Jun 19, 2008

The Marriage Mortgage

A really interesting article on marriage (comparing it to my current life predicament - a house!)

(News-Herald, June 19) It’s the wedding season, the time of year when many folks are preparing to get hitched. Predictably, this leads to lots of other folks thinking about divorce.
While it’s not strictly true to say that half of all marriages will end in divorce (it’s an example of statistical abuse for rhetorical effect), it’s true that many attempts to enter that lifetime institution come up short on the “lifetime” part.

We wonder why. We talk about why marriages fail in general, and we devote plenty of time to discussing why particular marriages failed. It ought to be educational, but despite the wealth of negative examples, the failure of marriages remains a mystery (well, at least to many people whose marriages fail).

Of course, it’s popular and comforting to assign all the blame for a marital meltdown to just one party. However, it’s almost always wrong.

A marriage is a complex and dynamic relationship between two people. When a marriage succeeds, hardly anyone says, “The success of that marriage is totally because of Spouse A. Spouse B had nothing to do with it.” Why take the same view of divorce?
It is often true that one particular spouse sets off the bomb that creates the final spectacular collapse. But marriages don’t reach that point overnight, and usually it takes both parties to get there.

I suspect that you could select any two people at random, and they could have a successful marriage—if they decided that they would do whatever it took to have it. Heck, in many places and times in human history, that’s how it worked.

Nowadays it doesn’t work that way, and that’s probably a good thing. Sometimes “whatever it takes” ends up being “learn to live with emotional isolation” or “cheerfully accept being a punching bag.” But I think the basic concept is sound.

Here’s my analogy for the week. A marriage is like a house.

I don’t mean a house as in “large structure with walls and foundation etc etc etc.” I mean a house as in “big expensive thing that you spend most of your adult life taking care of.”

The first rookie marriage mistake is to put all your care and attention into the wedding without thinking about the marriage. This is like putting your down payment on the house, signing all your closing paperwork, and imagining that all that remains is to move into the house and live there.

But, of course, there are payments to make, every month, for years and years. Telling the bank, “Well, we signed the papers and gave you a down payment—what else do you want!!” won’t cut it.

Lots of folks buy that marriage house without really understanding what it will cost. And then lots of people forget about the monthly payment, the cost in time, attention, putting something ahead of yourself.

They get comfortable. They start spending on other things. These expenses can be good and noble (children, health, the World Peace Club) or they can be selfish (fancy clothes, snazzy car, cheek implants) or they can be stupid (drugs, gambling, illicit petting zoos). But if the couple spends too much money, at the end of the month, they can’t make their house payment.

If you end up a hundred dollars short, it’s easy to blame the mortgage default (divorce, for those of you getting lost in this metaphor) on the person who spent that last hundred dollars. But that last hundred only hurts because of all the other expenses that preceded it.

Occasionally someone does end it all unilaterally. Chris cleans out the entire bank account, so they lose the house.

But usually both parties have spent in other places the bits and pieces that they needed to make the marital mortgage payment. Sometimes they’ve done it with good intentions; one classic marital challenge is the person who basically dumps their spouse in order to spend everything on their kids.

And sometimes even when the couple scrimps and saves, it’s not enough. Some people can’t resist getting a house they can’t afford.

The one big flaw in this comparison—with a house, you usually know up front what the cost will be. With a marriage, you can discover down the road a cost far beyond what you imagined. But one similarity holds true. When you find the right one for you, the cost won’t bother you, because it will be worth every bit of what you pay.

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