All relationship titles come with definitions.

Think about titles like mother, father, daughter, son, friend. All of these roles have predefined expectations. Typically these expectations come from images and models we are shown of how that person is supposed to act.

How would you complete these statements?
A mother is___________.
A father is ________________.
A daughter or son does ________________.
A friend acts like __________________.

Now, where did your answers come from?

Most likely, they came from your experiences and observations with people that played those roles in your life; along with societal influence and the media messages you received.

Just like these relationships in your life, the title of marriage has also been given prescribed definitions.

For example, society refers to marriage as a “ball and chain” normalizing an attitude of feeling trapped or burdened by the commitment. We are exposed to concepts like the “the seven-year itch” or “mid-life crisis,” implying that marriage gets boring or becomes a place you can’t change and evolve within.

Sitcoms portray nagging or lazy spouses suggesting that marriage is pulling someone else along or propping them up to make it day to day. And, our lexicon includes phrases like “hall pass” and “what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas,” insinuating that marriage is something that needs an escape.

On the other end of the continuum, we are taught concepts like “happily ever after” creating an ideal of what life is supposed to be like once you’re married. We are also given titles like “soulmate” offering an idea that there is one perfect person you have to find to be complete. Oh, and let’s not forget the fallacy of “prince charming,” the man that will save a woman and make everything okay.

We also have real life examples that make up our definitions of marriage.

Both positively and negatively, the relationships we observe help create our vision of what marriage looks like, how partners should treat each other and what constitutes a good relationship.

I am sure you can think of family, friends, or even celebrities that have been your marriage models.

We use other people’s relationships to help us understand what our marriage should look like, which is why when these people go through difficulties or break up it can turn us upside down. All of this input sets up expectations and behaviors that are then accepted and projected on to our relationship. In turn, unconsciously building our definition of marriage.

This definition becomes a map, helping us mark the way to a relationship destination. And, unfortunately, all of the above examples tend to lead us to a “common” marriage, a relationship that isn’t all that satisfying.

Here is a breakdown of what a “common marriage” looks like:

unrealistic expectations, high criticism, complaining about your partner to other people, a flat lined sex life, staying busy and distracted, thinking negatively about your relationship, all leading to feeling discouraged and then blaming your problems on your partner until you are perpetually unhappy.

I have seen this type of relationship time and time again. Have you?

So my question is,

“Why would we use the definition of marriage written by someone other than us, if it is a default map to problems and disappointment?”

Your best shot at experiencing a satisfying marriage occurs when you and your partner rewrite the definition of greatness together. My partner Jess and I have done this multiple times in our 26-years together.

—In our third year of marriage, when the definition we had unconsciously adopted wasn’t working anymore, we cleared the table, pulled out a new piece of paper and rewrote everything from what we believed about marriage to how we were going to walk it out in our day to day. It wasn’t easy. It was challenging. But it was critical to our survival and satisfaction.

—We redefined again after we had been together 12-years, following a time of devastating losses and disappointments. Our definition of how our marriage was supposed to work for others failed. Once again, we sat down, took out a new piece a paper and defined our priorities and how we were going to live those out going forward. The definition needed to change because we had changed.

—And even now, as our children are launching, we are once again writing a new definition, unwilling to buy what the world wants to sell us in the term “empty nesting.” There is nothing empty in our home, our lives or our relationship. In some ways, we are fuller than ever! And, the definition needs to reflect our story. (you can read more about our relationship in the conclusion of Relationship Reset)

You too can rewrite the definition of the word “marriage” if your current one isn’t working for you. Start by thinking through these two questions:

  1. What are negative or unrealistic ideas that have been a part of what you believe marriage to be?
  2. What are the models of marriage in your life that you would prefer not to follow?

Removing those concepts and examples from your definition is a great place to begin. Then, together, paint a vision of what you want your marriage to be defined by. What do you want your relationship to look like?

In the next Blog, Defining “Marriage” Part Two, I will teach you how to change your definition of marriage by using my— Your Story + Your Mindset = Your Reality process.

I think it will help you escape a “common” marriage, let go of someone else’s definitions and create your version of a vibrant marriage that you can count on.

Until we meet again—Love each other well,

Jen Elmquist