Marriage or Maui?

May 9, 2009

4 min read


More than extravagant gestures, marriages are built with the small daily attentions.

Mike and Sara have been married for about 40 years. He's a hard-nosed businessman. She's a stay-at-home wife and mother. For years, as their children were growing up, Mike put in long hours at the office and was distracted by business concerns even while home. Finally, having achieved financial success and acclaim, Mike decided to slow down.

"Now we can spend some time together," he said to Sara.

"You're too late," she replied. "I've gone ahead and made a life without you."

We have been seduced into living for the future -- weekends, vacations, retirement -- at great cost to the present.

We lead very intense, packed, hectic lives -- and then once in a while, to decompress, we get a massage or take the day off. Is this as revitalizing as all the magazine ads would have us believe?

Apparently not. Research suggests that these "delay" tactics don't work. Jane Spencer, in a recent Wall Street Journal article, condemns this binge-and-purge approach to dealing with stress. It's neither healthy nor effective. You can't push your body or psyche to the max for long periods of time and then expect a weekend at the beach to be a cure-all.

It doesn't work for stress management. It doesn't work for child raising. And it doesn't work for marriage.

Bill is a compulsive workaholic. Cheryl, his wife, is lonely and miserable. To alleviate her pain, Bill takes her on elaborate vacations, luxurious getaways. They have a wonderful time, yet their marriage has hovered on the brink of divorce for years.

You can't ignore your spouse for weeks and then expect a romantic vacation to make it all better.

You can't ignore your spouse for weeks on end and then expect a romantic vacation to make it all better. (Grown-ups can't kiss boo-boos away!) How romantic is that ignored spouse feeling, anyway?

Vacations can be fun. We may be jealous of our friends who take gourmet cruises and travel to exotic locales. But marriages are not made by the extravagant gestures; they're built with the small daily attentions.

Did you get up to shut the window even though you were just as tired as she was? Did you wait up for him to come home from that meeting instead of just crashing? Did you do an errand today just to spare her the trouble? Did you buy his favorite ice cream? Did you call her during the day to check in? Did you turn off the television and talk to each other?

Yes it's much more mundane than the sands of Maui, but much more effective.

As the Jewish philosopher, Maimonides, wrote, "Man does not acquire virtues by the greatness of a deed, but rather by the number of times it is performed. Constant repetition of a good act leaves a much stronger imprint on the character -- and on a marriage (my addition!) -- than does the performance of one spectacular act" (Commentary on Pirkei Avot 3:15).

The grand gesture is easier. It's less demanding and much less frequent. It may be more expensive, but it doesn't require any personal growth, any digging deep to reach our higher selves. In terms of daily effort, there's no competition.

The more productive strategy requires much more work. It requires thinking about someone else's needs when you don't feel like it. It forces you to dull the background noise of work-related problems and issues. It necessitates rising above the desire for comfort (solitude, a beer, TV) and paying close attention to your partner's desires, needs, and interests. It's exhausting just thinking about it!

Yet it's the only thing that works. Sure, take a great vacation -- it's good for your marriage -- but only when it's in addition to your daily effort, not instead of it.

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