When it comes to marriage, I cannot overstate the value of mentoring. If you were blessed to have grown up with happily married parents who communicated well, you probably learned, as though by osmosis, how to become happily hitched. Your live-in mentors paved the way.
But what if you grew up with parents who stayed together unhappily or divorced? Or if you were raised by a single parent? Typically, couples who see me for therapy grew up without viewing a healthy marriage. For them and for others desiring a happy, lasting union, good mentoring can fill the gaps.
Even if your parents were relatively happy together, their way might not be your way. Societal changes in recent decades include most women’s ability to support themselves financially. Consequently, many more of us require a more egalitarian, collaborative relationship than was the norm while we were growing up.
Adopting Realistic Expectations
A good marriage mentor helps you develop realistic expectations. My parents, of blessed memory, were divorced when I was thirteen. Before then, my father wasn’t home much. When he left for good, my mother felt abandoned. Her friends were unhappily married, divorced, or single.
So what I learned about marriage was not to expect a man to stick around. What I learned elsewhere came from fairy tales and romantic novels, which implied all you have to do is find a perfect specimen of a man to fall in love with, marry, and live happily ever after with, but with absolutely no effort on your part as he’ll do everything you desire to please you without your having to say a word about what you want because he is so good at reading your mind.
When an imperfection surfaced in a man I was dating, he was out of the picture. I pined after men I thought were perfect because I thought it was love when, actually, I was loving a fantasy. These men never let me get to know them well enough to see them as real people with vulnerabilities as well as strengths. For years this worked out okay. I got to complain to my friends about how sad it was that the men I liked didn’t want to become serious. I got to avoid getting married and having it not work out and becoming unhappy.
I’ve benefited from many mentors before and after I married. Most of them may have no idea of their impact on me, because mentoring can be subtle. It can happen through an overheard off-hand remark. Someone might toss advice your way and not find out whether you took it. Here are examples of two of my very helpful mentors.
You might be surprised to learn that my first mentors were my therapy clients. Despite my own struggle to get past my obstacles to marrying, or perhaps, unconsciously, because of it, I trained in and developed expertise in couple and family therapy.
Finding Good Role Models
A couple I saw early in my career as a therapist made a profound impact on me. They came in initially because the husband’s binge drinking was affecting their relationship. The wife, at first, had difficulty expressing her feelings. After some time, she told me privately that she learned that the best time to talk to her husband about something important was when they were in bed after having sex, because both of them felt comfortable and receptive.
I learned two important things from this couple: First, that it’s important it is to continue to have sex regularly with a spouse in order to stay connected emotionally as well as physically. And also to communicate positively about anything that might be preventing either spouse from wanting physical intimacy.
My second lesson from them occurred one time when I saw them together and my eyes welled up in tears because I was moved by their strong connection. They were learning to support themselves and each other. They continued with therapy to keep improving their relationship. I never saw this kind of caring and devotion in my parents. I’m grateful to them for showing me that is possible for spouses to remain loving and loyal while living through the ups and downs of marriage and life.
Developing Realistic Expectations
Another role model for me was a board member I’ll call Linda, with whom I developed a friendship when I was executive director of a family service agency. Linda, a physician, was happily married with two small children. She told me how she met her husband at a party, they dated, and became serious. I’m not ‘in love’ with him,” she said; “I’m very fond of him.”
Wow! Fond? Not madly in love? That was a new concept for me, which took a while to grasp. I suppose that “in love” means different things to different people, so it may be a matter of semantics. But I learned that really liking someone and being comfortable being myself with him was much more important than having the “crazy in love feeling,” with the emphasis on crazy because confusing that condition with true love is a big mistake.
Although I was quite high and in a somewhat dazed state after getting engaged, but truly the basis of it all was that I really enjoyed David’s company in a way that I felt grounded in myself rather than swept off into a fantasy.
Mentors are Plentiful
In case you’re wondering where to find mentors, here are some ideas:
- at your synagogue, church or other place of worship;
- in groups or organizations;
- at work;
- among friends and acquaintances;
- in a therapist or other professional counselor.
By keeping your eyes and ears open, you can find mentors just about anywhere. Notice couples who laugh and speak kindly to each other. If you admire a trait or behavior in someone, you can try to emulate it. Maybe you’ll ask them questions; maybe not.
Here’s a simple example of how a therapist can also be a valued mentor who helps you replace marriage myths you might be holding onto with more realistic expectations:
A wife complains to me that her husband doesn’t talk about his feelings. When I tell her that while there are exceptions, men, in general, have a harder time doing this than women. I’m helping her to improve her outlook. She’s likely to start accepting him as a normal man, instead of judging him as “unfeeling.” This change in her can foster a better relationship in which her husband becomes more comfortable sharing more of himself with her than before.
Mentors Want What’s Best for You
Your mentors are on your team. They want you to succeed and be happy.
Still single when I left my job at the family service agency, I hadn’t seen Linda for many years, not until my husband and I attended the agency’s big seventy-fifth anniversary celebration. She was thrilled to meet my husband and learn that we’d become parents.
“I’m glad you found your prince,” she said.