The fairytale and the reality of marriage is something we think we are too astute to get caught up in. But do many of us still have unrealistic expectations of what it takes to make a long term relationship work? Like anything worthwhile, really putting in to make you intimate relationship work takes good intentions daily, hard work and ongoing comitment to do what ever it takes to keep things working between you. Here are some ideas about how to set up your expectations to create a strong and enduring love bond.

How what you learn in one area of your life can help you in another.

Over the past two months I’ve been applying myself to long distance walking. I am doing a charity walk for the Fred Hollows Foundation and so I need to be able to walk 30km in a day. It started off being incredibly hard, but with some individualised and tailored strength exercises from my exercise physiologists to keep me injury free, gradually I began to see changes to my stamina and my fitness. Some days I did not want to go, but I would tell myself if I just got myself out there… I could  turn around in fifteen minutes and head for home. Surprisingly for me, once out, the worst was over and I always ended up walking more than I originally felt motivated to complete.

So now I have begun to apply the same approach of my disciplined walking practise to my own relationship. For example, I used to get very provoked when my husband was feeling angry or stressed. I used to snap at him if I felt attacked or threatened. For over three months now,  I’ve been working to improve my responses to him. I practice self soothing (being my own internal best friend)  taking deep breaths, and thinking before I speak, and giving my husband compassion, whilst I try to understand his side of things, when I feel hurt.

I’m definitely a work in progress,  but I’m getting better at managing conflict between us and using it as an opportunity to slow down and try for a better outcome. I’m less stressed out when he is. I snap less. My husband even smiles understandably at me when he sees me taking deep breaths.

He’s commented that I’m changing, and because of that, we’re improving as a couple. But, like walking for three hours, it’s not easy, and especially not at first. It stretches you and your comfort zone. It pushes you to your limits. It expands your capacities as a human being.  Also this painful expanding and growing means that, sometimes, your partner and your marriage will not make you happy.

Being realistic will set you up for sucess

Honestly, marriage is a challenge and  a good one at that!  Marriage makes you face your limitations and exposes your weaknesses, and vulnerabilities (Ugh… we all love to stay away from those!) Marriage makes you acutely aware of how impatient you might be, of your struggles to say “no” to things that aren’t important and “yes” to things that are, and of how challenging it is to negotiate your differences when you’re feeling overwhelmed or stressed, or just plain hangry.

Long term relationships challenge you to deal with sickness, tragedy, financial stresses, changes in beliefs, job loss, weight gain, raising kids, losing parents and other family members, and you have to do it all whilst supporting another emotional human being! Geez…. it’s a tall order when you think about it like that!

You can’t tackle this stuff and come out on the other side still in love with each other by remaining the exact same people you were at the beginning. You can’t go through all of that together while remaining in romantic rapture. You have to constantly grow and evolve as a human that’s capable of facing dragons and at times slaying them, whilst at other times running away in fear for your life!

Understanding that this reality won’t feel like perfection, is half the battle but that’s actually what you want. In fact, I take much comfort in the idea of a “good enough marriage”. It’s not perfect, it’s not abusive, but it does the job on balance most of the time. This is realistic and something we can all live with, I think if we stop expecting someone else to save us from ourselves or the world at large!

Being intimate with someone also means you will be confronted with uncomfortable truths. It might be about sex, or money, or time spent together, or parenting, or all of that. Things won’t always work out how you plan them, and plans may need to change if you’re going to compromise in order to have the relationship you want.

Having someone challenge you to expand and grow can make things feel worse before they get better. It may even put the relationship on the line if you or your partner refuse to confront your own flaws, or if you won’t take responsibility when things go wrong. But this is what love is really about. It is not always about pleasing your partner, instead, it is about supporting your partner.

Are you up for the uncomfortable experience of growth?

Supporting your partner means you have their best interests at heart and you intentionally act to uphold  those interests. Now that is quite a big ask of us all! It means you back them and sometimes it means you engage in conflict about difficult truths and regrettable incidents. True partners are loyal to whom they love and to the bond they share, even when this might be temporarily painful due to the positive growth it demands.

Dedication to that positive growth forces you to identify and open up about your weaknesses, insecurities, and fears and being courageous enough to do this is exactly what leads to the periods of happiness, trust, connection, passion, and commitment.

Is that the kind of marriage you aspire to? Or does it sound way too hard and so you are willing to settle for less?