There is a saying that describes one’s life partner as being most appreciated during two life stages: before marriage and after the funeral. Unfortunately, proverbs and sayings hint at a reality which is also faithfully rendered by statistics showing that love wears off pretty soon in many marriages. But maybe this is part of the problem—the fact that we overburden love, treating it like an ingredient with magical powers.
If we are honest, the longevity of a marriage does not necessarily say everything there is to be said about its quality, although this might well tell us that the partners have found more reasons to stay than to leave. It’s just that staying for the sake of the other is, by far, a goal that requires much more effort, because a love that does not fade over time is something both beautiful and hard to build at the same time.
“Marriage is a like a lottery ticket” said someone in my childhood, and I’ve encountered the idea many times again since, in various forms, expressed by people who have become complacent with the unhappy air of their marriage or that of their close ones. This is a theory which absolves us not only of the responsibility of our choices, but also of the effort we make (or do not make) to save the relationship from the mud it sometimes gets bogged down in over time. The idea that some draw the lucky ticket while others don’t has nothing to do with the way in which we relate to our partner and marriage. I will come back to this theory later.
What’s holding us together?
The degree of stability of the marriages of the people in our circle significantly affects the longevity of our own marriages, researchers have concluded.
The divorce risk decreases the bigger the transitivity of a couple’s social network (the couple’s friends are, in turn, friends with each other) and increases the more peripheral the couple’s position in the respective network is. An older longitudinal study shows that communicative integration (the degree of integration of subjects in a larger network) has a slight negative effect on divorce for those who have been married for less than 7 years, but that the lack of divorce for members in the reference group reduces divorce probability, regardless of the number of years of marriage. On the contrary, the study showed that the presence of divorce among someone’s friends and siblings increases that person’s divorce risk.
Also, parental divorce may increase the divorce probability of the children’s marriage, a tendency which is aggravated in cases where both partners have divorced parents. The divorce risk in the first 5 years of marriage increases by 70% among women whose parents are divorced.
To sweep the partner’s mistakes under the rug is not always a good starting point for marriage nor for its harmonious functioning, suggests a study from 2012, which analysed the contexts in which relationships make it or break it. The study came to the conclusion that the discomfort of a heated but honest debate may be beneficial for the partners’ health, but it may also be an efficient way to convey that a certain behaviour is unacceptable.
A survey done by the Pew Research Center showed that dividing household chores is an ingredient of successful marriages for 62% of Americans, after faithfulness (93%) and a good sexual relationship (70%). Compared to 1990, when 47% of Americans believed that an equal division of household chores is a condition for a happy marriage, this element has grown in importance like none of the other elements on the list have.
It also the way in which partners manage to equitably divide the emotional labour that strengthens or eats away at the relationship. The term refers to the underestimated and often invisible effort of making other people feel comfortable, and was created by sociologist Arlie Russel Hochschild in 1983. It initially described the responsibility of those who work with the public to convey positive emotions to their clients (like flight attendants, for instance). Nowadays the term has been taken over to describe partners’ efforts to maintain a functional household while dealing with tasks such as sensitive conversations, child supervision, family interactions, or solving household challenges. When a partner takes over all this emotional labour (and generally this is something women do, says Hochschild, because they tend to take the initiative to improve others’ emotional lives) an imbalance appears in the relationship, and systematic conflicts may follow if this becomes the family’s working pattern.
It is sometimes difficult for partners to discover the cause of the conflict. They just feel that something is missing in the relationship, that they are not as happy as they were in the past and that they always disagree, never reaching a solution, says psychotherapist Desirée Robinson.
Thus, when the imbalance related to emotional labour increases, the result is translated as “fatigue, burnout, apathy, hard feelings and even contempt”, says psychologist Candice Hargond, professor at the University of Kentucky. In the end, the partner doing most of the emotional labour may come to “parent” the other and infantilise him/her, which affects the relationship, also sexually, explains the psychologist. To solve this imbalance, it may be enough for the married couple to discuss their burdens and to make a list of the task each of them should do. Other times a therapist might need to intercede.
“The beauty of a couple’s dynamics is that, if a person changes, the couple changes,” says psychologist Candice Hargon.
From destiny to development
The direction a relationship is headed has to do with what specialists call the “implicit theories of the relationship.” It’s actually about our hypotheses on marriage, which most of us do not explicitly think about, but which determine our way of responding to the difficulties we are confronted with in our relationship.
Some people believe a relationship depends solely on destiny, explain psychologists Eva Wunderer and Klaus Schneewind. This means that partners believe they either “click” or not, and therefore when the marriage starts to deteriorate they tend to abandon it, convinced that if the partner was their soulmate, these conflicts would never happen in the first place. Those who view a relationship as a matter of destiny have little confidence in the partners’ capacity to grow and develop together.
On the other hand, “optimisers” do not rely on the initial matching of partners, because they believe in development, and this makes them relate to the relationship in a positive way. They see challenges as a chance to grow, are not threatened by conflicts, and tend to rather get closer to their partners than to distance themselves. This makes their relationships the happiest.
The rose-coloured glasses we use to look at our relationships increase marital satisfaction, studies carried out by researcher Sandra Murray show. Even if we have the tendency to realistically analyse our partner’s traits, overestimating our partner is actually the key to happiness. Those who see their partners in a better light than they describe themselves, minimising their flaws, have less marital conflicts and declare to be more satisfied by their relationship. Conflicts do not necessarily weaken a relationship. On the contrary, they can make it stronger if the way in which they resolve these conflicts follows certain important principles.
The rose-coloured glasses we use to look at our relationships increase marital satisfaction, studies carried out by researcher Sandra Murray show.
Tending to our partners’ needs
No matter the particularities of your chosen partner, he/she will always have three basic needs, writes Tim Kimmel, the founder of the Family Matters organisation. It’s about the need to feel safe, the need for significance (the need to know we have intrinsic value) and the need to have the hope that we will be able to cope with the difficulties we will face in life. We marry partners who have indicators of these needs at a high or a low level, just as we ourselves have different degrees of fulfillment when it comes to these needs, says Kimmel, describing the way in which we can contribute to the flourishing of our partners.
It’s all about celebrating our partners’ uniqueness instead of rejecting the baggage of traits and abilities he/she brings into the relationship. In order to feel safe we also need to receive regular affection and to work as a team with our partners.
Nobody feels safe if the things that define him/her are not accepted, from physical to personality traits.
Both partners need significance, but it’s difficult to build the feeling of value in the other if you yourself feel insignificant, says Kimmel. He defines significance as “the healthy perspective on what you are and what you have to offer.” Actually, the feeling that we matter and our life has value and a purpose helps us love and allow others to love us, while the feeling that we are insignificant can make us irritable, nagging, bitter. None of the couples on the verge of divorce that he counselled had been focused, during their relationship, on making the other feel valuable, concludes Kimmel.
We cannot function without hope, neither individually nor as a couple, says the founder of Family Matters, explaining that there are a series of indicators for a marriage’s degree of inner strength: do the partners treat a change of plan as normal, or as a crisis moment? Do they think about the unknown as a risk factor, or a challenge? Do they approach dangers with confidence in God, or do they live in fear of anything that might go wrong?
It’s surprising that so many marriages fail considering the many benefits that being a couple brings and the elements that should keep a couple united, notes American psychiatrist Aron Beck in his book, suggestively titled “Love is not enough.”
What keeps us together is not just the ‘horizontal’ relationships, no matter how solid they are, but especially our relationship with the Author of marriage. “A cord of three strands is not quickly broken,” Ecclesiastes assures us.
A relationship with a partner is “an intensified version” of the one we have with God, and the latter is possible only because we are treated with grace daily, reminds Tim Kimmel. In general, human relationships cannot function without grace, marriage much less so—one more reason to check if grace’s thermostat is still working when making an inventory of the strengths and weaknesses of our relationships.
Carmen Lăiu is a writer for ST Network and Semnele timpului.