Why You Shouldn’t Waste Time Working on Your Marriage

It has been said so often it is now cliché: you have to work on your marriage. I wish I’d known fifteen years ago, when I got married, how false that truism actually is…

marriage advice

Our first honeymoon was a bust.

We arrived at the resort less than twenty-four hours after a minister declared, with a few words, that we now had this thing called a Marriage. A brand new Marriage. It felt perfect. Pristine. Like the first day of a new semester, when the teacher tells you everyone starts with an A+.

If our honeymoon was the first homework assignment, we seemed to flunked it badly.

We were graduate students at the time, so the all-inclusive resort we could afford was broken, crumbling, and unclean. We tried to compensate for its lack of style (and sanitation) by consuming its bottomless food and drink. Most days, I ended up either bloated or comatose. Sometimes both. A hurricane somewhere far away made our skies gray and drizzly.

Sometimes our moods were gray and drizzly, too.

Our brand new Marriage seemed to be falling apart as badly as the resort in which it was being celebrated. So, I did what you’re supposed to do. I started working on our Marriage, toiling to make it perfect again. I would do so for many years. Now though, after fifteen years of marriage—and almost fifteen years as a marital therapist—I realize:

A wedding ceremony doesn’t magically create a Marriage.

It doesn’t bring anything new into existence. When you walk back down that aisle, dodging rice, you may be married, but you don’t have a Marriage—you have only two people with all of their hopes and fears and expectations and desires and needs and wants and assumptions and cluelessness.

At least after the birth of your first child, when they send you out of the hospital, bewildered, you have something to bathe. When you get married, you have nothing to show for it. And you can’t work hard on nothing.

Rather, if you want a Marriage, you have to create something out of nothing.

Fifteen years after our first honeymoon, we took a second one. This time, we had jobs, so we booked a more upscale resort and hoped once again for the perfect honeymoon. It was not meant to be. Instead, we got something even better. Arriving at the resort to discover it was under construction, we got a reminder:

Every Marriage is its own construction project.

Out of nothing, two people build something. Where nothing existed, two people construct a life. In the space between them, two people lay the foundation for an existence. Slowly, over time, the shape of something new emerges.

Of course, like any construction project, the building of a Marriage is full of detours, distractions, and details…

As we walked around our upscale-resort-under-construction, we were forced again and again—by orange cones and orange plastic fencing—to find a different way to get where we were going. Likewise, as you build a Marriage, you won’t always get to go the way you want to go. Sometimes, you have to compromise and take detours to where you both want to be. Of course, along the way, you will discover parts of your selves, your Marriage, and your life that you wouldn’t have come across on the path you planned to take.

Sometimes, even, you will find big deep pools of sacrifice, fidelity, and love.

While we tried to relax poolside, the sounds of hammers and saws were distracting. We had hoped for mindless luxury, but instead, we became mindful of the creation happening all around us. Likewise, most of us enter into Marriage hoping for the mindless luxury of romantic love. This luxury though, like all luxuries, is overrated, transient, and ultimately disappointing. Real life will distract you from it, and this is a good thing. Amidst the hammers and saws of grief and hardship and pain and loss, you will realize better things are being created.

Beautiful things like belonging. A story. A home.

In various places throughout the resort, the big stuff was mostly done and attention had shifted to the smaller details. We watched a man spend hours engaged in his craft—cutting, gluing, and buffing marble tiles onto floors and walls and desks. Likewise, in the building of a Marriage, it is wise to remember that when the big stuff is done, there is no end to the refining of what has been built. A well-timed cup of coffee in the morning. A text message at mid-day. A surprise date.

The devil is in the details, they say. The Marriage is in the details, too.

During our second honeymoon, we felt increasing affection for the construction around us. Where once we saw, with irritation, inconvenience, we began waking up each day with curiosity, wondering what would be built next. So, after fifteen years, here’s my best advice about Marriage:

A Marriage doesn’t exist until you bring it into existence.

So don’t waste your time trying to keep it perfect.

Put your energies toward creating something out of nothing.

Try to be grateful for the detours.

Embrace the distractions.

Pay attention to the details.

And wake up each day wondering what you will build before the sun goes down.

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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+.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

23 thoughts on “Why You Shouldn’t Waste Time Working on Your Marriage

  1. Out of nothing, two people build something. I love this. While we both had lives before it is so different from the life we have built for/with our daughter. For better and worse (depending on the day) we have built something that wasn’t there before, and that is a good thing.

  2. Bam! And you summed it up SO perfectly:

    A Marriage doesn’t exist until you bring it into existence.
    As a wedding planner I see this all of the time..and try to subtly (or maybe not so) remind my couples of this.

    So don’t waste your time trying to keep it perfect.
    Whaaaaat??? But, but, but….haha

    Put your energies toward creating something out of nothing.
    My FAVORITE. Using this. (:

    Try to be grateful for the detours.
    The hell in the hallways makes heaven on the other side that much sweeter.

    Embrace the distractions.
    How to even begin to explain this…SUCH an important point, Dr. K…and if you’re a “ducks in a row” person how do you have the patience/grace for this? Asking for a friend. (:

    Pay attention to the details.
    And don’t keep score. DON’T KEEP SCORE. (revealing myself here…)

    And wake up each day wondering what you will build before the sun goes down.
    Bless you.

    • Donna, I’m THRILLED to get the perspective of a wedding planner on this. You are there on Day 1 of creation! It’s interesting to think about how, even in that day, the couple begins to set the patterns for how they will build their life in all the days that follow. Would love to hear your version of the dos and don’ts on that day from that perspective.

      • It’s a challenge..after being married for 38 years and having a lot of “hell in the hallway” experiences I know for a fact what it takes to not just stay married, but thrive in it. To communicate that to young couples is something that I take seriously, but have to do it in bits and pieces along the way..I’m not a marriage counselor…but I can counsel out of my own experience. Actually I just call it “encourage”, not counsel. As I develop relationship over what is usually a year’s time it becomes a friendship..and that’s always easier to speak into. I love these “kids” and always hope to provide more than just a pretty day for them. Encouraging them to keep their eye on what’s really important (not if the perfect flower didn’t show up that day) is always my goal..and praying for them is my “way”!

        • Thank you for sharing, I love “encourage”! I am a believer in peer support and you do it well!

  3. I love how you begin to see the creation in the construction. A wonderful piece! Still, I think you should ask the hotel for a return visit on them. Two nights seems fair. They are supposed to tell you about construction ahead of time. Ask them! Maybe you’ll get to write a follow up blog about that, too! 🙂
    Thanks for this wonderful piece! I’m not undoing its importance.

  4. Thank you, Kelly! Another great write up! A great reminder as my husband and I are trying to redo our marriage that took a little (separation) detour for a few months and now we are working at rebuilding in a new way. I loved the concluding statements as they are real gems! Happy Anniversary to you again!

  5. This post makes me absolutely ache and bawl…….the crushing truth that hits me as I contemplate the building that I thought was going on…..the sacrifice and love and fidelity being poured into a sacred space that I only imagined was real…..the absolute destruction of everything twenty-five years later….after the arrest….the reveal….the unveiling of the adultery and lies….it is too much some days. Thank you for the beautiful reminder that marriage is about constructing ex-nihlio…..but it is so very heart breaking to those of us who wanted with all our hearts to build and instead found out in the space of a day…..that we were building and the other was destroying….the difficult felt so very impossible…..because it was. I so longed for a marriage….a construction….n intertwining of lives….and instead….find myself empty and discouraged. Thank you for the vision of hope…even amidst the destruction, I have to believe there are men that truly desire to build….and not destroy.

    • Thank you for your words…..they are a very helpful description of my experience too…….’the sacrifice and love and fidelity being poured into a sacred space’……..these are elegant words that I have never found. Also…..’the difficult felt so impossible…….because it was’. I used to believe there were things I could have done to change what occurred, but I now think ‘impossible’ is the right word……in many circumstances. Empty is a strong word, I like that too, I found myself empty and hollow for a considerable time, even remote from God, although not denying him.

      Just to say, I know many many men and women who desire to build, and who develop ways to reach their shared desire.

    • Thank you for sharing you story. With tears I feel for you…your words about hope and belief that there are people who want to build are exactly how I felt when I read this article. I have been using tapping to help me with the overwhelming anxiety I feel dealing with divorce while suffering health issues!

  6. What a simple and beautifull reminder. I don’t have a marriage or even a relationship to work on yet, but I do have a little pirate family that this also applies to beautifully. Thank you, as always, for your insights.

  7. I had my marriage just end after almost 18 years and I’m hopeful that when it happens again it’s with someone who will build with me. The last time, I decided not to participate in negative conversations and started to build positive dreams. We couldn’t support each other at this time in our lives. My health issues were hard to overcome…Today as I was walking my dog I asked God for the patience to wait and enjoy healing and being alone. I thought of one of your insights today on my walk, ever since I read it, I have been seeking “Drops of Joy!” The sun was out. The leaves were fun to walk through. I have been walking a lot and eating healthy and noticed I have better stamina and am in better shape physically.

  8. I don’t even know how or why I came across this today but what a perfect article for what I have been searching for. Married 19 years and due to a cronic illness my husband has had for 4 years now there are many many many days I’m so angry and resentful I’m not confident we can make it. This gives me hope and inspiration to look at things differently. I’m a perfectionist so the term “create something new each day” instead of fixing what seems “broken”. Unexpected detours. WOW. We ALL have them don’t we. I love my husband and 2 chidren and my family is the most important thing in my world. I really appreciate your words and how they spoke right to me!!! Feeling support I’ve been craving from just reading this and the comments. Thank you !!! I’ll be tuning in often !!!!

  9. I really like your opinions…they make sense to me. Is there anyone in the Seattle-Tacoma area of Washington state that you would recommend for help in their marriage?

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