hold of my own beliefs. I possessed my own values. I differentiated toward a place of strength where I no longer needed to hold grudges or argue about the past. Effort and emotion were spent on growing myself to the point of maintaining my own priorities day after day.
In the midst of the chaos and struggle of my marriage, I found within myself a place of relief and stillness, and a refuge of comfort and solace. Differentiation became a process whereby I found myself as unique and, therefore, was able to maintain that uniqueness while being a relationship.
I learned to put myself first, to accept others for who they are, and to make choices that were healthy for me. I realized that this all happened within the confines of a relationship in which conflict was chipping away at the edges of who I should be and could be. The proverbial diamond in the ruff if you will. I was changing. Initially, differentiation and growth played out because I stayed, not because I ran away from the situation.
However, eventually, I outgrew the marriage. Turned out that maintaining that relationship and being myself conflicted so I had to walk away.
Discussing the details of developing a deeper and fuller understanding of self as it relates to marriage isn’t easy work. Especially when it involves working on just one part of the two parts of the relationship — yourself.
Marriage isn’t about dependence. It’s about persons who are emotionally distinct, who don’t require busy careers or physical distance from their spouse in order to maintain their identities. It’s about persons with strong emotional bonds to themselves who can choose to be present and connected in a relationship because they already feel safe, accepted, and validated.
Being responsible for your own feelings and being differentiated to the point where you are aware of your self, your values, your feelings, and your beliefs allows you to stay connected and involved throughout any relationship.
You’ll find you’re able to disagree with someone without losing yourself or getting swept up in someone else’s emotions. You can clash with your spouse and remain connected because you’re solid in who you are. You won’t have to conform to others in order to make peace or ease the feeling of alienation all because you are secure and solid in yourself.
What I learned was that who I am in a relationship affects that relationship. And as those in the relationship — any relationship — become more important to me, it becomes crucial for me to maintain my own sense of self. The most important way for me to maintain my sense of self is to be responsible for my feelings, reactions, responses, and growth.
Indeed, the only way to truly balance the togetherness and the individuality that marriage requires is to learn it from being married.
Lesson learned. My second husband is grateful.