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January 8, 2004

Nitty-Gritty Starts After You Say ‘I Do’

"Of all human relationships, marriage is the most complex, the one you can tell the least about from the outside."

http://www.jewishjournal.com/celebrations_simchas/article/nittygritty_starts_after_you_say_i_do_20040109

Anyone who has been married knows the real truth that marriage is hard work and, while it might get easier over time, marriage always takes effort. This is the No. 1 thing I tell newly engaged couples in "I Do," a marriage preparation class.

Sure, engagement is exciting and happy and planning a wedding can be fun, even thrilling at times. But the real nitty-gritty that happens once you've said your "I dos" is what people rarely talk or think about beforehand.

What Are Newlyweds?

The word "newlywed" conjures up images of smiling, happy couples in love, holding hands, dancing and kissing. But like anything that is new, a new marriage requires some getting used to. A new car, for example, may look shiny on the outside and smells clean and fresh. Yet, the seat isn't quite comfortable until you've sat in it for a while, and all of those fancy gadgets can be confusing until you learn exactly what every one does and how to use it. Same thing with a new pair of shoes. They look perfect and they go with everything in your closet, but for the first few weeks, they hurt your feet. It isn't until you wear them and they stretch a little, mold to the shape of your foot and get broken in that you realize how much you adore them and you can't believe you ever lived without them. Marriage isn't any different.

Rabbi Harold Schulweis has this to say about marriage in the book "Fighting for Your Jewish Marriage": "Love in marriage is a gift, a potentiality to be cultivated. Marital love is a subtle art that calls for sustained and sensitive appreciation.... The art of loving relies on a conscious sensibility, an awareness of the other who is not a mere extension of the self. The other is not an ear into which the 'I' can shout its wants and angers."

So What's Marriage Really About?

Marriage is about two people actively working together. It is complicated and it doesn't always feel good. There is a great deal of pressure on newly engaged and recently married couples to be happy, even blissful. Yet, planning a wedding can be extremely stressful. Strong emotions surface, and family dynamics play out in often ugly and complicated ways. Religious feelings often become more pronounced, potentially creating difficulty for both interfaith and endogamous couples. And that's just the beginning.

Everyday married life raises all kinds of challenges as well. Suddenly you are both truly accountable to another person and must share in decision making wholeheartedly. Rosie Einhorn and Sherry S. Zimmerman write in their book "In the Beginning: How to Survive Your Engagement and Build a Great Marriage": "The responsibilities of giving each other emotional support, spending time together, coordinating finances and taking care of personal health all require each partner to curtail many of his or her formerly solitary activities."

How Can New Couples Deal With Reality?

What does this mean for newly engaged and recently married couples? It means you should be aware that this is a critical time that is full of promise but is also emotionally loaded. Tread carefully through this time. Talk with your partner about your feelings, fears, expectations and needs. And don't feel crazy or bad if you're not always feeling happy. Nobody feels happy all the time, and pretending like you do or pressuring yourself to feel that way only compounds normal problems and tensions.

Einhorn and Zimmerman suggest that at some point during engagement or early marriage most people ask themselves, "What did I get myself into?"

They assure the reader that this is a normal projection of marital anxiety that should be explored to determine its true source. They offer couples several questions to help evaluate the strength and health of their marriage:

How to Figure Out if You're on The Right Track:

These are good questions to ask yourself and your partner to help you identify the strengths and potential pitfalls in your relationship.

Do we have similar values?

Do we respect each other?

Do each of us admire qualities in our partner?

Are we attracted to each other?

Do we feel affection for each other?

Do my trusted friends and relatives like the person I've chosen?

Remember, feelings change regularly and a marital foundation is built over time and maintained through diligent effort.

What Factors Make a Happy Marriage?

Renowned psychologist Judith Wallerstein studied divorce for 25 years before she decided to focus on what factors helped happy marriages stay happy. Her research resulted in "The Good Marriage," written with Sandra Blakeslee, in which she profiles four types of happy marriages: Romantic, Rescue, Compassionate and Traditional.

She writes: "Of all human relationships, marriage is the most complex, the one you can tell the least about from the outside." She suggests nine tasks that form the basis of a good, lasting relationship:

Separate emotionally from their childhood family and redefine that relationship.

Create intimacy while each person also retains autonomy.

Take on the role of parents while still protecting the marriage's intimacy.

Confront the crises of life and stay close no matter how difficult.

Feel safe expressing anger, conflict and differences of opinion.

Create a rich sexual relationship and maintain it despite hectic lifestyles.

Use humor to keep things in perspective and have fun.

Comfort, support and encourage each other.

Sustain early romantic images of falling in love with the other.

What is the Norm?

With all the media mythology about romance, soulmates, wedded bliss and the many other fallacies of marriage, how could we not get caught up in search for marital perfection? But just as the frightening movie "Fatal Attraction" isn't the norm, neither is soap opera passion (at least in the long term).

Marriage is about finding someone you like, trust, respect and value enough to want to spend the rest of your life with, create a home and a family with and sacrifice for. That's a lot to ask for and should not be taken lightly. And despite all the work, the stress and the pressure, the payoff is tremendous. Knowing that you have found someone to love and trust and that you have made a commitment to stay together through thick and thin; to share life's challenges and triumphs together and that you are both willing to work to maintain a relationship for the rest of your lives -- that's pretty special.

That's what dreams are made of.

Courtney Nathan, a licensed clinical social worker, is outreach coordinator at Jewish Family Service in Metairie, La.

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