Mention marriage, and the mantra "You have to work at it" is certain to arise. Actually, the advice is unnecessary since married folk are constantly working at 'it'- 'it' being one's spouse. We want our spouse to believe, act, talk and behave as we believe, act, talk and behave. Successfully managing our own life, we want to make our spouse enjoy that success as well. Unfortunately (and, of course, unreasonably), one's spouse is also working hard at 'it,' namely us. "Why don't you ..." is regular refrain, meaning, why don't you do it the right way - my way.
"No, no," the purveyors of "you have to work at it" will say. 'It' is not the other person. 'It' is the relationship that needs attention - communicating with each other, understanding the planetary differences between men and women, or seeing a marriage counselor. Yet, the millions of books on these subjects and the millions of hours of counseling have not put a dent in the divorce rate (one researcher found that two years after counseling, only 11-18 percent of couples had a better marriage as a result of marriage therapy).
If not one's spouse or the relationship, what is there left on which to work? There is oneself. I have come to believe that the 'it' we most need to work on is ourselves.
To progress in one's profession means increasing competence and self-confidence. To become more skilled at a sport or hobby requires increasing skill and knowledge. To a large extent, any success depends on the self that we bring to an endeavor. Marriage is not different. A fully mature newly-married thirty year old, still stuck with that maturity level twenty years later, is a relationship disaster.
Nowhere do we have greater opportunity to mature than in our intimate relationship with spouse (and children). They are the clearest mirror in which we view ourselves. When an unflattering self-image confronts us, we tend to blame the mirror, the other person. Another option is to pause, take stock, and accept the challenge to change and grow. Far, far too often, we lose courage and choose to stay stuck in the patterns of the past. Far, far too often we choose immaturity and blame the other person for "holding us back."
Our fear of personal growth means that we also resist growth in our spouse, for change in our intimate other means we have to alter ourselves. We find it easier to engage with the 'familiar' other than a 'changed' other. "You've changed" ought to be an expression of delight instead of an accusation of betrayal.
Essayist Lynn Darling wrote that marriage is "an intricate pattern of consideration and savagery that only two human beings moving together through time can produce." Without change, we find not only that 'familiarity breeds contempt' but also boredom, disinterest and indifference.
The real work of marriage is the decision we make about ourselves. Will we choose to grow, and will we allow growth in the other? Will we choose to be fully mature at whatever chronological age we find ourselves? When we know the proper 'it,' we find marriage does take a lot of work.