Married life: how to cultivate our garden?

Joanna PIEKARSKA: In our previous interviews, we talked about the cultural factors that influence marriage and the components of love. You mentioned the stages of married life, and I thought we could talk about it this time. As with the whole of modern culture, these steps affect us all and being aware of their development can be useful in fostering a relationship. What do you think is the most important thing to know about this subject?

Barbara SMOLINSKA: There are several models of the stages of married life, but they all assume that the relationship evolves, that it is not always the same. And that’s probably the basis – it’s about reminding us that it’s a process. If we think about individual development, it is obvious that a person changes over time and this happens in a logical order. First, a child is a newborn, an infant, then a preschooler, a schoolboy, a teenager… and so on until old age. Psychoanalyst Erik ERIKSON best described a person’s development.

But the relationship is growing too! It also has steps. And, as we have already said, the completion of one stage determines the transition to the next. I really mentioned the model of the phases of married life created by the psychoanalyst J.R. WILLI, who has worked with couples, and I will use this model in our conversation. It describes very well what happens in a couple. We must not forget that WILLI created this model in the 1970s and that these steps are not as obvious now as they were in more traditional marriages.

In the beginning

This theory therefore speaks first of all of the phase of creating a stable relationship. This is the moment when we are looking for a permanent partner. A girl meets different boys, a boy meets different girls, these are often short relationships. Through them, the young boy or girl develops the ability to connect with other people. These are the first “conquests.” These are trials and mistakes, a bit of a playful nature, and that’s what is needed. The person then acquires the feeling of his/her own individualization, he/she shapes himself/herself, he/she builds his/her identity. And that stage ends when the person finds a permanent partner, that is, they get to know someone about whom they say, “I would like to live my life with that person.”

J.P.:  Today, people often say, “I found my other half.”

B.S.:  Yes. Now we are beginning to shape our common history. It’s a clear moment when the couple starts talking about their plans together. What’s it going to be like when we’re living together? How many children will we have, will we have children? Where will we live? A couple begins to form, which also means mutual exclusivity. This is important because this decision of exclusivity also means that you will suffer some loss. And maybe these days, with a dominant personality type focused on personal development, it’s a big challenge. Because it’s a bit of an excessive self-denial: if I choose you, I don’t choose the others. And I am conscious that, maybe one day, I will meet someone who will be more beautiful, wiser… The second important thing in the development stages is having to leave the family home. There used to be a lot of anxiety at this stage – that separation anxiety, and now it’s different. Because often this phase of the relationship starts when we left home a long time ago, left for university or moved. We lived for 10 years without our parents …

J.P.: That’s true, but it’s also often the case today when someone starts living independently, but calls Mom or Dad every day… The Internet and mobile phones do not seem to facilitate the separation from parents.

B.S.: Absolutely. If we moved and talked to our parents every day, we didn’t really move. In the past this stage began precisely at the decision-making stage for a lasting relationship, where one committed oneself to another after completing one’s studies. Now, young people often enter into tight-knit relationships earlier or, on the contrary, have difficulties with the proverbial cut of the umbilical cord. But traditionally, it has been linked to the second phase of relationship building.

Achievement and development

The third phase distinguished by WILLI is the stage of the realization and development of marriage. It covers the first years after marriage and is a very lively and rich period. Probably the most psychologically active, because this is the moment when a married couple (or a couple who decided to be together) seeks their identity, that is, what kind of couple we will be, how we will live. It is about how important decisions are made and the day-to-day life that needs to be put in order. You have to organize and work out everything, determine all these positions and roles. In today’s couples, it is not easy, for example, to decide whether we will cook or not, because maybe we will eat out or bring meals from the canteen. It is not the biggest problem, but it is a question of who will cook, if we both are working.

J.P.: Who will do the shopping, who will feed the dog …

B.S.:  Are we going to eat together, who will clean, who will take care of all the small household business? But so are many other things. Visiting parents – how often and to whose parents? And here’s exactly what you’ve often mentioned. If someone calls their mother every day or even comes by for dinner, what happens next? This is an important and a very conflictual challenge: how are we going to develop relationships with our parents and in-laws? It is necessary to define tasks, the distribution of responsibilities, the share of work and free time, entertainment, social contacts, friendships…. Previously, it was also the time when a couple started having sex. Now it’s a pretty rare choice to wait until being married, although it’s still found in some couples. Far more often than before, couples decide to have sex early, even at the beginning of their relationship. And another job for the couple is sexual adjustment. It is a challenge to get along in this area and decide what our privacy will look like. All of these problems are related to dependency and independence, so it touches on an extremely important issue, because at the moment we are very much in favour of independence. We want to be self-reliant. Therefore, the people who are bound together, at least in this social conception, are independent, that is, have their work, their income and are used to live alone. However, it is impossible to imagine the life of a couple in full independence! It is a very important dimension as a couple: dependence and freedom. What will be the dependence, what place will there be for freedom and independence for each of us? There is no single model. You could say that every couple has to address and negotiate this.

J.P.: It can be very varied. Some people have a greater need for independence, others less so, and there are different ways to implement it. There is no recipe as simple as: “A good marriage should mean spending X hours a week together and Y hours separately.” It is an individual question.

B.S.:  These needs must first be recognized. Sometimes they’re simple things. For example, a person goes out somewhere and doesn’t say where they’re going and when they’re going to be back. “I don’t have to tell you, I’m not a child.” Of course, no one cares, and on the other hand – it has its consequences. In addition, this phase reveals many childhood injuries and deficits. In general, entering into a stable relationship in adulthood activates all that has been difficult in our life history. If we were given too little care and concern, we became independent too quickly as children. We grew up quickly so as not to suffer because of our unmet needs for proximity. We know that in such a situation, proximity will be difficult for us, we will move away from it. Or, on the contrary, someone may experience a large lack of intimacy and expect their spouse to take care of them – whereas this care can only be obtained from a mother in the early years of life. Thus, such a person will be constantly exposed to rejection. He/she will think that if the husband or wife does not care about his/her as a mother does for a baby, it means that he/she does not love her/him. Fortunately, couples often come to therapy when they feel that these are not just daily misunderstandings.

J.P.: In other words, in the initial development phase of a marriage, we are faced with many decisions and arrangements, as well as confronting early-life injuries. What else happens in this phase that is psychologically the richest?

A next big challenge

B.S.:  The next big challenge of this stage is to manage the differences. At the stage of falling in love, we idealize the loved one and see the similarities above all. We think that we think the same things, that we share the same values. More than once, for people who are believers, it is an illusion: “We are both believers, we will agree in everything.” Now, you can believe and at the same time be very different. Some couples believe that faith is enough to agree on all subjects. Of course, it is not enough, because many differences will appear over time. This is where the first crisis often comes in. It turns out that we want different things, for example one spouse already wants to have a child and the other does not yet. I’m not talking about the difference where one wants to expand the family and the other doesn’t want to… Let’s hope the couple agreed beforehand! But there are also less important things: one wants to go to the movies tonight, and the other wants to stay at home, and so on. There are hundreds of things that need to be resolved in one way or another. And here a conversation is needed. It is also necessary to accept that a relationship should not always be pleasant. That is a very important thing. Perhaps the belief that a marriage, especially a sacramental marriage, should always be pleasant is more harmful than serious conflicts. Because it’s an illusion. No, it won’t always be pleasant.

J.P.: Sometimes it can even be very unpleasant …

B.S.:  Sometimes we hurt each other, and that’s normal. We have to deal with it both because we hurt our spouse and the fact is that he/she also hurts us. A wife or husband will not be the perfect spouse who will only love us. This vulnerability is related to the fact that sooner or later you must allow your partner to reach your places of fragility and weakness. And note that the other also has his/her places of fragility and weakness. During this period, we get out of our roles, take off our masks. We show who we are, and everyone is a mix, isn’t it? With a few qualities, a few flaws, a few limits, a few injuries in the history of life. And the fact is, anyway, we should try to build a “marriage community.”

J.P.:  It won’t be easy …

Married life, or how to cultivate your garden…

After talking about the cultural factors that influence marriage, the components of love and the early stages of married life, Barbara SMOLINSKA* and Johanna PIEKARSKA* conclude their conversation with the arrival of children and the crisis of middle age, and share with us what is the secret of happy couples!

Building a “marriage community”

B.S.: It will not be easy to talk about this step. For, in addition, at this stage, children usually appear (this is more the case in the traditional approach to marriage, because now days children are often already there before the marriage). But let’s admit that we look at these phases as psychological phases. So there comes a time when at this stage of the construction of the marriage, there is either a child or children. And it’s also a colossal change for a couple! I even think this is the biggest change the couple has to face. The arrival of the first child, when this couple turns into a triangle, we go from a dyad to a triad. The relationship is changing.

J.P.: If we take into account the cult of personal development, which in our time is now an important context for the development of the couple, then this child changes the situation even more. Because interdependence is growing. We can no longer leave the house for a course or work overtime, or even go to the dentist if the husband or wife does not agree to stay with the baby during that time…. If we live far from our parents or if they are still very active professionally, which today is often an economic necessity, with a small child we really depend on each other.

B.S.: You need to get along, communicate and share responsibilities. The new-born child, then the baby and the toddler are extremely demanding. They need 24/7 care and you need to be in there. But the balance of the couple is also upset. I think this time is often more difficult for men. A woman, however, is naturally related to the baby, if only because she had carried it in her womb for nine months beforehand. The father, even the most committed, is always separated. He may feel distant or useless….

J.P.: I heard it dozens of times in CANA: “Everything was fine until our child appeared”.

B.S.: Because it is a huge change. And precisely because the mother is strongly attached to the child from the very beginning, she is very focused on the baby. At the same time, during the first months, the baby needs a lot of her involvement, in particular if she is breastfeeding. Especially with the first child, a woman can be so focused on the child that there is no space for her husband.

J.P.: And this is natural and difficult at the same time.

B.S.: Yes. The issue of sexuality is also important here. Often the couple does not have intercourse at the end of the pregnancy, then there are six weeks after the birth and sometimes the woman is not ready to return to intimacy with her husband even longer afterwards. She may be tired of constant breastfeeding, colic, being alone with the baby for days on end. She may not be able to engage in anything else.

J.P.: I remember an acquaintance once telling me that for the first few months after giving birth she was in a sense on another planet. I only understood this when I gave birth to my daughter myself. It is indeed a different reality, when day is mixed with night and it is a success to take a shower in peace.

B.S.: And it is very hard for husbands. The more immature they are, the harder it is for them. You have to actively seek your place as a dad during this time. Then it may be less painful. On the other hand, if a man is less mature and it is difficult for him to understand, he simply suffers from the fact that his wife has no attention for him, is not available sexually. He may experience this as rejection or lack of love. This is also entering a completely new role! Of course, it is also a challenge for the woman to make room for her husband, and this seems to me to be easier nowadays than it was 40 years ago. Back then, it was common for a young mother to be surrounded by the women of her family. After the baby was born, there was immediately a mother, sister, aunt, mother-in-law…. And there was really no place for a young father, because if he suddenly had five women at home, all he could do was leave or sit in front of the TV. But now I often hear young parents say: ‘No visits for the first three weeks.’ And that has a lot of advantages. It makes it easier for the man to find his place with the child. But it’s a difficult moment, conflictive and a crisis.

J.P.: I would like to sum it up a bit, because we have said a lot. So, the third stage of married life consists of: the search for the couple’s identity, the sexual adjustment, the first disappointments with each other, the arrival of children and the crisis connected with it … or experiencing the loss of not having them.

B.S.: If you go through all this successfully, the couple enters a phase of mid-life crisis. Beforehand, the children used to be older, now they are born later. So different problems appear together at this stage in the marriage. As we enter middle age, we may have children who are still quite young, and not yet teenagers at all. Some people even become parents just before forty years old, when the mid-life crisis is already knocking at the door. This is the phase of life when we start to take stock of the past and ask ourselves questions about the future. We wonder if our life so far satisfies us. Is this what we wanted? And that can make some of the coherence and stability that has developed beforehand start to waver. This is the moment when people sometimes want to make changes in their personal life, find a more interesting job or devote themselves to a hobby. If the children are older, you can have more time, again, to focus more on your own needs. Especially if a woman has chosen to take care of children full-time, at this stage she generally wants to make up for the time spent doing so, to develop professionally. She can get an education or just go to work. If she takes up a job, it will upset the family arrangement. Suddenly there will be a need for her husband to get involved in things at home. And if these individual reviews are difficult for the couple, it also affects their relationship. Sometimes this is also the first moment when we start to see that we are getting older. This is the moment of breakthrough, when we know that we enter into the second half of our life. Now we are living longer, so it is not yet ageing in the full sense of the word, but it can still be difficult.

Last phase: the “marriage of old age”

J.P.: I will have one question in relation to this increase in life expectancy, but maybe let’s stay with these stages for now…

B.S.: OK, then let’s move on. We are still left with the last phase. Jürg WILLI calls it the “marriage of old age” It’s that moment when the children leave home or have already left. The empty nest phase can be difficult for a marriage in different ways, depending on whether the couple has built cohesion. I think it’s a kind of litmus test for a relationship…. When there are no more children at home, one or both spouses have retired and a lot of time is spent at home together; if the relationship of the couple is only based on having children together … it becomes difficult. Many couples then split up. But some couples come to therapy to learn how to enjoy being together. Age-related health problems can also be a big challenge. Sometimes it is a serious illness of one of the parties, sometimes of both. And inevitably the relationship ends with the death of one of the people, because spouses don’t usually die together, someone passes away first. This is very difficult, but here, too, much depends on what the relationship was like. If it was a good one, it is possible to go on living, despite the great suffering at the beginning.

J.P.: Coming back to life expectancy…. We live much longer now than at any time in human history. It used to be quite realistic to expect to experience, say, two marriages. Women died in childbirth; men died in wars…. I don’t have to look far … my grandfather was widowed and about to remarry when he contracted cancer and soon passed away, and his would-be second wife still has a cordial relationship with my family. My husband’s great-grandmother outlived her two husbands and was a second wife for one of them. Today, entering marriage, we are unlikely to have that perspective.  Realistically, one would sooner expect to lose one’s spouse due to a serious crisis and divorce than to die prematurely. On the other hand, if we don’t allow for the possibility of a break-up and we intend to take care of the relationship, it’s very likely that we’ll live through a huge amount of time together…. I guess that also changes things?

B.S.: Yes, for sure. I think you can have more concerns now than you used to. Because when you get married in your twenties, you can quite realistically expect 50, 60, even 70 years of life together. That can be a bit frightening.

J.P.: Some marriage researchers claim that such long-lasting relationships are too much for us and they see this as the reason for some divorces. They think that it is impossible to live with one person that long…

B.S.: I am an optimist when it comes to this. I know many couples that have been married for a very long time. Some time ago I had a couple of 80-year-olds in therapy who came to me because they wanted to learn to enjoy being together at this stage. The children had long since moved out, both were retired. The gentleman had previously been a diplomat, so this retirement was a huge change. They came to me for about six months and it was a successful therapy. I also had a couple in my family, an aunt and uncle, childless by the way, who lived together for over 50 years and you could see that they were very happy. My own marriage has also lasted 46 years and we are getting better together.

The secret of happy couples

J.P.: So, what is the secret of happy couples?

B.S.: There are several factors. For sure it’s good when a couple works on building a balance in such areas as closeness and distance, dependence and freedom, commitment and letting go, activity and passivity, egoism (a healthy one) and altruism. There must be room for all this! There need to be both shared areas, such as spending time together and having friends over, and areas of independence, spending time apart. It is also important to remember that a good marriage is a journey of self-giving. It is important to talk to each other, to constantly seek understanding, and to allow for fragility and weakness … in oneself and in the other. We will have to forgive our spouse but also ourselves. The latter may be even more difficult!

It is important to take care of daily life together, customs and rituals, such as eating meals together. And also, this attitude of gratitude … it is worth consciously building it in ourselves, learning to feel and express it. Pope Francis speaks beautifully about this. For a lifelong marriage to be possible and satisfying, it is also good to be in contact with other couples who want to be together until the end, to have support. That doesn’t mean we should live in a bubble and not have any other friends, but being in contact with married couples who share the same values, like in CANA, can be a big help.

J.P.: I also thought about the need to accept that not all our needs will be met in marriage. When we lived in multi-generational families and in greater contact with neighbours and friends, we had the whole proverbial village to meet our various emotional needs. Now your spouse is often the only person you are close to, and you are burdened with enormous expectations…. That is why I think it is necessary to take care of good relations with other close people, to have friends.

B.S.: That is very true. If we don’t have them, the burden of mutual expectations can be enormous. Women, in particular, often expect their husband to take care of all their needs, to be a confidant, even a friend. And no man can give us everything we need. This expectation is unrealistic and the sooner we realise it, the better.

J.P.: It’s all quite demanding…

B.S.: Yes, but at the same time it can give an enormous amount of satisfaction. I like to compare marriage to a garden. It is not enough to plant it … you still have to take care of it, nurture it, water it, pull weeds…. A lot of patience and effort is needed, but the effect can be really delightful.

J.P.: This image could also apply to the developmental stages you mentioned. A newly created garden is completely different from a garden in which the trees bear fruit for the first time, and a garden carefully maintained for decades…. Each of them will be beautiful in its own way. And I think we will wish this beauty and joy to our readers at the end of this interview! 

Thank you, Basia, for this conversation.

Why these articles? Who are the authors?

We have already published the analysis of the situation of Polish couples in 2010, signed by Barbara SMOLINSKA, psychotherapist, at the 30th anniversary of CANA (link with the page). We wanted to go further and understand how the situation of couples has changed over the last ten years. We asked Barbara what her current impressions are. Barbara chose to enter into dialogue with Joanna, a psychotherapist of a younger generation.

Barbara SMOLINSKA: psychotherapist and psychotherapy supervisor, head of the Pracownia Dialogu therapeutic centre in Warsaw. Together with her husband, Taddeusz, they are engaged for life in the Chemin Neuf Community and have been responsible for CANA in Poland for several years.

Joanna PIEKARSKA: journalist and psychotherapist. She collaborates with Pracownia Dialogu in Warsaw and runs a mental health blog called Therapeutic Notes. Together with her husband, Rafao, she is engaged in the Communion of Chemin Neuf.