Wednesday, June 4, 2008


You can bring down almost any good marriage today in just two years. That's all the time it takes in a busy, distracted, individualisitic, media-saturated, consumer-driven and work-orientated life to drain a marriage of it's spark, connection, intimacy and focus. Add the birth of a first child and the decline is especially steep. The evidence is clear: the biggest threat to a good marriage is simply everyday living.

Psychologists may lay the blame squarely on modern life, but in my view the chief enemy of marriage is not so much the pace at which we live, but the demands of the consumer culture we live in today. The kind of marriage that pervades our culture now is one of 'me-first' values where couples stay committed only as long as they make each other happy, get along, work towards their goals, do not have affairs or fight too much and as long as the sex is good.

At the heart of this culture is the idea that our relationships, just like our purchases, should be therapeutic and good for us psychologically. If we're not happy, we must assume as good consumers that it's because our mate is a poor marital service provider or that the original 'purchase' was a mistake.

'Consumer marriages' are not difficult to detect. If you're bothered by something about your mate and hear yourself muttering: “What am I getting out of this anyway?” or “I deserve better!” you can be certain that your attitude has been shaped by our consumer culture.

When your mate is not the lover you'd hoped for, or nags you, or is not emotionally expressive, consumer thinking may prompt you to believe that you have failed to cut the best deal for yourself. This is when therapists hear clients complain: “The relationship is just not working for me anymore” or “Our needs are just too different.” “I'm not happy.” “We just grew apart.” “She's changed too much.” “My husband is a nice guy but boring and we have no real intimacy.”

A lifetime of expectations has taught us that we are entitled to an exciting marriage and great sex; if we don't get both, we are apt to feel deprived and envious of couples who are, we suspect, doing much better than ourselves.

A consumer marriage will focus mainly on what you are not getting, and how your mate is not meeting your needs. Of course, we all have genuine human needs and deserve to be treated with love, fairness and respect. Manipulation and control are not good for marriages and every spouse has to assert boundaries. If your spouse treats you unfairly, you have to speak up; and if your spouse neglects responsibilities, you have to confront him of her. (And I accept that there are cases where a pattern of misconduct and abuse of the marital vows means that your commitment to the marriage must be withdrawn.) These are not examples of consumer marriages.

You are in consumer mode when you fail to look at your own limitations, or when you compare your spouse and your marriage with fantasies of other relationships. The consumer attitude turns marital disappointments into marital tragedies and constructive efforts for improvement into entitled demands for change.

When this attitude is combined with the inevitable personal weaknesses and baggage we all bring into marriage, the glue often does not hold. In a consumer marriage where, for example, a chronic illness seriously affects a spouse's ability to give to the other spouse, the relationship will usually not survive the test.

This brand of consumerism has given rise to a rootlessness that occurs on a global scale. Sociologist Arlie Hochschild observes: “We not only move from one job to another, but from one spouse – and sometimes one set of children – to the next. We are changing from a society that values employment and marriage to one that values employability and marriageability.”

If a particular relationship does not satisfy your needs, you are told you will be happy in life if you have the skills to continue to attract and land a new lover. In this culture, we keep our romantic CVs up to date in case our current marriage doesn't work out. When we approach marriage and family life as entrepreneurs, we're primed to cut our losses in order to forge new, more perfect unions... until they too must be dissolved.

In a market-driven universe, the old must give way when it is no longer useful, and while the new culture may have succeeded in discarding the marital chains of our grandparents' unions, we have ended up with Velcro marriages: easy to pull apart, and not strong enough to hold together under pressure.

I'm not urging any couple to get married if they're not ready or interested in it. And I'm not prescribing marriage for every couple who's cohabiting. I'm more concerned about the new cultural pessimism and how it's undermining the prospects for permanent commitment in marriage. I am worried for our children and their children.

This pessimism is fuelled by the consumer culture, high divorce rates and a younger generation that's lived through their parents' experiments with marriage and divorce. Another factor is the growing scepticism of therapists who daily have to work with what is real, not with what is ideal. Sociologists, too, point out that divorce rates go up in every nation where women become educated and achieve independence. Marriages come and go, so let's accept the fact, they say, rather than being nostalgic for an era of stable marriages that had their own dark sides.

Yet, deep down, most of us yearn for the kind of permanent bond that marriage represents. Most of us still want something more than a commitment 'for the foreseeable future'. We want a lifelong marriage commitment and our children certainly want to see more of these strong unions.

The irony is that many of us are giving up on permanent marriage just as scientific research shows that this kind of relationship is good for us. Married people are healthier physically and psychologically, live longer, have more money, fewer bad habits such as smoking and excessive drinking and overall are simply happier. Studies even indicate that children do better when their unhappily married parents stay together – as long as there aren't high levels of conflict.

And marriage may have even more importance in a world where we don't dwell in lifelong communities, or where our children and siblings are scattered across the globe. With high mobility, we can't even count on friends and neighbours being there decade after decade.

One of the first benefits I discovered about being married was the freedom to plan a long-term future with my wife. The marital horizon extends to the edge of our vision in a way that no other relationship does. And this allows for a degree of emotional safety to be fully ourselves, to struggle more openly than with anyone else in our lives, and to know another person more fully and deeply than is possible any other way. It's scary but that doesn't deter us from making the commitment and it's also what makes the rewards so extraordinary.

Our kind of marriage – the strong, long-term commitment – is the opposite of the as-long-as union. It's a no-matter-what union where there's no exit strategy and both partners take responsibility to monitor how the marriage is doing.

A strong marriage is a high achievement because it requires the discipline to keep connecting when natural energies and passions ebb. A strong marriage is one where partners are conscious and deliberate about maintaining and building their commitment and connection over the years. They see themselves as active citizens of their marriage rather than passive consumers of marital services.

We fall in love through 'rituals of connection and intimacy' – we enjoy romantic dinners, doing things together like riding bicycles or going skiing, walking, giving gifts, talking every night on the phone. We develop a common language and experience bank. So why give up what made us so happy before we got married? No matter how time-pressured you are, make sure you maintain some of these little rituals, or create new ones that fit in with your busy married lives.

It takes mindfulness and self-discipline to make your relationship your priority once you have a made a permanent commitment and begun to live as a family.

Both partners have to take responsibility to make things better by putting a value on the marriage itself and not just their own interest in it. It means struggling to make it better by naming problems and changing yourself first. It means taking the long view that values your history together as a couple over short-term pain and struggle.

And it means accepting the inevitable limitations and problems and understanding how your marriage affects the many other people in your world. Most challenging of all is to hold on to the dream, never completely fulfilled, of a more perfect union.

The core social and personal challenge of our time is how to make loving permanent marriage work for ourselves and for our children. No social programmes, no educational-achievement programme, no job programme, no anti-crime programme and no amount of psychotherapy and Prozac will solve our society's problems unless we figure out how men and women can sustain permanent bonds that are good for them, their children and our communities.

Marriage with the long view comes with the conviction that nothing will break us up and that we will fight through whatever obstacles get in our way. It means we will re calibrate our individual goals if they get out of alignment and that we will share leadership for maintaining and renewing our marriage. We will renovate our marriage if the current version gets stale, and if we fight too much or too poorly we will learn to fight better.

We will develop good communication skills and constructive ways to argue and deal with conflict. If sex is no longer good we'll find a way to make it good again.

We need to acknowledge that our core strengths and core weaknesses will always be with us. The trick is to build on the strengths and to contain and soften the impact of the weaknesses when they show themselves, especially in times of stress. We will accept the weaknesses that can't be fixed and we will take care of each other in our old age.

This kind of commitment is not made just once, but over and over through the course of a lifetime. We cling to it during the dark nights of the soul that come to nearly every marriage and in those times when the love is hard to feel, knowing all the time that the promise we made keeps us together till the end.

1 comment:

Amala said...

Good article. Read more: