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First, let’s get this straight. I am not a marriage counselor, and I don’t play one on TV. Still, I think I’ve learned a thing or two in 61 years of which nearly twelve have been lived in fair wedded bliss.

We’ve been watching a show most of you probably haven’t heard of. It’s called Addicted to Food. It revolves around a treatment center and the work of around eight men and women who suffer from extreme eating disorders, ranging from compulsive eaters, bulimics, and purgers. I don’t suffer from any of these, but I do flirt with compulsive eating. Eating emotionally. So I figured I might get a tip or two.

As one might suspect,emotional eating usually stems from issues one has from early childhood, or some other traumatic event in youth or young adulthood. One eats to keep from feeling and then dealing with the underlying issues.

Let’s face it. Most of us come from dysfunctional families to one degree or another. That is the key, here, the degree. For the degree and our personal psychological “givens” determine whether we will suppress our pain through addiction (be in food, alcohol, drugs, gambling, sex, or anything that we can dream up), or whether we will grow up, take control and responsibility and build healthy lives. 

We bring  our unresolved issues to the marriage, and whether we believe it or not, realize it or not, we expect the other person, this love of our lives, to fill the hole, making everything all better. They cannot of course, for they come with the same hole, caused by something very different, and expect the same of us.

That is the child we are. Most of us are in fact children no matter our age. Some of us, thankfully are adult about parts of our lives, and those parts allow us to function fairly normally most of the time. Some of us are fully adult and they are our models. We are lucky indeed if we have someone who can model adulthood to us.

We are children, mostly because we, most of us, most of the time, are ego driven. We are out for ourselves, out to protect ourselves at every cost. Taken to an extreme, such narcissism causes us a great deal of trouble. But even if we are empathetic and compassionate to a degree, we still look out for number one most of the time.

As babies, we cried and screamed if we were wet, hungry, or uncomfortable. As young children we began to learn boundaries–that the entire world didn’t revolve around us all of the time. As teens and young adults, we perfected and fine tuned the art of manipulation. We learned to “do for others” to get a reward. We learned to bat our eyes, we learned to laugh at the bosses jokes. We learned how to read the emotional needs of others and use them to get what we wanted.

And mostly we never saw ourselves in this way. We saw ourselves as successfully negotiating the social world. Give and take, befriend and be befriended.

Marriage, because it is based first and foremost on emotion, presents a person with a whole new animal. In the first months and perhaps years, we are all directed to the other person in our lives. We put them first, we think of their needs, we do for them, often without any real conscious thought for ourselves.

But passion fades, and one day one wakes up and finds a very ordinary person beside oneself. This person has bad breath, snores, scratches and burps, and well the list goes on. They vomit and have dirty underwear. They have bad habits, they say the “wrong thing” sometimes. They are all too normal.

This is where one’s level of adulthood becomes important.

For if we are still children, still into blaming others for past events, still victims, still looking and expecting someone to fix us and everything, we are headed for a disaster. For now, we will return to the manipulation game we have come to know so well.

Except now we are manipulating the beloved. We are doing things for them, but now we expect reward. We are choosing the right moment–their time of weakness–to get our way on some issue of the moment. We are “keeping score”.

Unless we have some measure of adulthood. If we have come to this marriage, or during it, arrived at the place where we are responsible for ourselves, then we never get to “keeping score.” We do for the beloved because we still wish to, without expectation of repayment. We take delight in the doing of it.

More especially , we don’t look to play upon our beloved vulnerabilities, rather, we approach serious issues when they are in most control, so they have the ability to make good decisions, negotiate fairly, and arrive at a mutual decision that will stand the test of time. We don’t take advantage, we don’t want to.

We don’t use the other person to shore up our own shortcomings. We can know that we are right on issue A and never have to beat a discussion into the ground until our spouse agrees that we are right. We can let them think they have won, because we know that it’s “not worth a fight”.

We don’t care about clothes on the floor, toothpaste squeezed wrongly, or toilet paper placed incorrectly. If there are pliers on the kitchen counter, or the wrappings of a candy bar on the bedroom dresser, we smile, place things where they belong and thank our lucky stars that we have someone who is otherwise so good to wake up next to.

We don’t sweat the small stuff. We work on our own failings and missteps. We know that as we mature, our ability to bring a mature attitude to the partnership of marriage increases. We can ask for help, we can ask for opinion, but in the end, the work is ours. And if we are very lucky, we married someone who pretty much does the same.

If the benefits were only to ourselves, that would be enough. But they redound to the marriage itself, making it stronger, more flexible, more compassionate.

And that is what makes a marriage something to be prized as a most precious possession.