Scott Peck, author of "The Road Less Traveled," draws the analogy between marriage and a base camp for mountain climbing. Observes Peck: "If one wants to climb mountains one must have a good base camp, a place where there are shelter and provisions, where one may receive nurture and rest before one ventures forth again to seek another summit.
"Successful mountain climbers know that they must spend at least as much time, if not more, in tending to their base camp as they actually do in climbing mountains, for their survival is dependent upon their seeing to it that their base camp is sturdily constructed and well stocked."From Peck's perspective, marriages may run into trouble if spouses don't tend to the base camp. Either may devote his or her energies to climbing mountains to the exclusion of tending to the marriage, thus expecting the relationship to be there in perfect order whenever he or she returns without assuming any responsibility for its maintenance.
Marriages may also run into difficulty if either spouse considers the base camp the peak of his or her life and does not understand or empathize with the other spouse's need for achievements and experiences beyond the marriage. The first spouse may react to the second spouse's outside focus with jealousy and never-ending demands that the second person devote increasingly more energy to the home.
Spouses face a perpetual juggling act in balancing their tending to the base camp, thus assuring the maintenance of a solid, nurturing marriage, and tending to the "self," thus assuring the achievement of individual growth within the context of the marriage.
In a marriage there is a "you," a "me" and a "we." Tending to the base camp - the "we" aspects of the marriage - involves investing time, energy and resources to nurture the partnership and to set it apart, as a boundaried unit, from the rest of the world.
In addition, each spouse is responsible for taking care of the "self" within the marriage. Sometimes spouses blame the "base camp" - the marriage - or the person they are sharing the base camp with - for the lack of satisfaction in the relationship, thinking: "If my marriage were only different, then I could have a life of my own and I'd be happy."
Michele Weiner-Davis, author of "Divorce Busting," challenges this type of thinking, noting that each spouse is in charge of the quality of his or her life: "If you are unhappy with your lot in life, it's up to you to do something about it. Although many people recognize this to some degree, they still hold on to the deadly illusion that another person can supply them with happiness." There are three common forms this illusion takes, she says:
- Deadly Illusion #1: "I am not happy because he or she doesn't satisfy my emotional needs." Weiner-Davis cautions: "You won't find marriage fulfilling if you aren't satisfied with the rest of your life." And she continues:
"Human needs are far too complex to have any single outlet. . . . Regardless of how successful your marriage, you will need other people and other interests to make your life meaningful."
- Deadly Illusion #2: "My spouse won't go places I like to go or do things I like to do and that's why I'm unhappy." Weiner-Davis asks: "Where did people ever get the idea that spouses have to do everything together?" And she adds: "Staying home consistently because your mate doesn't feel like doing what you suggest is one surefire way to destroy your marriage. The resentment will build gradually until one morning you will wake up feeling life is passing you by. Don't let this happen to you. Martyrdom isn't very becoming and doesn't work very well either. Take charge of your own life."
- Deadly Illusion #3: "I can't do what I want because my spouse wouldn't approve." "If you are consistently seeking approval for every step you take, it's unlikely that you will get it. No two people think alike all the time." You're heading for disaster if you allow differences of opinion to stop you from doing the things necessary to make yourself happy, Weiner-Davis observes: "Remember, it's important to agree to disagree at times. It is impractical to think that marriage can thrive in any other way."
Weiner-Davis recommends that you answer the following questions to clarify what you need to change to make life more fulfilling. Once you know the answers, take action:
1. If the problems between you and your spouse got resolved all of a sudden, what would you do with all the time and energy you have been spending on fixing or worrying about the marriage?
2. If you were to feel happier, what would you do that you haven't been doing lately?
3. If your mate were to die suddenly or leave abruptly, how would you rearrange your life? As you imagine what you might do differently, can you identify which of these changes you could make immediately?
4. If you just learned you have a life-threatening illness and only a short time to live, what experiences would you need to have in order to consider your life complete?
5. What might be one or two small things you can do this week that will take you one step closer to your goal?
6. What, if anything, might present a challenge to your taking these steps this week, and how will you meet the challenge? Take a two-prong approach to achieving more happiness in your life, Weiner-Davis urges. While you work on your personal goals to feel better about yourself, also implement changes in your marriage (the base camp). Improvement in one area will undoubtedly lead to improvement in the other.
- JoAnn Larsen is a therapist practicing in Salt Lake City.