This originally appeared on ShrinkTalk.net in a slightly different version. Republished here with permission.
During a recent session, a couple who had been married for about five years decided to end their relationship. The wife told the husband very matter-of-factly, saying that “they had simply grown apart and couldn’t stop fighting.” Neither he nor I were surprised given they we had spent almost a year working on their relationship with no improvement in their ability to resolve conflicts or even increase their interest in spending time together. And, although the reality of the words “I want a divorce” initially made him very anxious and distressed, he agreed that they were no longer happy together and didn’t see the point in continuing as well.
The couple’s separation got me thinking more about why marriages so often don’t work out. Depending on where you get your numbers, one in two new marriages ultimately end up in divorce. Statistics are dubious entities and this number can vary wildly depending on your source, but even as a simple approximation, a 50% divorce rate is a scary proposition. There is some fluctuation in this number depending on certain demographics: a lower divorce rate is seen in those who are college-educated, as well as those who wait until they are over age 30 before getting married. If you marry in your teens or early 20s, your risk of the relationship dissolving goes through the roof.
What makes this “1 in 2″ figure even more sobering is the implication that the 50% of marriages that remain intact are happy ones. I see both individuals and couples who remain in the relationships for a plethora of reasons: financial, religious, a belief that it benefits the children, a belief that one doesn’t deserve better, fear of being alone, or simply a lack of desire to deal with the legal red tape. If we look for the number of “successful” marriages that include both a formal retainer as well as mutual satisfaction we are considering a fairly low number that hasn’t been well established in the clinical literature.
With respect to obvious precipitating factors for divorce such as abuse, addictions, or adultery, let’s focus on some of the most salient reasons why marriage can be such a difficult business, as well as some things that can help those relationships thrive:
1) Marriage requires compatibility, not just at the point of saying “I do,” but across the entire life span.
You won’t be the same person in five, 10, or 20 years. Your goals, ideals, perspectives, and interests can all change as you evolve. This isn’t a bad thing. However, as you move along your adulthood as an ever-changing being, your spouse is doing the same thing. Two people who marry at 25 won’t be the same people at 35 or 45, so your compatibility over the lifespan requires that you both evolve in mutually beneficial ways. This is no easy task and is why you often hear of couples “growing apart,” or one partner saying “he/she isn’t the person I married.” Like the couple who recently split up, neither of them were the same people from five years ago. Couples need to realize that they will both change and have to strive for changes that allow them to remain connected in a viable way.
2) Assuming that marriage implies monogamy, the institution itself is counterintuitive to biology.
Most species are not hardwired to be with one partner and humans are not different. You’re programmed to be producing with different partners. Almost invariably people report that they often feel a sexual attraction to others who are not their spouse. While most don’t act on those drives, many people view this as a sign that “the marriage is not meant to be” or that the relationship is inherently flawed. This usually happens around the time when sexual excitement wanes and it becomes harder to live a passionate lifestyle in the bedroom. This realization of a damaged relationship isn’t necessarily accurate simply because our make-up promotes the seeking out of new mates. What people need to realize is that the ideal marriage is striving for a greater good than can be obtained in lieu of multiple sex partners. But make no mistake: Marriage is a man-made institution, not a natural one. Without an appreciation for the magnitude of commitment prior to starting the marriage, both sexual and emotional, a person can become disenchanted very quickly.
3) There is far too much emphasis on “weddings” as opposed to “marriages.”
Pretend that I could marry you and your perfect mate (real or imagined) right now. By simply reading this paragraph, you are married. For women this means no ring, friends, family, flowers, dress, undivided attention, or celebration of any kind. For men this means no bachelor party, tuxedo, strippers, or Best Man. Neither of you would even be signing papers down at City Hall. Just this and you’re legally committed. Do you still want to be married to this person right now?
If you said “no” or hesitated for more than a few seconds before replying you’re immediately setting yourself up for failure. Don’t confuse the terms “wedding” and “marriage.” Your wedding occurs on Day 1, but your marriage is every single day after that. Can you name any other situation where one would hyper-focus on less than .001% of the pie?
4) Many couples do not know how to fight fairly.
This is somewhat cliché in the shrink world but true nonetheless. There are countless books and therapeutic approaches on this topic that go beyond the scope of a single blog post, but the long and short of it is that any successful long-term relationship will have its fair share of conflict. This is a natural aspect of emotional intimacy. But too many people shy away from raising their voices or asserting their needs to each other for multiple reasons: fear of abandonment, a belief that fighting is a sign that the relationship is failing, an inherent desire to not be like other couples who are constantly screaming at each other, etc. At the other extreme, there are couples who simply can’t control their emotions, where every day brings a new, explosive battle in the relationship. And of course there are always relationships where one partner is a fighter and the other a peacekeeper. Fair, balanced fighting is an art that many couples simply can’t master.
One technique that helps couples was taught to me by a supervisor in graduate school. She called it the Mirror Trick. It works like this: Before you approach your partner with a grievance, take a mental peek into the mirror. What aspect of yourself, what issues or “stuff,” either past or present, are you bringing to the discussion about this problem? For example, if you don’t like the amount of time your partner spends with friends, ask yourself “what does his/her spending time away from me mean to me specifically?” It could be an issue of feeling inferior to them or unwanted, something that cuts beyond the core of “a man/woman needs to be home with his/her spouse.” If you can “look in the mirror first” you can then approach your partner with the grievance in the form of your personal idiosyncrasy with the issue as opposed to simply pointing the finger. This will often decrease defensiveness and lead to a more productive outcome. Consider: “When you spend such a large amount of time with your friends, it taps into my fears that you don’t want to be with me. I feel inferior to them.” Compare this with: “I hate it when you’re with your friends so much. You need to be home more.” Which approach is more likely to get the more productive response?
5) Marriages solve problems.
No, marriages amplify problems. I can’t count the number of times individuals and couples in the office have said “once we got married I assumed he would stop putting me down,” or “after the wedding day I assumed she would want to have sex more often.” A ring or a marriage certificate doesn’t improve an individual’s insecurities, solve problems, or alter personalities. The increase in physical proximity and time spent together will probably increase any issues you already have.
The fact that you have problems isn’t a reason to not get married; rather, it’s a sign to start to address those difficulties and not assume they will “take care of themselves.”
6) People settle for less than what they want.
Society puts a colossal pressure on people, especially women, to be married. Without a partner many people wonder “what’s wrong with her?” Some of this thought process is natural, as humans are social creatures and we have a natural tendency to come together with another. But many people who enter their 30s or beyond without having been married are perceived as flawed, or at least weird. Because of society’s demands many make a decision to get married based on flawed reasoning: to have children, to not be alone, to find someone who fits an arbitrary mold, or to satisfy their parents’ and society’s demands. If you are making a lifelong decision to meet ulterior motives, it’s not likely to bring you much happiness.
7) Couples assume they are immune to reasons 1-6 and believe that hard work isn’t part of the deal. They think that love, sex, children, or some combination thereof will be enough.
Research suggests that only 10% of couples maintain that intense “puppy love” experience years into their partnership (why this is the case is not entirely clear, but many believe there is a strong biochemical component to this). Whether or not that bliss can sustain a marriage in and of itself is up for debate, but the reality is that for most couples, no force other than mutual effort can power a relationship. And if you refuse to buy into the idea that marriage is work, that your feelings will simply carry you through, you’ll ultimately be disappointed.
The goal of this post isn’t to create a “doom and gloom” notion of marriage. In fact, successfully married couples often tell me it’s the greatest decision they’ve ever made. Rather, this information is to empower people who are considering marriage and to help those who are struggling with their current marriage take a fresh view at what might need to be done. For those who can’t seem to move past their problems in their relationships, for whatever reason, I would recommend seeing a professional therapist with some experience in working with couples. As mentioned previously, the sooner you can begin that process, the better, as my personal experience has shown that couples who don’t wait to seek out help have better outcomes than those who come in as a last resort.
Rob Dobrenski, Ph.D., is a licensed psychologist in New York City and the author of the book Crazy: Notes on and off the Couch and the website ShrinkTalk.Net.