For Better, For Worse
What if right now is your “worse?”
This is the question I often ask many clients coming to see me for marriage counseling.
Most of these clients (like many of you reading) have directly and even enthusiastically accepted the “for better, for worse” vow on their wedding days however many years ago. An undeniably beautiful vow, while looking into their partner’s loving black-suit-and-tie/pure-glowing-white gaze and holding onto soft, yet securing, hands. Magical words sounding all-too-easy to conquer while standing in a picture-perfect church, or on a fairytale-sandy beach, surrounded by the most beautiful flowers and impeccably “done-up” (and smiling) relatives and friends.
It is here in this moment that the farthest thing from anyone’s mind is the “worse.”
So what if this vow was to be taken in your current living room? His shoes stacked in a cluttered mess at the foot of the front door, or her unfolded laundry tossed in a pile on your favorite chair. The TV playing a series of her DVR’d Kardashian episodes, or his mind-numbing sports bloopers.
What if it was taken in the kitchen? Really think about it. Holding hands next to a sink full of dirty dishes that he claims need “soaking,” and right near the refrigerator door she fails to ever close fully, with the aroma of spoiled meats and vegetables in the air. What about having your first kiss as a married couple while leaning over the fully-stacked and rancid garbage-pale that’s about to topple over?
Would we do it? Could we ever accept this vow? What about immediately after the in-laws had just shown up for the 37th time unannounced? His mother endlessly criticizing your “working too much” while wearing those same outdated and ripped up sandals she refuses to throw out, or her father always and obnoxiously trying to rope you into the disorganized and barely-afloat family business?
How about slipping that ring on her finger with the baby’s vomit pouring down that beautiful lace gown, or right after he just called you a nagging [bleep] for the tenth time?
And yes, you may have still made it to the altar after years of already living in such messy imperfections with one another, but still, you have to admit that those imperfections are conveniently tucked away at that very classic “for better, for worse” moment. The perfectly-dressed, excitedly-happy, romantically-gazing person facing toward you, fully-attentive, completely on the same page, is so wonderfully-easy to commit your all to. Of course!
It’s a terrible truth, but we humans certainly love our traditions. So much that we may be inclined to believe what we want to believe, hear what we want to hear, and say what we have to say in order to keep these traditions alive. “For better, for worse”… it’s what you say! Anything to bring on the champagne and honeymoon with the love of your life.
Slowing this moment down and really giving it some thought just might ruin it. It’s a promise to love and support one another, not only forever, but throughout each and every obstacle life has in store. Every infuriating dent he makes in the savings account, every miserable remark she makes about your friends or family, the painful miscarriages, the petrifying heart-attacks, or that god-awful chemotherapy. It’s standing by through the weight-gain, the job loss, or menopause. Even marriage counseling.
Vowing to stay, love, and accept another’s “worse” is serious business. Quite possibly the most powerful promise made. And we make it. Over and over again. Millions of us by the day.
Do we mean it?
Unfortunately and in our defense, even those most determined to ensure that their intentions are unshakeable with the answering of this question are limited in such a goal. That is, not one of us is capable of foreseeing what the worse will be. A frustration and a gift all in one. We can only imagine what a future “worse” scenario might feel like, how we might respond to it, and how we might possibly overcome it. Luckily, coupling such thought with a strongly developed love and trust in your partner can stand to be a pretty great predictor of a healthy marriage.
And so we vow.
It is of this that I remind my couples when they come to therapy at that fork in the road. When they have one foot in and one foot out, fragile and ready to run at the first sign of eye-rolling or annoyed sighing. I take them back to that very happy moment, on the altar, at their best, committing to one another. I simply ask them, “What if right now is your ‘worse’?”
This has a way of stopping clients in thought for a moment, allowing them the chance to consider that very concept that would have put a big gray cloud over their wedding day had they truly thought about it, in this form, then. It reminds them of their equally-willing decision to stand by each other inside of this gray cloud in the here and now and in doing so, has a way of once again uniting them. It reminds them to turn toward and face each other the way they first did in front of their families and friends, instead of away. It’s a reinforced look at their love and what they’ve agreed to do together forever.
In the ideal case, this shifts the mind back to the present moment and eliminates running away from the worse as an option. The “runaway to a better life” option can be all too tempting at points and though this may be a very necessary solution for some, it is certainly not the right one for all. It is mistaken as necessary when “the worse” vow is forgotten or simply feels way too painful to uphold.
It is important that the “fight” response be much stronger than the “flight” in therapy. Marriage is not about the flowers, dresses, ties, or smiling faces, nor is it about how to maintain a life based on such things. It’s truly about finding that person you will continuously go to battle with (and for) when the inevitable “worse” comes in and out, up and down, around and through... and even when it seems to come directly from them.
It’s about watching it all crumble, allowing the smoke and dust to clear and seeing each other, once again, still standing.