An Insider's Look at Mormon Culture

Posts tagged ‘marriage’

Fatal Flaws–Real and Literary

I suppose I will never catch up on the books I missed reading during the years my job as mom and ward “I’ll do whatever you need me to do” person limited my reading to short newspaper and magazine articles. I have finally read Wallace Stegner’s wonderful, Angle of Repose now that I have time to repose myself into a horizontal angle on the sofa.

Angle is a book about marriage. Stegner had an ear for realistic dialogue—the words couples use to snipe at each other in the frustration of their unfulfilled dreams. Like the secondary characters in his later novel, Crossing to Safety, the husband and wife in Angle are often in a situation where the wife’s income is more important to the family than the husband’s—a tricky situation in the 21st century, but really difficult for a couple in this 19th century setting.

Oliver, the husband, is a self-taught mining engineer who must move from job to job in rough mining camps. Any man in that occupation should probably stay a bachelor—but Oliver falls in love. His fatal flaws, which are partly responsible for his lack of prosperity, are his trusting nature, aversion to confrontation, and inability to forgive serious wrongs.

Susan, the wife, comes from a genteel, Eastern background. Her fatal flaw is wanting to be like her best friend, Augusta, who comes from a well-connected, prosperous family. Susan almost worships Augusta. She believes Augusta is the more talented artist even though it is Susan who gets paying commissions for her work. Susan dreams of marrying the magazine editor who befriends her—but proposes to Augusta.

Probably few women could be happy moving from one rough camp to another as Susan must do with Oliver. Still, her envy of the perfect happiness she imagines Augusta’s life makes her own situation more difficult.

Susan and Oliver’s story is told through the eyes of a grandson who reconstructs their lives from a collection of old letters and newspaper clippings. In the process he gains insight into his own fatal flaw and begins to deal with it.

It’s easy to identify fatal flaws in friends and family members. Possibly we should ask ourselves, “What is my fatal flaw?” Admitting a flaw helps us deal with it even if we can’t entirely overcome it.  Probably most flaws, like Oliver’s trusting nature and aversion to confrontation, are really virtues overdone. Usually, we just need to reign them in a bit.

You’re Not the Person I Married

Check the exponent blog at for my blog about marriage.

Low Expectations: Key to Happiness

When asked the secret of their working marriage, our daughter Lolly and her husband, Doc, reply, “Low expectations.” Most couples marry with the expectation that they have chosen the one and only who will make them happy. Lolly and Doc went into marriage knowing that while it is possible for other people to cause misery, happiness is basically a personal responsibility.

Like marriage, nearly everyone enters parenthood with the expectation, or at least the hope, of doing better than their parents. Our youngest son, Techie, and his wife, Techie II, are currently surrounding their first-born with a natural environment of cloth diapers, breast milk, no pacifiers. Since I played Bach and read Yeats to Wort as soon as we got him home from the hospital, I sneer not. I know that by the time the Techies get their second child, all they’ll really hope for is a large bladder and a dry nose. And for subsequent kids, they’ll be satisfied if all the essential body parts are included.

Low expectations are especially helpful near the end of life. I suspect hope for a perfect world beyond this imperfect one accounts for much of the anxiety religious believers experience as they approach death. Religious people generally have faith that loved ones pass on to a better place. But the friends and relatives I’ve seen approaching their own deaths entertain doubts—about the existence of another world and about their own qualifications for entry.

Here’s where I think the low expectations of an agnostic relieve anxiety. Not believing in heaven relieves the worry that it may not exist or that the entry fee may be too steep. As the old saying goes, “Expect the worst and you’ll never be disappointed.”

How Long Is Ever After?

Fairy tale princes and princesses live happily ever after, but real couples get disillusioned shortly after making their vows. I was impressed with a recent blogger  who said she didn’t notice her husband’s faults for the first ten years of their marriage. It certainly didn’t take me that long.

It didn’t take George that long, either. Within the first year he learned that I really didn’t want to work on cars with him and that my enthusiasm for fishing and hunting before our marriage was a sham. We had each put up an attractive facade during courtship and reality sucker punched us.

I don’t think we’re unusual. A friend said she knew she’d made a huge mistake when her brand-new eternal companion refused to buy her an ice cream cone on their honeymoon for fear she’d get fat. They resolved the conflict with compromise—she kept her trim figure as long as he kept his.

Our daughter, Lolly, and her husband insist that the secret of a happy marriage is to enter matrimony with low expectations. Neither of them thought the other would make them happy. And they’re right. Happiness comes from within. Even a nearest and dearest can’t confer happiness upon us—no matter how much we deserve it.

Maybe the real secret of marital bliss is not noticing a spouse’s flaws. And more power to those who can pull that off.

You’re Not the Person I Married

We all have dirty little secrets we don’t share while dating. I certainly never informed George that I like to eat pie in bed. Nor did he confess he was so thrifty that he’d drain our car radiator every night rather than buy antifreeze.

And do we even want to see the real person behind the guy or girl who is going to make all our dreams come true? Try telling a man that his sexy girlfriend really won’t be a wife who is interested in having sex every night and more on weekends. Or try warning a woman that her fun-loving boyfriend may not transition into a husband willing to trade his skiing and workout time for a steady job that pays the mortgage.

Even if you marry your soul mate, no guarantee exists that you will grow together rather than apart. I know several women who married young, then returned to school as their children grew older. As these women grew and gained confidence, they were no longer the helpless girls their husbands had married—and they’re now divorced.

And how does a guy cope if his shapely bride balloons into a size 3X wife? It’s easy to say physical appearance shouldn’t affect the way we feel about a spouse, but, for most of us, it does.

In Mormon circles a spouse’s loss of belief in LDS doctrines can threaten a marriage. I have a young relative who has lost her conviction that Mormonism is the only true religion. She fears telling her husband who made great personal sacrifice for their family to obtain a temple sealing. The only choice she sees is to attend church with her family and keep quiet about her doubts—a lonely way to live.

A perceptive person has noticed that the Bible actually deals with the problem of finding out you’re not married to the person you thought you were. Jacob marries Leah believing he is marrying Rachel. While Jacob never loves Leah as completely as he does Rachel, he accepts his marriage to both.

But was it such a big deal for Jacob? After all, he could ditch Leah for Rachel whenever he chose. Modern American marriages (unless you’re FLDS) don’t allow that option. We have to deal with whichever personality pops up in a single spouse. And that’s probably a cinch compared to dealing with multiple personality facets in multiple spouses.

Follow My Lead

“Dad dances like Bill Cosby. My mom dances like Winnie the Pooh,” our daughter, Lolly, informed her high school friends. I’d have choked her if she hadn’t been right. George has rhythm and can really move his feet. I can clap in time to a brisk rendition of “Stars and Stripes Forever,” but dance rhythms are too complex for me to get the message from my ears all the way down to my feet while the music’s still playing.

Nevertheless, George and I decided to liven up January this year by signing up for a ballroom dance class. I expected George to excel, but no. He’s an individualist on the dance floor rather than a leader—and my rhythmic limitations require a strong leader to push me around the dance floor in time to the music.

People often use the leader/follower dance pattern as an analogy for marriage. So long as the husband leads and the wife follows, a marriage flows with grace and harmony. Now, I don’t know any professional dancing couples, but I doubt those who stay married carry the leader/follower pattern into everyday life.

Lolly actually married a former member of the BYU ballroom dance team, but she refuses to dance with him because he won’t let her lead. Fortunately, they don’t try to extend the leader/follower pattern in their day-to-day living.

Back in the ERA era, we had a bishop who preached, “The husband is the head of the family. It’s not a question of who is more qualified; it’s a question of following God’s counsel.” Obviously, our good bishop interpreted the “shall” in Genesis 3:16 to mean “should.” Another, older meaning of “shall” is “will.” I suspect the phrase, “thy husband shall rule over thee” is predictive rather than prescriptive.  

Our ward was full of couples where the wife had more common sense than her husband. Young wives agonized over their husbands’ decisions to buy newer, faster cars rather than save for a house down payment. One distressed sister asked me, during a visiting teaching visit, if she had to accompany her husband to the X-rated films with graphic sex scenes that he enjoyed. I quoted Brigham Young’s advice, “No woman has to follow her husband to hell,” and escaped before she could ask my advice should her husband expect her to perform the erotica he enjoyed viewing. A visiting teacher’s responsibility only goes so far.

But back to dancing. George and I have never figured out who leads, either on the dance floor or in our marriage. He does his Bill Cosby glide, while I bobble like a stuffed bear. We never really know where we’re going. We’ll never impress a judge, but at least we’re on our feet.

Unrealistic Expectations

Unrealistic Expectations

Last blog I asked why couples in their 50s and 60s divorce—today I’m thinking about the reasons people marry in the first place. Societal approved sex, saving rent, all their friends are married, health insurance, and making the baby legitimate are all common reasons. Regardless of the reasons people tell themselves and others, I suspect most people marry believing they have found the one person who can make them happy. Now think about that—two separate individuals, each with the idea that the other will make him or her happy. A recipe for disappointment—unless one is a clone of the other.
The first thing I learned after marriage was that George and I don’t enjoy the same activities. This was not apparent before marriage when our palpitating hearts made anything we did together enjoyable. George loved spending Saturdays with his head under the hood of our car. Not the way I wanted to spend my day off. I enjoyed church meetings on Sunday morning and George preferred to sleep late. Summers were worse. George expected me to go fishing with him. Now, I’ll admit this was partly my fault. I had gone fishing with him once while we were dating and enjoyed playing dumb while my big, strong boy friend baited my hook and gave me pointers. Drowning worms with a husband who is more interested in the fish than in me was not the same.
Differences about how to use leisure time are relatively minor, but what about couples where each wants a totally different lifestyle? The wife who marries a non-member or less active man and realizes: 1) he’s not going to change, and 2) she desperately wants to be sealed to her husband and children. Or there’s the husband who wants to pursue a degree and the wife who wants him to drop out and take a job now, any job that will provide a house and minivan.
My daughter’s mission president loved working in the mission field. He retired with the goal of serving one mission after another for the rest of his life. His wife wanted to spend her golden years near her grandchildren. Her strategy, according to my daughter, was “fake it ‘til you make it.” That might work for one term as a mission mother, but can you imagine spending ten or fifteen years pretending you’re happy? Unfortunately, it’s not possible for a mission pres to serve as a single while his wife remains home pursuing her own interests. I hope this noble sister finally achieved some sort of compromise such as three years on and three years off. Otherwise, she probably spent a good deal of time hoping for her husband’s early demise.
A certain amount of deception is necessary in courtship—otherwise the marriage rate would plummet. Maybe the realistic thing is to marry with the idea that you will be about as happy married as you were single—that your happiness is basically your own responsibility. And you may need to compromise some of your own cherished goals if they will cripple the happiness of your spouse. Maybe premarital counseling would help couples open their eyes before marriage and avoid post-nuptial shock. Of course, truly realistic pre-marriage counseling could cut the marriage rate way down. How bad would that be?

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