Who Else is in Your Marriage?

One day you finally knew what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you kept shouting their bad advice.
Mary Oliver


I remember vividly the back-and-forth that occurred in my mind as it became clear that no matter how much therapy my then-husband and I did, no matter how many efforts we made to be kind and reduce the level of conflict between us, my marriage just was not working for me. The immediate internal response was, “But what will everyonethink if we get divorced?”


The “everyone” in that sentence is an interesting word. To me at the time, it encompassed the whole world. It felt like me versus this sea of faces, all frowning in disapproval and disappointment if I were to announce my separation.


In sociological terms, this is called the “generalized other.” It refers to an individual’s internalized impression of societal norms and expectations. Interestingly, what we don’t realize is that “everyone” does not actually encompass the whole world.


Instead, it likely represents the voice of just a few key people who played a prominent role in our formative years. As I drilled down on this voice in my own life, I quickly came to realize that the voice of my “everyone” was made up of several particularly critical women from my childhood for whom money and social status meant the world. My divorce would mean (in my mind, anyway) that I was leaving behind my affluent lifestyle and would be looked down upon and criticized.


So here I was in my mid-30s, extremely unhappy in my marriage, yet on some level staying put partly because I was afraid of what several long ago, far away women from my childhood would think. Once I learned about the “generalized other,” I realized just how banana pancakes this was!


In reality, these women would likely never give me and my divorce a second thought. And if they did? Truthfully their opinions were completely irrelevant to my best life.


Now I would invite you to explore who else might be involved in your marriage, keeping you stuck and scared? Who is the “everyone” in your relationship? Who are those people whose criticism and reaction you fear the most? If you are having a hard time identifying this person or persons, just think about whose voice is the loudest in your mind, the most judgmental? From whom do you least want to risk disapproval or who do you least want to disappoint?


Once you’ve identified this person or persons, ask yourself whether you want them in your marriage story. Have they earned the right to be there? Do they have your best interest at heart? Do their values and opinions align with your own? If the answer is yes to these questions, that’s awesome!


If not, however, you may not want these folks crowding around your marriage bed, figuratively taking up space in your guest room, and offering unsolicited advice on what to do in your relationship. The good news is that you have the power to eliminate the “everyone” from your marriage by simply noticing who it is, and deciding not to listen to those imagined voices of criticism and disapproval.  Instead, trade your “everyone” in for some new people – people from your life who support you whose values and beliefs align more with your own.


Photo by Hudson Hintze on Unsplash

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