Marriage is a fantasy.
Whether the above words provoke, amuse, excite, or don’t really seem to affect you, I invite you to hear me out.
A fantasy is a story, a bridge between what is and what could be. We might harbor early fantasies about becoming president, a pirate, a princess, a doctor, a rock star, or something else that generates joy, excitement, and wonder. Walt Disney and the like have given us grandiose fantasies about what love, or a certain version of love, is or should be.
Predictably, fantasies evolve and may even go into dormancy, though they often resurface when considering or confronted by courtship.
The less realistic we perceive our fantasies to be, the less likely we are to share them with our partners.
Symbolic interactionism is the process by which we learn about relationships and our social environments. Many of our early behaviors are imitative, highly structured, and guided by caregivers. As we age, we concurrently develop narratives about ourselves and the people around us. Dr. Michael Bader, author of Arousal, discusses the joint pursuit of fulfillment, in the form of emotional comfort, and excitement, in the form of sexual novelty.
Our fantasies emerge as responses to our earliest experiences with attachment, often as attempts to maintain security while also remaining open to spontaneity (Bader, 2002, p.18).
The 3 circles
Early in the therapeutic relationship, I encourage clients with myriad presenting concerns to begin an exercise called “Three Circles.”
The premise, if not faithful execution, is simple: three circles are designated “acceptable,” “unacceptable,” and “maybe acceptable/undecided.”
Various behaviors are sorted into each circle, in essence giving the client a guide for conduct. In a relational or marital lens, the Three Circles might expand to include acceptable, unacceptable, and maybe acceptable behavior for a partner.
For some, the “unacceptables”, commonly referred to as “dealbreakers”, come easily and indeed that circle might become too populated for the marriage to sustain itself. Conversely, some clients have difficulty setting boundaries against anything, often indicative of a less secure attachment and/or low self-esteem.
When preparing to share their Three Circles with each other it is empowering for partners to remember that their lists are living, mutable documents.
For optimal success, I suggest that partners consult with their respective support networks before making significant boundary changes. It’s not uncommon for one partner to have no idea what the other partner wants or does not want.
Here, reflective listening is key: I prompt partners to repeat what has just been said in their own words. This might feel elementary yet the validation it supplies is undeniable.
Two vastly different visions for the marriage might emerge
This in itself is not always a coup de grace, though it is crucial that partners acknowledge and respect the existence of discrepancy in how they view an issue or the relationship itself. If the core of your marital fantasy is a partner who not only blares Madonna but also joins you in dancing to her, you might only be satisfied by a Madonna fan.
Maybe you’re head over heels in love with someone who despises Madonna. This could be a crisis for your marriage. Or you may decide to go out dancing to the Material Girl with your friends while your partner takes some quiet time.
Marriage parallels the Three Circles in that each partner brings their own version of what marriage should be, buttressed by what actually is.
Flexibility and fluidity are the lifeblood of a marriage
They keep the circles in balance. “Separateness is a precondition for connection: this is the essential paradox of intimacy and sex” (Perel, 2006, p. 25).
Sometimes circles adapt to accommodate each other and sometimes circles are deemed incompatible with each other. The more you understand and communicate the fantasies – emotional, sexual, and otherwise – that comprise your circles and your self, the more insight you will gain into the health of your marriage.
Benefits of marriage
It will also be helpful to remember the emotional benefits of marriage to improve the health of your relationship with your partner. Your spouse can be a source of support and motivation of you and together you can overcome stressful situations better than your unmarried counterparts.
The financial benefits of marriage are plenty, if a couple is judicious in managing their marriage finances. One of the benefits of marriage is that it brings stability in a couple’s life. They work hard at making money, pooling in their resources and saving for long term joint future goals.
Other surprising benefits to being married include several legal and sexual benefits and benefits to children who enjoy a psychologically healthy atmosphere growing up with their married parents. Marriage is no cakewalk, but the benefits of marriage far outweigh the trials and tribulations of married life stressors.