Wanting it both ways in a marriage.

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A common complaint in a marriage is, “He is always so busy, he is never around. Sometimes I wonder if I really have a husband.” Another common complaint is, “She spends so much time in the bathroom or in front of the mirror. What possibly could take that long?” There may be things that really bug us about our spouse. Sometimes these are minor irritations, and we live with it without real incident. At times, however, they give rise to serious unhappiness.

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A common complaint in a marriage is, “He is always so busy, he is never around. Sometimes I wonder if I really have a husband.” Another common complaint is, “She spends so much time in the bathroom or in front of the mirror. What possibly could take that long?” If the aim was to list all the many sources of discontent that one spouse has about the other, we would be looking at a very long article. The two illustrations given are sufficient to capture the basic idea: there are things that really bug us about our spouse. Sometimes these are minor irritations, and we live with it without real incident. At times, however, they give rise to serious unhappiness.

Take the examples above: The wife may be seriously struggling with her husband’s unavailability. It could be affecting her emotional state and her self-esteem. She may be feeling lonely and dejected – even ignored. Then, there are practical considerations: she may be finding hard coping without him around. Perhaps there are young children, or other pressures managing the family, and she could really do with the support. Because she is so worked up at his absences, even when he is around the quality of the relationship is degraded.

Or the other example: The husband is often late to go places because she is busy trying on outfits. To him, she is unfairly inconveniencing him for “no good reason.” He may be a strict time-keeper and in his mind feels humiliated that he comes late. He may find the amount of time she spends shopping for clothes to be hugely excessive and unrealistic with a young family to raise. Perhaps he regards the regular manicures to be a waste of money and time. The way he sees it, other things are sacrificed because her mind is taken up by trivialities.

Where Is the Dissatisfaction Coming From?

The aim of the proceeding two paragraphs was to (attempt to) convince you that I really do understand how the behaviors that are being complained about can have real world negative consequences and could be genuinely felt to be unreasonable and inconsiderate. In fact, it is entirely feasible that in the context of many marriages there are indeed fair complaints. It could even be that a person never thought they were marrying someone who was going to live by that lifestyle. Thus, they are not only unhappy with the behaviors themselves but are feel caught out; this is not what they thought were getting themselves into.

The reality is that in the vast majority of cases the parties knew pretty much what they were bargaining for. They may not have thought about the realities and the consequences, but they were intentionally looking for someone similar to who they married. They have no real reason to feel surprised. They kind of knew who they were dealing with from the get-go. The issue is more about not wanting to live with the down-sides. Let us delve into this, and then we will get back to our examples.

As you may have noticed from the title of this chapter, there are people who “want to have it both ways.” Of course, they do not see it like that, but that is part of the issue. We choose to marry particular types of people because, for whatever reason, we are drawn to those qualities. For the vast majority of people, this does not change after marriage – we still find those features appealing.

We Make Our Choices

We want a spouse who is a certain way for a wide variety of reasons. Sometimes those reasons are profound, such as because this person allows us to feel we can heal childhood traumas. Other times the motivations are more superficial, such as their appearance boosts our ego or excites us. But during dating, we could have only the benefits. We basked in all the attractive qualities and got swept up by the qualities we found appealing.

Now that we are married and life is real, we are facing another set of considerations: how to make life work in the least stressful manner. The things we found attractive about our spouse are still very appealing, but they are not able to compensate for the practical challenges of everyday life.

You chose to prioritize certain things in your marriage partner – which is your prerogative. You do not have a right to complain when those same qualities bump up against reality. Your frustration is most understandable, but the complaint may not be. It is not reasonable to want everything your own way. It does not work like that – not with this spouse, nor with any other one. It is just not how life is. So, let us return to our examples to bring this all down to earth.

Two Sides of the Coin (1)

Could it be that you very much wanted to marry an ambitious man? It is perhaps possible that you were specifically drawn to the high earning potential of the guy? Am I being so unreasonable to imagine that you were quite attracted to how driven he was? I am not privy to your private conversations, but did you tell your confidantes while you were dating what a go-getter he is? Are you really shocked that he is success-oriented? Can you truly claim to be surprised that he is career-minded?

Perhaps you are (if so, please read I Am Frustrated Because My Spouse Does Not Meet My Needs?). But what if, being honest, that was and is a major draw for you. If you were ever in that situation, you would do it again. But now you do not like how that takes him away from the family. Yes, is it difficult raising a family when your husband is away a lot or does long hours at the office. But is your complaint reasonable? Is he really excessive in his devotion to work and neglectful of his family? Perhaps. But often he is doing his level (necessarily, imperfect) best.

But you want it both ways. If that is the case, it does not go like that. Thinking that is does is making you miserable and harms your marriage. Perhaps he needs to adjust things a bit, but you cannot marry and ambitious man and complain when he takes his job seriously. It is not a question of morality; it just does not add up. It is called “consequences.”

Two Sides of the Coin (2)

Same for the guy who is kvetching that his wife is so devoted to her appearance. Could it be perchance that you were looking for a woman who – as you perhaps put it if you were being elegant – “knows how to look after herself”? Being honest with me now, was her appearance a big part of your decision to marry her? Did you revel in dating a “gorgeous woman” and considered yourself fortunate to have married someone good-looking? Perhaps you insist that is not you, and you truly did not see it coming.

But many a time, if we are being truthful, this was a significant influence. We were explicit from the beginning that appearance was important. Not only appearance. We want someone with style, who knows how to dress fashionably. We were taken in by the way she did her hair. But that was dating and this is marriage. Now there is a home to run and a family to manage and it is difficult to cover all the bases. So, things get a little uncomfortable and when you get stressed you get irritable – and when you get irritable you have a little snipe.

Did you not say you wanted someone who “knows how to look after herself”? But now that it is making you late, you have a short temper. Get real about this. It is tough when our choices have some downsides. Sorry, all choices do. Sometimes, the outcome is unpleasant. It is regrettable, but that is life. If you would accept it, you would save yourself a whole lot of sorrow. Perhaps your wife can tweak things to be more accommodating, but do not expect her to be everything at once.

Do You Want to Be Right or Happy?

Perhaps it sounds like I am being incredibly unsympathetic. If so, please re-read the first paragraphs. Nothing could be further from the truth. Your happiness in marriage will come from recognizing that you did marry the women of your dreams, but that even a dream woman is still a fallible and a limited human. The problem is almost certainly not that she is not what you thought, but that life is not what you thought. Well, that is life.

You probably succeeded in marrying the type of man you wanted to marry, but you wish that he could also be like the guy next door who dotes on his wife and children. It would be wonderful if that were possible. It is the hope that this could be possible that is dragging you down. Every person can do more to be sensitive to the needs of their loved ones; that is where your focus should be. If what is described here reflects your situation, it would be better to drop the idea that there are fundamental causes for complaint. You will be so much better off.


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