This past weekend, Cathy and I attended a Teichert family reunion in Cokeville, Wyoming. We stayed until Sunday and went to Church. I used to spend summers in Cokeville when I was a teenager, and I still know a lot of people in my grandmother's ward. It was fun introducing them to Cathy. In a way, it felt a little like returning to my past for a brief moment.
There was one couple I especially wanted Cathy to meet and arranged to visit them in their home after Church. They are my age and I got to know them during my summers in Cokeville as a kid. It was great fun to renew that friendship. The husband in that couple made an interesting observation. He was recently released as Bishop. Serving as a Bishop in a small town is a unique challenge. Everyone knows everyone else's business. You get to deal with feuds between families that have known each other and been friends for generations. You might have to do church discipline with people who have been your mentors, teachers, and coaches. Of course, my friend didn't discuss these situations specifically.
One of the most complicated tasks in joining two people together in a marriage is that they come from two different worlds as my friend observed. They are taught a whole series of unwritten rules. To use a simple example, suppose a young girl brings her boyfriend home to meet the family--a very traditional Latter-day Saint family. At dinner, he starts to eat before the blessing has been said on the food. During the meal, he dominates the conversation and gives an analysis of why the church is going in the wrong direction on certain social issues. They go into the living room after dinner and he sits down in Dad's recliner and doesn't give it up when dad walks into the room. This family may not consciously understand why, but there is something about this kid they don't like and he doesn't have a chance.
Of course, the analogy is oversimplified to illustrate the point. But the way people think very much reflects the unwritten rules they were taught when they were too young to even exercise agency. People violate the rules of which we are not even conscious, and something rubs us the wrong way about them.
We keep most people at enough of a distance that we don't step on each other's toes too often. We meet people for a fun visit or a church meeting and then we retreat to our separate worlds. But, in most marriages, worlds collide. You share your living space and your bed in most cases. Because you come from different cultures (even if you are both from the same small town in rural Wyoming), your partner is sometimes going to rub you the wrong way and do things you consider irrational and maybe even nonsensical.
One of the most valuable growth functions of a marriage can come from disagreements and frustrations if we let it. But it requires deliberate effort in self-understanding.
When I find myself reacting negatively to something Cathy says or does, I try to consciously ask myself what unwritten rule she is violating--and then ask myself whether that rule is worth keeping. I try to ask myself whether it makes sense. Oftentimes, when I approach my irritations with her that way, they don't irritate me nearly so much and often go away completely. If she is violating an unwritten rule that might be worth keeping, I ask myself if there are compassionate thoughts I might choose that will soften my heart toward her. When I take that approach, I can usually find something in her own history or upbringing that may be causing fear or insecurity. If you can see your partner as a frightened little boy or girl, rather than a hideous monster, you will have a better relationship. (I am not advocating here that you tolerate abuse--only that you try to be understanding of why your partner might behave the way he or she does.)
The principles I am discussing in this essay are not always easy to follow. They require us to loosen our grip on elements of our worldview that we may cherish. But that is a big part of growing together in marriage. It uncovers the often irrational assumptions we make about the world, or the things we think everyone believes that, in fact, our partners may not believe. A spouse is a daily reminder that the way you think and the things you want are not always universal. Uncovering and unpacking that allows us to grow up more. Being confronted with a person we love who does not see the world exactly the same way can be disconcerting, but also a profound growing experience.
My kid's mom thought we were "mismatched" because I believed in having conversations about problems and she would avoid such conversations at all costs. There were other ways in which we did not see the world in the same way. I don't think that necessarily meant we were mismatched. I think it was an opportunity for us to learn from each other and grow together--and create our own family culture. Cathy strives to be intentional about self reflection. That makes a world of difference in the way she shows up in our marriage.