How to Accept the Things That Drive Us Crazy in a Marriage

We spend most of our marriages trying to change our lovers. Ironically, the most important change we can make is to accept more of the good but crazy-making things about each other…


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In the spring of 1999, a film called Jerry Maguire left a permanent mark on pop culture, with three little phrases:

“Show me the money.”

“You had me at Hello.”

And, “You complete me.”

By the autumn of ’99, it had become my favorite movie, probably because I was broke and single. I wanted someone to show me the money. And I wanted someone to complete me. I met my wife that autumn. She was broke, too, but there was no question she completed me. Which is to say, she was the opposite of me in endless ways.

She gladly jumped out of planes; I deliberated about jumping out of the bathtub.

She loved to run; I loved to run to the couch.

She had one tattoo and plans for more; I avoided pain at all costs.

She was energized by a crowd; a party left me with an introvert hangover for days.

She was a feminist; I had once heard of feminism.

I panicked if I misplaced my car keys; she shrugged her shoulders when she misplaced her car.

You get the idea—she was a free spirit and my spirit had routines. She was the opposite of me in endless ways and, consequently, she was fascinating to me in endless ways. She drew me out of my shell, propelled me into a bigger world, and made me look at the stars instead of the ground.

The problem is, in most relationships, we begin by looking for someone to complete us, and we end up wishing we had someone who was identical to us.

When Opposites Don’t Attract

They say opposites attract. They’re right. We’re often attracted to the qualities in a lover that we don’t have in ourselves.

Opposites attract because, whether we know it or not, we are always seeking wholeness.

And wholeness feels good at first. To feel completed is an intoxicating thing within the confines of a two-hour movie, and it’s an exhilarating experience within a budding courtship.

But wholeness through the seasons and in and out of years? That kind of wholeness isn’t romantic or intoxicating; that kind of wholeness is work. It requires compromise and sacrifice and the creation of something new, instead of the preservation of something old. Yet, over time, we prefer to preserve the old things within us.

We start to look at the new things they brought into our life as burdens and demands. We start to judge and criticize the ways they act and think and live differently than us. Instead of appreciating the differences, we start trying to eliminate them.

Over time, we’d prefer the ease of incompleteness to the toil of completion.

In the beginning, opposites attract; later, they repel.

When Opposites Complete Us

Several weeks ago, on a Monday morning, I walked out the door with my family. I was planning to drive my car to work, while my wife was going to take the kids to school in her car. We opened the garage door and stared at an empty spot. My wife had forgotten her car at work.

She shrugged her shoulders.

I didn’t shrug mine.

I loved that about her when we got married but, to be honest, for years, I was critical of it. I thought I was a better person because I was more organized.

We piled in my car and I drove them to her workplace. As we pulled into the parking lot, my son asked quizzically, “Momma, why did you leave your car windows down all weekend?” A good question. Especially because a major thunderstorm had rolled through on Sunday afternoon.

I used to get angry about such things. But these days, I try to remember. I try to remember I chose to spend my life with her because of such things.

To remember means “to recall to the mind by an act or effort.“ Perhaps the hard work of marriage is simply remembering. Remembering we chose this person because opposite things complete us.

You Had Me at Hello, But We’ll Have Us at Goodbye

Yes, marriage is about learning how to grow and adapt and become a new person while the old person dies. But the truth is, there are many things about us that will not change. And they shouldn’t. Because they are good things. I’m more cautious and organized. My wife is more carefree. Different, but good.

It’s in the mingling of those good things that completion happens.

My wife doesn’t complete me, and I don’t complete her. Together, we complete us.

Being completed isn’t about me; being completed is about we.

In marriage, we obsess about changing our partners. But the true challenge of marriage is to remember and, in doing so, to accept the good and beautiful differences that exist between lovers. Remembering gives birth to gratitude for the ways we are more powerful as two, stronger as a whole, and exponentially greater than the sum of our parts.

You had me at Hello.

But, if we can remember the Hello, at the final Goodbye, we will have us.

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Kelly is a licensed clinical psychologist and co-founder of Artisan Clinical Associates in Naperville, IL. He is also a writer and blogs regularly about the redemption of our personal, relational, and communal lives. Kelly is married, has three children, and enjoys learning from them how to be a kid again. You can find him on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

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22 thoughts on “How to Accept the Things That Drive Us Crazy in a Marriage

  1. I think we spend too much time trying to create the fantasy partner and failing to see the extraordinary and unique and wonderfully flawed person we have married. I found the moment I gave up wishing my husband to be something different than who he fundamentally was as a pivotal moment in understanding myself and our relationship. He is not perfect, but he is amazing, generous, loving, funny and highly infuriating – there really is nobody else like him. He sees and loves me and all my crazy parts. Its a different kind of falling in love, but one with endless possibilities for growth and adventure.

    • This is beautiful, Natalie. Thanks for sharing it, and my best to you and your husband, crazy parts and all!

  2. Yes! It has made me sad for so very long to hear people talking about the ways they expect to shape or train their partners into being the person they want to be married to, instead of celebrating the strengths, depths, quirks, and histories that make their partner the one they are grateful to share life with. Our frustrations with each other are normal. But they really are a fantastic opportunity to remember why we wanted this in our lives and what we bring to each other.

    My husband has always been his own person — independent, engaged in ideas and activities that few would find rewarding, with novel perspectives and a far easier way with people than I have. He is engaging, fun, and always inviting me to new activities beyond my comfort zone, even after 15 years. He is also maddening, because with all that independence, he cannot be budged until it becomes his idea. Talking can help, but unless a thing resonates with him, it’s not his. That could feel infuriating, and on our worst days, it does.

    On the rest, he is my own walking Zen garden. He is what I cannot control, so I let it go. And it’s as it should be, for us: people are not for controlling.

    • It’s really beautiful to read about people celebrating and loving themselves and each other exactly as they are. I am deeply in love with a beautiful man who lives with almost constant physical pain as a result of an accident several years ago. Sometimes I feel so helpless and desperate knowing that I can never “fix” him physically, but at a deeper level I know that what he needs from me is not a fix, but acceptance and assurance that I truly love him, that I can be with him when he is struggling with his pain. He has helped me to understand that the times when his anger and frustration give the appearance of him pushing me away are the times when he most needs my unconditional love.

      • Anne,
        It’s a cruel twist in life that we can feel helpless when we are being so strong. It takes considerable strength to partner with someone in so much physical pain, to accept the things that it does change and limit, and to continue to respect and value the whole person your partner is. We battle chronic daily pain in our home, too (mine), and while everyone’s struggle is different, you are not alone in having to fight your way through to the good stuff. Chronic pain has so much fallout for everyone around us.
        I loved your piece of wisdom that your man shared about needing love the most during periods of anger and frustration that can feel very distancing. We all have our ways of counterproductively flailing that undermine getting the loving affirmations we need. I hope you can share the times you need him the most, too, because that was a beautiful gift he gave you in clueing you in. I hope, too, that you are giving yourself some grace, offering yourself a helping of that unconditional love you are sharing with your man.
        Thank you for sharing your love story.

      • Anne, thank you for sharing this. I’ve dealt with chronic back pain for years. Though it hasn’t been as severe as your husbands, there have been periods of debilitation. Knowing my wife is there for me and accepting me during those times is the closest thing to unconditional love I’ve ever experienced. You’re a blessing to him, and he to you. And Shel’s encouragement below is SO right on. Take care of yourself, too, Anne.

        • So now the hard part is, what if your the free spirit and your quirks are seen as immaturity and selfishness. I feel
          Criticism from myself and others. Yes info make mistakes just as anyone can. The longer I am married the more I see myself disappearing with the date of my marriage.
          My people love me. Don’t get me wrong. But I feel bad or wrong or guilty for being the way I’ve always been. Changing me hurts. I feel like a

    • Shel, I love the acknowledgement that on some days it’s still infuriating. The truth is, my wife misplaced our car on a good day. On other days, I may not have responded so calmly. Our task is to multiply the “good days!”

  3. Totally agree that marriage is work. Building strong, enduring partnerships is every thing you describe.
    The comment you made about feeling you were better-than because you were more organized is too familiar. I found it helpful to examine why I would think such a thing. I mean, where did my need to be “better-than” come from?

    For me, the remembering I need to focus on is that I’m OK, just as I am. There is no lack in me and very little to be “fixed”. In truth the only “fixing” that needed to happen was for me to let go of the belief that I’m unacceptable. Those are lies I’ve been told (mostly told to myself) that keep me trapped.

    Once I can love myself, love for others – including my spouse – seems to happen in a genuine, unforced way – without too much effort.

    Then things get really interesting.

    • Mike, you’ve pretty much nailed the natural follow up post to this one. When we can accept our own quirks and flaws and craziness, our acceptance for the ones we love begins to flow in a whole new way. Thank you for pointing this out.

  4. To take Natalie’s comment one step further, we create fantasy bonds from “being on our best behavior” in courtship so that when we feel comfortable with the depth of the attachment, we might risk letting our true selves be seen. Even if we resist that, the truth will out eventually. What a shocking disappointment it is when the fabulous partner we thought we had fallen for is actually NOT who and what we thought he/she was – perfect. Perfect for us. That’s the end of the fantasy. Talk about buyer’s remorse! And that’s when the struggle to change that person back into the fantasy partner begins in order to maintain the fantasy bond so often based on two people who don’t really exist.

    • CJ, What a keen memory you have for how that early period of dating can also involve a lot of identity management and performance. Of course you are right! And the longer we keep that up — and the more convincingly — the harder it will be on both partners when we are finally comfortable enough to be ourselves.

      Blessed are the lousy actors in this case, eh?

  5. As per usual, Dr. Kelly, you’ve hit on the exact thing I needed to hear at exactly the right time in my life. I am so like your wife and my fiance’ is just like you! It’s easy to forget that what and how he is, is what got me in the first place. It’s harder to remember that he is so different from me and that that’s a good thing!
    Thank you!

    • The remembering really is hard, Cherrie! It’s like this part of our ego has to die in order to allow it. Here’s to the two of you re-membering each other for a long time to come!

  6. Your words remind me of the scene in Good Will Hunting when the the doctor (Robin Williams) and Will are talking about Will’s pursuit to find the perfect partner. The doc tells Will, “You’re not perfect, sport, and let me save you the suspense: this girl you’ve met, she’s not perfect either. But the question is whether or not you’re perfect for each other.” He goes on to talk about the imperfections in his wife, “She farts in her sleep” and then tells Will that that is the part he misses, the imperfections. Our imperfections show us our broken humanity and help us see each other in all their unique and broken humanity. Perhaps acceptance is our way of truly being able to say, “I see you.” And perhaps, that is what we are looking for in our relationships. Thank you for another very thoughtful relational nudge.

    • Cynthia, I love that scene and hadn’t thought of it in years, but it’s a perfect companion to this post. Thank you!

  7. It has been a real blessing reading all these comments and so agree with all and thank you for this article – like Marcelino – I really needed to hear this! xx

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