Is a 'comfortable' marriage a good or a bad thing? On the one hand isn't that what we all want? On the other hand we can get complacent. What is the right balance?
It is normal for a couple to become used to each other over time and settle into a fairly comfortable routine. In many ways this is essential to the health of the marriage, and is something worth aiming for. Yet at the same time we all recognise within ourselves a tendency for comfort to become complacency. We tend to forget what it took to get to our present stage, and take for granted what we have achieved.
Although we recognise this tendency there are factors that tend to disguise it. Marriage and family life throw up unpredictable challenges. The open-ended commitment at the heart of marriage and parenthood mean that we can't close off these challenges in advance. You can't say, for example, "We gave Gary a good start, but he's six now and we think it's time he fended for himself."
Once we become implicated so deeply in the lives of others we are in it 'for better or for worse'. This means that we only have a certain amount of control over our lives. We can't just program an uninterrupted succession of rewarding events. Even if we are keen to stretch ourselves and grow personally and spiritually we often don't get much of a say in how that will happen.
All of a sudden someone gets seriously ill and everything else has to be reorganised around that. Or someone loses his or her job. Or someone struggles with some new personal crisis. Much of the personal and spiritual growth people attain in family life happens precisely because of unchosen challenges.
We get pitch-forked into personal growth 'coming ready or not'.
And to be honest, how much would we grow if it all depended on our own free and unencumbered choices? Nevertheless, these unchosen challenges will not necessarily be enough on their own to keep a couple growing in friendship and intimacy.
The Outlines of a Plan
As well as the openness and generosity of spirit you need to respond adequately to these challenges, you also need to have at least a general kind of plan for you as a couple to keep fostering your relationship. I say 'outlines of a plan' for the reasons given above. It would be a bit unrealistic to try and program things too much. Still, many people's lives do have comfortable stretches where they run the risk of complacency, and that can spell trouble for a couple's relationship.
There is also the temptation to allow one or other aspect of family life to eclipse the centrality of the couple's own relationship.
You might have heard the saying "The best thing a couple can do for their children is to love each other". The love that unites husband and wife is also the source of the love they spread to others, beginning with their own children, but not stopping there.
Precisely because of this 'other-centredness' spouses can become so preoccupied with their mission to others they can forget their primary mission to each other. The fact that their love for each other is primary does not mean that it is inward looking, as if they are being self-indulgent by giving proper attention to their own relationship.
On the contrary, it is so important because it is the distinctive font from which flows their love for others precisely as a married couple. If their love for each other dries up their mission to be for others is likely to lose its depth and spiritual quality. It will decline into busyness and activism. It will be merely the actions of two individuals, not of a couple.
So what are the outlines of a plan that could help avoid these problems?
1. 'Befriending the Plateau'
The first step could be called 'befriending the plateau'. Just because complacency is a danger doesn't mean you should be wary of having comfortable times. In the first place, trust yourself and presume the good. Take the time to celebrate and be grateful for the fact that things are going well.
Not only that, any process of growth proceeds by steps. We don't grow in an uninterrupted upward climb. We grow by a series of short upward climbs interspersed with 'plateaus' (or should that be 'plateaux'?) These are not just for rest and celebration but for consolidation. The plateau gives you time to 'bed down' that increment of growth so that it becomes a permanent achievement, a permanent part of who you are as a couple. If you rush too quickly on to the next challenge you could undo a lot of the good work you did.
So first, befriend the plateau. Enjoy it when things are comfortable in your relationship, but don't just drop your bundle. Soon enough, sometimes too soon it seems, there will be signs that you need to face some new challenge or try to reach some new goal.
2. Admit that Intimacy Is Hard
There are probably lots of things about your relationship as a couple that come easily enough, especially once you've got to know each other reasonably well and have learnt to make what might be called the 'first batch of allowances'. Early in marriage there is a period of accelerated learning, like in infancy. There is so much that's new, but you have the energy and excitement needed to face these new challenges.
As time goes on and your relationship grows deeper, it is very common to reach a point where it's hard to see where the next stage of growth is going to come from. It's not that the early stage was easy, but some early naivety is gone and you are starting to realise that growing in intimacy is actually quite hard.
You start coming up against limits to your own willingness to change for the sake of the other.
It is tempting then to settle into a kind of permanent mutual agreement not to change any more of the deeper things. You 'befriend the plateau' so much that it becomes the destination. Sure, you can still see higher places you would like to reach, but it's not apparent how to attain them.
The fact is intimacy is hard. It's hard to say why that is exactly, because we would all love the fruits such deeper intimacy would bring. But we baulk at the cost. Then we start to rationalise. Maybe it would only be self indulgent to focus so much on ourselves and our own feelings. There are more important things to be done. It's not about me. And so on. This is the siren song of the 'good as enemy of the better'.
3. 'Lowering the Bar' through Understanding
In this outline of a plan I'm not going to harangue you about the need to knuckle down and be serious, or exhort you to intensify your efforts. That is not because we don't need exhortations or the occasional kick up the backside. It is because my purpose here is to explore the impediments that come from lack of understanding.
Greater understanding is not the solution to every problem, but it can 'lower the bar' so that the challenge does not seem so daunting.
If you can gain a helpful new insight it can make it easier to muster up the effort to take another step. If the bar is lower you are more likely to believe you can get over it, and the prospect of success is more energising than the prospect of failure.
Intimacy is hard, but it becomes less hard if you can get a better understanding of how to proceed. If a door is locked and the only way through you can see is to batter it down, you well might pause and look for another way. It is worth asking, "Is there a key to this door?" Or is there a way to lower this hurdle so we can jump over it?
Comfortable, but Still Daring
The trouble with a lot of advice is that it is about finding the right balance. General advice can only take you so far. General understanding can only take you so far. There is no way to avoid the need to develop your own judgement about where the balance lies in your particular case. In this case it is about wanting and needing a feeling of security in your relationship, while also retaining the daring to keep pushing forward.
If someone asks whether you have a comfortable marriage, it would be good to be able to answer, "Yes, we're comfortable, but still adventurous".