Treat Your Marriage Like Your Teeth!

By Betty Phillips

Now what kind of whacked-out title is this?  Is Phillips off her rocker?  Well, just think about it.  We’re told to pay daily attention to our dental health, brush and floss each night and seek professional assessment with dental checkups every six months.  When a dental problem is discovered we invest immediately in corrective work, whether or not the charges are covered by insurance.  Why?  Our teeth are a long-term investment and we know we will be much better off if we take good care of this important resource.  Sure, we can purchase replacement (“false”) teeth but we worry that they won’t care for us as well as our original permanent teeth.  Get the picture now?  Phillips isn’t crazy, just likes analogies to get your attention and make her point.  Marriage is an important resource for our long-term mental and physical health — but how do we take care of our marriage partnership?  Not nearly as well as we take care of our teeth.  Sometimes I feel like a voice calling out in the wilderness — let’s pay attention to the health of our marriages!  And let’s pay attention before they deteriorate and decay!  Most couples wait six years from the time marital problems begin until they seek marriage counseling.  No wonder It’s so difficult to restore health and vitality to the marriage.  Your dentist would be appalled if you came in for treatment after six years of dental neglect — assuming you have any teeth left to repair!  When your teeth hurt, you don’t care whether insurance will cover the treatment, you make the appointment and pay up.  When your heart and soul hurt from marital problems, however, the refrain is often: “we can’t afford marriage counseling.”  As a point of information, most insurance programs will cover “family treatment” for you and your spouse although they may tell you they don’t cover “marriage counseling.”  One or more of you will need to be distressed enough to qualify for the family treatment.  My basic point is that you and your spouse should sign up for marriage counseling whether or not it is covered by insurance.  Your marriage should be at least as important as your teeth.

There is another important similarity with dental health.  We grow our first temporary set of teeth which will need to be replaced as we grow up.  Let’s compare this to the first stage in partner relationships, the romantic phase, being madly “in love”, the beginning stage which like baby teeth is destined to fall apart and must be replaced by a second stage of mature and hopefully long-lasting love.  We’re told about the transition from baby to permanent teeth.  Why aren’t we taught about the demise of romantic love and the need to care for the next partnership stage?  Research shows that the stage of romantic love will last up to two years but inevitably will fade.  The serious work of sustaining the longer-term, hopefully permanent relationship begins when this romantic phase ends.  Instead of understanding this, many people become distressed, blame their marriage or partner, and start looking around for another romantic love.  But let’s take another look at the statistics.  40 to 50% of first marriages, 60 to 70% of second marriages and 75% or more of third marriages end in divorce.  The very romantic love of affairs rarely ever graduates to marriage.  When affair partners marry, many of these marriages end up in divorce court.  There are many reasons to stay with our original partner and work on a long-term relationship.

When our baby teeth disappear we can’t get them back.  The euphoric peaks, wonderful happiness, the obsessive need for the lover’s company, the passionate moments of romantic love, similarly are doomed.  When reality strikes, too many of us feel tricked and trapped into a less than happy marriage.  We’re left with an acquired taste for passionate love facing a grumpy spouse, dirty dishes, bills to pay, surprised by the loss of the dream but feeling the same deep need for love and understanding and connection.  What next?  You begin noticing all those annoying, frustrating or just plain awful characteristics of your spouse.  Even worse, you wonder what happened to all those special things you love: tender moments, compliments, little gifts, words of endearment, thoughtful actions.  No It’s not just your marriage; it happens to everyone.  That information will not make you happy but it may help you understand the next step to marital happiness: love work.  Yes the love that was so spontaneous and exciting now has to be prioritized and pursued.  Yes you can live “happily ever after” but the reality is not as easy as the dream.

A major mistake is to blame your spouse for this loss of romantic love.  You have equal responsibility in a relationship.  Furthermore you are the only person who can guarantee that you will change.  If both of you decide to change — great!   Sometimes one spouse will refuse to participate in marriage counseling with the classic words, “you can go to counseling; you are the problem.”  Just smile because you know better.  You can make the initial investment but your spouse will soon become involved when your efforts begin to work.

So what can you do, or both of you do, to keep your love alive?  Everyone wants to love and be loved.  No one wants to nag and fight or withdraw in stony silence.  Real mature love cannot emerge until the romantic illusion fades and is replaced by a partnership of mutual self-interest.

In keeping with my emphasis on humor, here is one of the many marriage jokes: “A word of wisdom for the women who is looking for Mr. Right.  Be sure that his first name is not Always!”


Dr. Phillips holds a Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology from Harvard University and is certified by the National Register of Psychologists. She specializes in relationship and marriage counseling, including helping couples deal with the challenge of recovering from infidelity. Her office is located at 466 Eagle Point Rd. Pittsboro, NC 27312. You can find out more about Dr. Phillips practice, as well as other articles she has written on her website, or by contacting her at (919) 967.1860

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Mking April 8, 2010 at 10:48 pm

Hello, I am a counselor and want to point out that your article seems not to be accounting for the great number of married people who DID make it gracefully through the transition from the first stage or first years of love to companionship and “mature” love. I am meeting couples who say they were “happy” for 15 or more years and appear to have (sorry to use the worn expression) grown apart. More tragic still are the couples for whom it seems impossible for one or both(usually just one of them)to actually recall that crazy in love stage much less try to resurrect any of the playfulness or positive regard from that period. I hate to jump off the save the marriage band wagon but I honestly feel I am seeing couples who never loved anywhere near equally. That is to say, one of the members was “in love” and can visit in their memories a time of true passion and wonder…. The other partner never experienced this but instead found a partner with whom to build a family for instance.
I think this happens more than any of us wants to believe. A life changing event such as death of a parent, turning 40 or 50 or experiencing a serious illness, can cause these passionless marrieds to question their choice and feel the need for the intensity of emotion which their spouse may have felt for them but they honestly never felt for their spouse. What a painful place for a married person to be.
I just don’t think enough articles acknowledge this and the poor spouse is left overeating, drinking, fantasizing about old boyfriends or girlfriends and living a life of regret and guilt for even having these feelings to begin with. Not all or even most marriage problems are the result of an inability to transition well through the stage of infatuation and passion and into a more mature love. In my opinion, many less than content spouses are actually quite good at maintaining companionship and responsible mature love. I so hate to see the guilt they carry for sensing something may have been missing all along and desperately want to experience that intense something in their lives. How do we talk a person out of an emotional need?

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