A Pedestal in Public, a Footstool in Private

Published July 12, 1979. It is becoming increasingly evident to me that every married couple has two marriages:  the marriage that is known only to the couple, and the marriage that is known to friends, neighbors, relatives and associates. In essence, every married couple has both a public and a private marriage.

The public marriage is what others see. It is the one we display when we have guests, go to parties, family reunions, church, etc. We put on our best behavior and consciously or unconsciously decide what kind of marital image we’d like to exhibit. Then we hope it is the kind of marriage others will perceive. Usually they do.

There is another dimension of the marriage that is known only to the couple. This is what is said or done in private when there is no peer scrutiny. It is the relationship that emerges when the facades are down, when there is no one to try to impress except each other. And in most marital relationships there is usually a discrepancy between our public and our private marriage.

Newly married couples are highly impressed and influenced by the public marriages of others they observe. The public marriages seen, however, may be dysfunctional in that the younger couples are viewing the aspects of the marriages that their associates wish to portray as the public marriage. What many newly married couples do not realize is that these couples often behave much differently toward each other when they are alone, in the privacy of their homes.

I am becoming increasingly skeptical of husbands and wives who lavish excessive praise or compliments on each other in public. It is almost as if they are trying to impress themselves and each other as well as the public that all is well within the marriage. Many people put their spouse on a pedestal in public only to use him or her as a footstool in private. Hopefully our public and private marriages could be more consistent in that both would become more genuine with less pretense.

Perhaps there is no greater example of our public and our private marriage than that which we wish our children to perceive. Part of our marriage is generally known to our children, but there are also some aspects of our relationship of which they are not aware. We as parents often do well in both disguising and deceiving. This phenomenon also raises a very good question: how much of our private marriage do we disclose to our children? Do we discuss the discrepancies and differences with them? Or, as we are constantly asked in marriage classes or counseling, “Should we discuss our differences in front of our children?”

Of course, there are some aspects of marriage that are too sensitive to talk about in front of our children depending on their age and maturity. The method by which the differences are confronted may also make a difference. No child should have to witness physical abuse (e.g hitting and beating) nor would their interests best be served if there is an excessive amount of screaming and yelling by a mother and father when talking over marital problems. There are perhaps some private dimensions of almost every marriage that should not become public.

But then there are the other realities to consider. We often assume that if we don’t verbally tell our children that “mother and father are having an argument” they won’t know. Children are not na├»ve and are often more sensitive than adults in detecting when an emotional upheaval is occurring. So let’s assume that they do know, or eventually find out, that all is not well in their parents’ marriage. Should we as parents then acknowledge that we know they know?

Perhaps we should also reconsider whether we want our children to grow up believing that mom and dad never had any differences of opinions. This is not a realistic marital expectation. Should we pretend, as we hope our children will, that husbands and wives never have confrontations with opinions, differences, or hurt feelings? Should we allow them to go into their own marriages and find out otherwise? Or is there an alternative?

On occasion, could we acknowledge to our children that, yes mom and dad (choose from the following) (a) are having a fight, (b) are discussing differences (c) are upset with each other, (d) are having an argument, or (e) all of these. Should we try and convince our children that we never have been angry or disappointed with each other and let them take that belief into their own marriage? We could let them know that two people who love each other can have differing opinions and even get upset with each other on occasion and yet continue to love one another. We could also allow our children to be present where we hopefully make up or become reconciled. If we have a practical way of dealing with marital problems wouldn’t that also become a worthwhile practice to teach our children?

Perhaps marriage would be more meaningful for both us and our unmarried children, if our public and private marriages were more congruent. Not that all the inadequacies and immaturity should become public, but the good qualities, attributes, and courtesies we practice in public should become part of our private marriage as well.

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