Every school child knows that the proper ending to a fairy tale is for the handsome prince and beautiful princess to ride off together into "happily ever after." The dragons and evil witches have been vanquished, and all of the couple's dreams will come true.
The operative phrase here is fairy tale. In real life, some dreams may come true, but not all of them, and never by magic. But the heady exhilaration and deep-down satisfaction of falling in love does have a fairy tale quality to it. Marital therapist Harville Hendrix, in Getting the Love You Want (Harper & Row), says, "We enter marriage with the expectation that our partners will magically restore this feeling of wholeness. It is as if they hold the key to a long-ago kingdom."
Left unchecked, this expectation will put unrealistic pressures on each spouse and on the marriage. In marriages that last, husbands and wives move toward a less idealized view of both the marriage and each other and toward a more realistic approach to working out their relationship. In this process, however, it's important to nurture your dreams, approaching them as two ordinary people working together to achieve all that is possible.
The Early Years Dreams Unlimited
Kate peered over the top of her textbook at Brad, who was sitting at the desk doing calculations and sighing. He looked tired—as tired as she felt.
"Want to take a break?" she asked.
"Sure, I guess I need one. Let's go for a walk."
The evening air revived them a little, but they both felt the heaviness as Brad told Kate their expenses were mounting more quickly than anticipated, especially with the recent increase in their rent. Although Brad was working full-time and Kate part-time while she finished her graduate degree, their income didn't cover as much as they thought it would. They were able to meet expenses, but they were putting much less into savings than they had hoped.
"Maybe I could do some freelance consulting on evenings and weekends," Brad suggested. "That would help us get ahead a little faster."
Although the topic was discouraging, it did feel good to be talking—something they seemed to have little time for lately. As they talked, they recalled the dreams they used to have of all they would accomplish together: Brad would move up in the computer consulting firm he worked for, and Kate would finish her masters degree and get a job with flexible hours. Along the way, they would save enough money for a down payment on a house and start a family. And they would accomplish all of this before they hit 30. It still seemed possible, but now it felt more tiring than exhilarating.
"What gets to me the most is the fact that we don't have much time together anymore," said Kate. "If you start doing freelance work, we'll have even less time. I didn't get married to lead separate lives."
"I know what you mean," Brad responded. "We might get everything we're working for and end up hardly knowing each other anymore."
Maintaining the pace they had set was costing them more time and energy than they had expected, and they were feeling the toll on their marriage. Their conversation that night was the first of many in which Kate and Brad rethought their dreams in light of what they had learned about the demands of marriage, work and daily responsibilities. They refocused on their priorities of enjoying their marriage and preparing to start a family and ended up revising their original timetable. If they were going to enjoy their marriage, they'd have to carve out more time for it.
They decided that Kate would take one less class each semester, which would lessen the pressure to spend so much time studying. Brad would take on a limited amount of overtime at work instead of doing freelance jobs. The house could wait a few years.
In regaining a sense of their deepest priorities, Brad and Kate were able to stop pushing themselves to accomplish their goals as quickly as possible. It also freed them to pursue a deeper relationship.
The Middle Years Dreams Deferred
Marsha stopped picking things up off the living room floor long enough to answer the phone. It was Barb, her best friend, who had just returned from her dream vacation. Marsha listened to Barb's excited description with a growing twinge of envy. What she envied was not the vacation itself; it was the fact that Barb and Jim had made it happen in the midst of busy family life.
Thinking about Barb's trip made Marsha feel hemmed in. She and Dave had lost sight of the exciting future they had hoped for. Yes, they had achieved some of their dreams—children, a steady job and a house that suited their family's needs. But achieving those dreams had also meant forgoing others.
Now, she and Dave dreamed mostly about the future of their children. Their calendar was dominated by band concerts, sports meets and youth group activities. Frustrated with their own limitations, it was tempting to divert their energy into their kids, who offered the promise of a new start.
One night, Marsha told Dave how she felt. He agreed that in their effort to be responsible parents they had developed a child-centered life. While this may be fun for the kids, it begins to hollow out a marriage. Marsha and Dave were feeling that emptiness; they could barely remember what their old dreams had been.
But after sharing their frustrations and regret, they started talking about what they still wanted for their lives. Moving into a century-old house in the country? It couldn't hurt to start looking, and it would be fun to revive their old hobby of hunting antiques to put in the farmhouse when they were ready.
In refocusing on their dreams, they began to recapture some of the warmth and excitement of their early years, and the limitations and disappointments of life no longer seemed so discouraging.
The Later Years Dreams Revisited
Les and Jean sat on the front steps of their empty, silent house. Their younger daughter had just gotten married, and they were trying to get used to the idea of seemingly limitless days of attending to no one's schedule but their own.
"Remember when we were first married, and we used to wish on a star together?" mused Jean.
"Yeah, I remember wishing I could own my own business instead of being tied into someone else's."
"That wish eventually came true. And you did well for 30 years."
"Yes, but I don't remember wishing to be bought out and forced to take early retirement!"
"I remember wishing we could have a really big family. We ended up with two beautiful daughters, and I wouldn't trade them for anything! Still, they were so long in coming that it's only been in the last few years that I've been able to take those art courses. I'd always imagined that by now I'd be an established artist."
Jean and her husband sat in silence, looking at the stars. "Do you think we're too old to make wishes?" Les finally asked.
"Not at all. We might have 20 or 30 more years ahead of us!" Jean said. "I still wish to be an artist—a real artist who sells her work!"
"And I still want to be doing something productive, maybe even have a business of my own again."
For the next hour they let their imaginations run. Some of their wishes were beyond their reach. But they also began to believe that many might well be possible—even Les's wish for a boat! By the end of the evening, their wishing had evolved into the beginnings of plans to sell their home and buy a house near their favorite lakeside resort. There, they would open a gallery to sell Jeans' and other artists' work. Les was sure he could make it fly and leave plenty of time to enjoy their new boat!
Because they were ready to move beyond past disappointments and losses, they were on their way to navigating a transition that can often be troublesome. When spouses neglect their own relationship in the busyness of tending to careers and family, they later find themselves virtual strangers when that busyness has passed. To avoid the emptiness, they may cling to their adult children, remaining overinvolved in their lives. Or they may succumb to the emptiness, pull inward and while away their days tending to their routines.
If they have not resolved significant disappointments from the past, they may experience bitterness. When they have only each other to look at across the kitchen table, suppressed frustrations, unhealed rifts and unforgiven hurts can loom large. Whether the original sources of pain were large or small, when left to fester they'll suck the strength from the marriage. Many couples even divorce at this juncture; the weight of unresolved losses, unfulfilled dreams and secret blaming can be too much for their marriage to bear.
While this sharp awareness of unresolved issues may be alarming, it can also signal a new beginning. This is an optimistic time for spouses who resist the urge to blame each other for failures and take on the challenge of working through the issues they have avoided. This is a daunting task, however, and often requires the help of a trusted pastor or counselor.
Keeping Dreams Alive
"Where there is no vision, the people perish," reads an ancient proverb. Far from being meaningless flights of fancy, our dreams nourish our lives and marriages. But keeping dreams alive requires concrete steps.
- Dream out loud together—and make sure both of you have a voice. When children arrive, don't silence your own voices as you're helping your kids find theirs.
- Listen to each other. Hearing one another's dreams will give you insights into each other and help you work as a team to turn dreams into reality.
- Don't let conflicting dreams discourage you. Keep talking, seeking ways to modify your aspirations. When you get stuck, it often helps to find a third party, one who won't take sides, to be a sounding board and help you find a way through the impasse.
- Get practical. Look for ways to turn dreams into action. And as you do, avoid all-or-nothing thinking. Which parts of your dreams are possible in the near future? What steps can you take now that will lead you toward achieving your goals?
- Celebrate your milestones. Taking stock of how far you've already come will build confidence for the future.
- Be willing to revise and improvise when things don't work out as you'd hoped. Disappointments and losses are inevitable, but they shouldn't put an end to your dreaming.
- Make the vitality of your marriage the cornerstone of all your dreams.When your most shining dream is to deepen the joy in your marriage, you'll find life rich even if all your other dreams fail to materialize.
Beverly J. Burch, M.A., is a psychotherapist who practices in the Chicago area, where she lives with her husband and two daughters.
1998 by the author or Christianity Today/Marriage Partnership magazine. For reprint information call 630-260-6200 or firstname.lastname@example.org.