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Hello! This is the second relationship principle in the series Improving Couple Relationships. You may want to read the Relationship Principle #1 here.

#2: If Married: Work on the relationship, not the marriage .

I frequently hear couples in the therapy room tell me that they want to work on the marriage. There are several downfalls to using a working perspective of “improving the marriage”. A marriage does not exist without the relationship. A relationship is a living dynamic created from the chemistry of the partners’ interactions. Like all living things, the relationship requires nurturing care to grow. The relationship constantly changes due to the challenges it meets in daily life or due to the psychological growth of the partners that make up the relationship.

Partners who are in a relationship may choose to enter into a marriage. Marriage is an institution. Being married is a designated title that legally and culturally binds you to performing specific duties for your partner and other members of society. The requirements of being married will vary based on the cultural or religious traditions that the partners subscribe to. Marital expectations and duties will likely feel static or enduring, as they have been set by the consensus of a whole community. Put simply, when you are married, there are more people involved in your decisions than when you are in a relationship. Marital partners must consider the wishes of their parents or extended family. Married parents must consider their influence of their actions on the children that they have decided to raise under the framework of marriage.

In the eyes of the government, there is one big rule for marriage. The binding contract states that two of you must stay together as one entity. If anyone has second thoughts or feelings of discontent within the marriage, a state of alarm courses through the marital partners at the thought of breaking the ‘one rule that shouldn’t be broken’ and tearing down everything that the martial partners have built within the constructs of the marriage. It’s no wonder that the phrase “working on the marriage” can cause feelings of hopelessness and guilt. It feels like a huge ultimatum to be happy with the marriage as is or to risk defying religious, cultural, and communal expectations. Marital partners can quickly feel resentment for each other for feeling ‘forced’ to fulfill marital duties when they feel they are missing something on the individual or relational level.

Working on the relationship, rather than the marriage, means focusing on the needs and wants of the two people involved in the relationship. It requires more careful and constant attention to the fluctuating feelings of two individuals that are constantly growing and changing. It means shouldering discomfort at hearing that a partner feels distant from you. It means facing the fact that you may have done something to cause a partner to have resentment. Nurturing the relationship must be prioritized over securing the status of being married. Working on the relationship attends to the individual needs of the partners rather than the expectations of religion, cultural, and the community. When we strive to make our partner happy in the relationship, the partner will be more willing to focus on the prescribed duties that they committed to when they got married.

This second principle requires that we put aside the litany of duties each partner had committed to fulfilling in the institution of marriage and have honest discussions with each other about whether or not each person is feeling fulfilled in the relationship. The peril of focusing on the marriage is that if the relationship is not nurtured, there will be eventually be no relationship. If there is no relationship, there is no marriage.

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