Fortune Well July 12, 2023
By now, we know that “happily ever after” only belongs in fairy tales, but that doesn’t stop some of us from trying to achieve it in real life, especially when it comes to our marriages. But doing so can cause real harm to your relationships.
“There are many common misconceptions about marriage that are perpetuated by society or through media, and many couples are unprepared for how to deal with the realities of marriage,” Courtney Cope, licensed marriage and family therapist and principal clinical operations manager at online mental health platform Better Help tells Fortune.
Instead of striving for that storybook romance, it’s important that couples get on the same page about how to handle the ups and downs that come along with marriage. Below, Cope outlines the most prevalent marriage myths and shares tips on how to navigate them.
“Many individuals enter marriage with the belief that it will magically solve their personal or emotional issues,” says Cope. “However, marriage cannot single-handedly address deep-seated personal challenges or unresolved conflicts. It is essential to maintain individual self-care and address personal growth independently, alongside the support of the relationship.”
To avoid an idealistic version of your marriage, Cope suggests couples openly discuss and align expectations about the relationship, acknowledging that any marriage requires “ongoing effort, growth, and adaptation.”
“Recognize that challenges are a normal part of any relationship and that there will be ups and downs along the way,” she says.
“The notion of perfect, problem-free, and everlasting happiness in marriage is unrealistic. Every relationship faces challenges, conflicts, and ups and downs,” says Cope. “The expectation of a perpetual state of bliss can lead to disappointment and frustration. Recognizing that a fulfilling marriage requires ongoing effort and adaptation can help manage expectations.”
Instead of getting caught up on perfection, Cope advises couples to acknowledge that each person brings a unique perspective as well as different strengths and benefits to the relationship.
“Celebrate the value that each person brings and focus on how each of you can enhance the relationship by leaning on each other’s strengths instead of trying to make everything in the relationship cater to one partner and their needs or preferences,” she says.
Relying solely on your partner for emotional fulfillment, happiness, intellectual engagement, and all of life’s other needs is a one-way ticket to resentment and places an undue burden on your marriage (and any relationship, if we’re being honest).
Maintaining healthy relationships with family and friends outside of your partner is vital to any marriage. But if you find yourself needing support that your loved ones are unable to provide, it may be worth looking into mental health counseling.
“It’s important to maintain a balanced sense of self, cultivate diverse sources of support, and engage in personal interests and activities outside the relationship,” says Cope.
“Love is undoubtedly a vital foundation for a healthy marriage, but it is not the sole ingredient,” says Cope. “Sustaining a fulfilling partnership requires effective communication, mutual respect, trust, shared values, and active effort from both partners. Love alone cannot address fundamental compatibility issues or the neglect of other important aspects of a relationship.”
“When two people are committed to improving themselves, developing their skills as a person, and finding fulfillment in other areas of their lives, it allows them to develop bonds and appreciation for each other beyond just loving each other,” explains Cope. “If you love someone but they are not evolving, finding personal meaning in their life, and building their own individual happiness, it will be challenging for love to be enough to sustain a lifetime of happiness together.”
Some ways to focus on individual growth include finding a new hobby (or revisiting an old one), making new friends, and starting a new workout regimen.
Like anything else worth having, relationships require ongoing effort, compromise, and adaptation.
“Expecting a smooth and effortless journey without any challenges can lead to frustration and a sense of failure when difficulties arise,” says Cope. “Recognizing that navigating obstacles and growing together as a couple is a normal part of the marital journey can foster resilience and happiness.”
While conflict is inevitable, how you handle it is up to you. Effective communication and conflict resolution skills are necessary for any relationship. In a previous interview with Fortune, Cope stressed the importance of assuming positive intent when your partner does something you perceive as hurtful, as this can help avoid unnecessary fights.
It can also help to take a 20- to 45-minute time-out in separate rooms and then reconvene once you’re both calmer and have had time to reflect on what it is you really want to say instead of immediately placing the blame on your partner.
“Unrealistic expectations regarding changing one’s partner to fit a certain mold can be detrimental,” says Cope. “While personal growth and positive change are possible, expecting or pressuring a partner to fundamentally alter their personality, beliefs, or values may create conflict and resentment. Acceptance and compromise are key components of a healthy marriage.”
While you may not always agree with your partner on parenting style or political, religious, or financial views, focusing on the areas where you do have shared values can help you be more flexible and understanding of the areas where you differ, which will lead to a “more productive and enriched relationship,” according to Cope.
“No one should have to change who they are to make another person happy, and a marriage that requires one person to change for the other may fall apart later due to this change being not in alignment with their most authentic self,” she says.
Although the initial stage of many relationships is full of passion and intense romantic feelings, it’s natural for those feelings to evolve over time.
“Expecting constant intensity and fireworks in the long term may lead to disappointment,” shares Cope. “Recognizing that the intensity of passion can ebb and flow, and investing in nurturing emotional intimacy and connection, can foster a deeper and more sustainable bond.”
Just because your marriage may be long past its honeymoon phase doesn’t mean you can’t inject more passion into your partnership.
“If partners focus on cultivating emotional intimacy, it will allow them to both feel safe to discuss these issues down the line and also provide much emotional fulfillment during seasons of life where physical intimacy is not feasible,” says Cope.
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