Marriage Handbook for British Columbia

What is Marriage?

Every year, thousands of couples in British Columbia get married.  No two of these marriages will be exactly alike.  People having differing reasons for getting married, and everyone brings a distinctive set of beliefs and expectations into a marriage based on cultural and religious traditions.  This means that the relationship between partners in marriage will be as unique as the individuals themselves.

Yet, there are certain common situations, events, or issues that arise in nearly every marriage.  Of course, your marriage will be what you make it.  However, you can prepare yourself for some of the situations and decisions that married couples often face.  By doing so, you can make your marriage more satisfying, richer, and more complete.

Marriage is a developing relationship.  It requires you to accommodate the needs and wants of your partner, without losing sight of your personal goals and sense of self.  You may find you need to be more your own person, particularly in relation to the family you grew up in. This will give you and your partner the space you need to build a new family.

To grow as a couple, it is important for you and your partner to achieve intimacy in a range of ways� emotionally, intellectually, socially, recreationally, spiritually, and physically. Too much separateness can lead to loneliness and a feeling of distance from your partner. There is a danger, however, that in becoming too alike one of you will lose his or her individuality. In a marriage, it is important to realize that you are both still individuals.

As individuals, you will need the freedom to develop separately, to have independence. Yet, as part of a couple, you can help and support your partner by offering security, love, encouragement, and approval. This will enrich your life together: both of you will be more fulfilled and content as individuals. The goal is to be intimate and connected to your partner, without giving up your individuality.

Marriage gives a certain "public" side to a couple's relationship. Accordingly, you may find that family and friends view your relationship as different or as having changed as a result of marriage. This view may alter the expectations your family has of you and your partner (e.g., to "settle down" and raise children).

None of these changes need be of concern if both you and your partner bring a strong sense of identity and self-worth to the relationship. It is important to be fully aware of your own personal strengths and weaknesses, your likes and dislikes. Accepting them will make it easier for you to understand and recognize the worth of your partner. It will also help you to balance your personal and your shared priorities.

Making Marriage Work

Recognizing What's Important
Finding the balance between being an individual and part of a couple can be challenging. It requires commitment and closeness. But what else helps make a marriage work? Research has shown that marriage partners usually feel most satisfied when they share some of the same values. Also, things tend to work better when each partner meets the other's expectations, at least to some extent.

Certainly no one's expectations of married life ever fully match the reality ahead. Nor do two marriage partners ever hold to exactly the same set of values. All marriages contain "gaps" and differences of one sort or another. This is both normal and healthy. Where there is love, respect, and commitment to the relationship, different values can exist side by side. When each partner is willing to be adaptable and to meet the other halfway, the gap between your expectations and the reality of married life can be closed. You and your partner may be able to make your future relationship even better by thinking and talking about your values and expectations.

Things That Have Influenced You
What do you and your partner each consider important in life? Why do you each hold the values and expectations that you do? Trying to put your values into words may be difficult, if not impossible. Values are closely bound up with feelings. They are often only expressed through your decisions and actions. However, one way to answer these questions is to take a look at your past experience.  Your values and the expectations you have of marriage will have been affected by many things:

o your past relationships with other people

o the views of friends

o your schooling

o the messages and models that society gives us through the media (newspapers, radio, television, etc.)

o family experiences.

Perhaps the most important influence of all, however, has been your family upbringing. The views, attitudes, and behaviours that we hear and are taught in our families remain important to us throughout our lives. Often, these things are absorbed unconsciously. Still, they contribute enormously to making us what we are.  To find out about this, you and your partner might wish to think about your own families' attitudes or behaviour with respect to such things as:

o expressing anger

o showing affection

o family discipline

o spending money

o education

o dealing with crises.

By sharing with one another and by discussing what effect those influences continue to have, you and your partner may come to a deeper understanding of one another.

Looking at Your Expectations
What does each of you expect of the other?  A good way of trying to answer this question is to look very carefully at roles within the marriage.  It can be both fun and revealing to identify:

 o the domestic tasks you expect to do

o the tasks you expect your partner to do

o the tasks you expect to share.

Taking on certain domestic jobs and responsibilities lets you exercise some control over one particular aspect of your shared lifestyle.  Thus, looking at individual roles within a marriage has its serious side as well.  Of course, it is important to your marriage that you and your partner both feel comfortable with your roles.  Self-awareness and communication can help you identify where your expectations may not mesh with those of your partner.  This identification is the first step in narrowing the gap between expectations and reality.

Understanding Conflict
There are times when conflicts occur even in the happiest of marriages.  Generally, people fear conflict because they think it is always negative or it will have harmful consequences.  This is not always so.  Conflicts resolved in a caring manner can be creative and helpful.  Good communication can help resolve conflicts in a positive way.  Also, being honest about your feelings in certain situations and respecting differences will help.  Being able to laugh at yourself can often help a situation, too.  Shared laughter can defuse a situation and create an intimate moment.  Do not be afraid of conflict, as settling a conflict can strengthen a marriage.

Conflicts may happen because outside stresses are affecting one or both of you.  These stresses may include:

o tiredness

o illness

o overwork

o anxiety

o hunger.

On the other hand, the conflict could be caused by a difference of opinion based on differing expectations and values.  It could also be caused by a feeling that one partner's needs and wants are not being met in the relationship.  Whatever the reason, a certain amount of conflicts is both normal and inevitable in a marriage.  Given time, things can often be worked out.  Disagreeing from time to time will not threaten a healthy marriage.

Of course, patterns of conflict that keep occurring or major conflicts that get out of hand can be damaging.  They may even threaten the foundation of the marriage.  Factors such as alcoholism, drug abuse, and physical or verbal abuse also have a share in marriage breakdown.  In such situations, it is important to know that support groups and professional help are available.

Overcoming Difficulties
What can couples do to lessen the possibility of harmful conflict occurring in their relationship?  Psychologists, marriage therapists, and family counselors agree that communication is the key.  They identify five elements for good communication:

o being willing to communicate, in words as well as in actions and decisions.  This is necessary if couples are to get at the real causes of any friction.

o being prepared to make time and to find the right place for communication.  This is necessary if couples are to be free of things that interrupt and distract them.

o being able to listen carefully and completely without interrupting and without becoming defensive (wanting to argue) or judgmental (wanting to express a personal opinion about what one is hearing) This is important if partners are to understand one another.

o being able to accept and respect each other�s feelings (knowing that someone can control personal behaviour, but cannot really avoid his or her feelings).  This is very important if partners are to trust in the process of communicating with one another.

o being careful to use language that describes their own feelings about an issue rather than language that blames or attacks the other for making them feel that way.  This is vital if partners are to communicate in a way that is helpful rather than damaging.
These five elements may make good communication seem challenging, which it is!  Good communication between people requires a positive and willing attitude.  It also depends on a set of skills that can be learned and practiced.  By gaining these skills, you and your partner may have greater control over the happiness of your marriage.  (Training in communication skills is offered in many marriage preparation and marriage enrichment courses.)

The Common Experiences of Marriage

Living with Life's Changes
Like all living things, marriages change over time. Often, the changes in the marriage reflect the personal changes that the marriage partners go through. Sometimes, however, the relationship seems to have a life of its own. Many partners and marriages move through the following phases to some extent:

o In the earliest stage of marriage, the partners are optimistic and confident. There is also a sense of excitement. Positive feelings reign. They have time for each other and for fun.

o After living together for a while, partners gain a more realistic view of each other. At this point people realize that they are being asked to make a stronger commitment to the relationship.  They learn to resolve conflicts and differences. Thus, a deeper intimacy may be achieved.

o As time goes on, the marriage may be dominated by the demands of personal careers. It may also be dominated by the shared demands of building a home and raising a family. If there are children, a couple may have less time for each other and for themselves. This may make them feel less satisfied with their marriage. On the other hand, when both are committed to having children, these years can improve their relationship and strengthen the bond between them.

o The couple's middle years may present different challenges. If the partners have raised children, these children may have left home. This is a return to a situation in which the partners have more time for themselves and for each other. Physical changes may also bring a new awareness of aging and death. It is particularly important at this time that couples openly discuss their feelings with each other. This will bring them closer together and allow them to become true companions.

o As the partners mature, they may also ask themselves, "What have I done (outside my family) to show that I have lived?" A satisfactory answer to this question allows a person to go forward with new energy and a sense of fulfillment. Couples need to talk about this concern, when it arises. They may feel a need to find meaningful work or provide a service to others. Each will need to understand and support the other's chosen activities. Shared differences at this time of life can be enriching rather than threatening and isolating.

o Retirement offers partners a chance to spend time together and to enjoy each other. There can be a good deal of adjustment at this time as one accepts new roles (e.g., becoming grandparents), poor health, failing abilities, the possibility of losing the other partner, or the nearness of death. A positive outlook, however, contributes a great deal to the happiness of each partner's senior years.

In the end, the strongest marriage will be one that proves adaptable� a relationship that continuously evolves to meet your needs and those of your partner throughout a lifetime of growth and change.

Sharing Decisions
Perhaps the thing that makes married life different from single life is the need for marriage partners to share in making decisions about matters that affect them both. Living together requires you to make decisions together about a variety of things. These things include:

o housing (e.g., type and location)

o food (e.g., what to eat and when)

o work (e.g., career commitments and ambitions)

o health care (e.g., choosing a medical doctor)

o Ieisure activities

o religious observances

o money management

o friendships and time spent with others.

Some of the decisions will be significant. In the long run, developing the ability to make decisions together and in a manner that satisfies both of you is the most important thing. After all, few arrangements remain appropriate forever. As time goes on and personal needs or circumstances change, you might wish to look again at earlier decisions and adapt them to new circumstances. Where major matters are concerned, planning and decision making take time. You will need to identify all your options and look realistically at the consequences of each. For example, partners deciding whether to have children (and if so, when) should think about the kinds of demands children will make of them. They would need to think about the effect(s) that raising young children might have on such things as:

o career(s)

o domestic roles

o the time they have for one another

o their social lives

o their hobbies or interests

o their financial situation

o their living space.

Building on the Romance

Banishing the Myths
For many couples, one of the hardest things to deal with is the popular view that wonderful marriages happen naturally and without effort. Then, in working out the problems and difficulties that do occur, couples may come up against another popular view. This view states that marriages are personal and private, and that discussing marriage difficulties with someone outside the marriage is taboo or will lead to embarrassment.

In fact, neither of these views is justified or helpful. Intimate relationships never outgrow the need for both partners to give of themselves. The most successful relationships are usually those that are consciously worked on. Knowing this can help you to keep things in perspective when faced with the day-to-day challenges of married life. At the same time, being able to open up and share your thoughts and experience with others can provide a needed reminder that you are not alone.

Reaching Out
The richness of marriage can be made even better by reaching out to others. This need not occur just in times of difficulty but in support of an already healthy relationship. The support of others can make a good relationship even better by helping couples build on their success. It can also reinforce shared decisions and directions.

If at any time you and/or your partner require help of any sort, knowing where to look is important. On the one hand, the network of support offered by friends and the resources of the extended family can help. On the other hand, no matter what kind of expert help you need, there are highly qualified professionals to whom you can turn. Consider the following:

o Thousands of B.C. couples have benefited from marriage enrichment programs. These are available through religious and educational institutions.

o Many forms of professional counseling are available, including personal, family, and marriage counseling. If finding the kind of counseling you want seems a problem, your doctor or spiritual leader may be able to give you a referral. The B.C. Psychological Association, the B.C. Association of Social Workers, and the B.C. Association of Marriage and Family Therapists are reputable professional bodies. You can approach these organizations for information and help.

o No matter what your religious affiliation, there are times when the support of a religious community can make an enormous difference. Spiritual leaders offer guidance and comfort. Some also have professional counseling skills.

o There are many courses available in your community to help you and your family. Many communities offer communication courses, conflict resolution workshops, stress management courses, parenting classes, and prenatal courses. Contact local, community-run counseling agencies, night school centers, and health units for further information on available courses.
Much has been said and written on the subject of marriage. By sharing in this knowledge, you can make your experience of marriage richer and more meaningful. Marriage preparation and marriage enrichment programs are something you may wish to find out more about. If so, contact:

o a local branch of the religious organization you adhere to (e.g., church, synagogue, mosque, temple)

o Iocal community colleges

o community agencies

The British Columbia Council for the Family, 204-2590 Granville Street, Vancouver, B.C.V6H 3H1. In Vancouver phone 732-4838. In B.C., call toll free: 1-800-663-5638.

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