Marriage: Impossible?

We’ve all heard commentary about marriage and divorce rates. Even if it’s not technically true, people generally hold the widespread belief that about half of all marriages end in divorce. Commentators have made the case that this indicates a deeper moral decline: individuals today are less driven by values and more by their own impulses; people are selfish and are afraid to commit and settle down. It’s common for such comments to lament that people are rejecting long-held Judeo-Christian beliefs about marriage.

What about you, though? What does any of this matter when you’re in a relationship that feels overwhelming more often than not? Do you care about any of this commentary when you’re trying to make your marriage work while simultaneously making sure the kids are getting to all of their activities, the finances are solvent, you’re having the right amount of sex, you’re working hard for your next promotion, and you’re keeping up the appearance of having it all together for the Joneses across the street?

I take issue with a lot of the commentary about marriage that gains the most publicity. My biggest concern is that it locates the major source of the problem with marriage as inside the married individuals themselves. When people are the problem, marriages fail because people fail. Maybe we mess up. Maybe we give up. Maybe we simply stop caring. Either way, the reason these commentators would have us believe that marriages fail has something to do with a lack of effort. We aren’t strong enough to withstand the pressures of marriage. If we could only give more, or commit more, or do more, then our relationships would start to thrive. Instead, it would seem that a full half of the population chose partners poorly or decide that they couldn’t care less about their vows and would rather move on to the next adventure.

This seems ludicrous to me.

What if framing the high divorce rates as a problem with individual people is, in fact, part of the problem itself? What is the divorce rate has far less to do with anything going on inside of us as individuals than we’ve been told? What would that mean? First, it would probably mean that people could be freed from the sense of guilt and failure that often co-occurs with the decision to divorce. It means that there would be less blame to be used as ammunition. It would also mean that we would need to come up with a new, more complex explanation as to what’s happening. We might even have to admit that marriage as we have designed it, is nearly impossible.

The Modern American Marriage

Margaret Mead may have given us the most accurate portrayal of marriage in the west. She said, “The American marriage is one of the most difficult marriage forms that we have ever attempted.” It’s not exactly an optimistic view but it is full of realism. Wherever it exists in the world, marriage emerges from a complex cultural context. Whatever surfaces in your mind when you read the word marriage today, you can be sure that these ideas didn’t simply arise from a vacuum. As a concept, modern marriage is the continuation of a story in the process of being written for thousands of years. The expectations that we hold about marriage today are not simply our own but are the product of generations of relationships, commentary, and conversations with in-laws.

It is true that many of these expectations, at least in the West, flow directly from specific faith influences. Some of the most prevalent interpretations of the Christian Bible assert that the formula for marriage involves the life-long commitment of one man to one woman. This interpretation is best exemplified in one of the two Christian creation stories. Eve was said to be crafted from Adam’s rib bone to be a companion for him. With this story as the starting point, we’ve since deduced that all romantic relationships are governed by a sense of destiny – that a divine being has arranged a soulmate for all of us and that part of our time here on earth is about discovering that person. We use phrases like meant to be, and the one. It can feel as if we don’t even have a choice.

On top of that foundation, we’ve added all sorts of other constructs. Decades of rigid gender roles have influenced the tasks typically assigned to men versus women. Society, as a whole, places these expectations on men and women as individuals and they’re reinforced in traditional view of marriage. Even with significant progress towards gender equality, it was essentially a generation ago that these more rigid roles were dominant in how we thought about relationships. I hope we never go back to those days but it’s important to point out that this legacy has been formative on our view of marriage and how it is supposed to work. The fact that same-sex marriage was legally prohibited until very recently in American history underscores the idea that our cultural ideas about marriage are about more than the love that two people have for one another.

Today, marriage is loaded down with overwhelming expectations. Partners are expected to fall madly in love with their soulmate. Engagement (with a ring that will cost two months of salary) is soon followed by a wedding (that will cost you a kidney, a leg, and part of your soul). Both partners are expected to work and to climb their respective corporate ladders. How long should you wait to have children? According to your parents, probably mere days. You should buy a house. You shouldn’t have much debt but you also really should have nice things. When the kids are old enough, you need to make sure you’re living in the best school district. When was the last time you took a family vacation? Make sure that you make time for your friends and for play dates and for date nights.

We could go on.

With all of these expectations, doesn’t it sometimes feel like we’re living Marriage: Impossible? Think about the political clichés about how the family is the cornerstone of civilization. Think about how difficult it is to have a single-income household today while still living up to the expectations of broader society. Then there are those movies that portray true love in a way that causes our hearts to flutter for ninety minutes and sends us out wanting to find the person to whom we can say, “You complete me!” Those movies are literally the worst.  The pressure is immense. These are the expectations to which we should aspire. Notice that, to this point, we’ve only really discussed the ideas that we adopt from society at large. We haven’t even begun talking about what we want from our relationships as individual human beings.

Can you see how absurd this whole thing seems to be?

You Don’t Complete Me

As much as I don’t want to, let’s go back to that god-awful phrase from Jerry McGuire. I don’t blame Jerry for saying “You complete me!” I get that the script was written by people who seem to think that marriage is about two broken people coming together to find wholeness in a special someone. As a couples therapist, that quote represents how messed up our view of marriage actually is. On top of all of the cultural expectations that we’ve already talked about, so many of us enter a relationship with this sentiment in mind. The person that we are pursuing has something that we are missing from our own lives. That person has characteristics and capacities to give us something that we are unable to give ourselves. In addition to the overwhelming experience that is American life in 2018, we ask our partners to give us even more. I like to say that we ask them to be superhuman – literally to be more than a single human being – because that’s what we have always been told that our partner will be for us. We ask them, with as little effort as possible, to meet the wide-ranging societal demands of being an excited lover, a pragmatic parent, provider, and project manager, who is adept at keeping our homes intact. We ask them to listen like a therapist and provide support in every-which-way we can imagine while being for us the things that we’ve never believed we could be for ourselves.

If they could be in shape, that would be great too.

And then we ask them to be the things that we are not. Be the calm to my anxiety. Be the joy to my sadness. Be the direction to my wandering.

Be superhuman.

When I hear couples describe this dynamic, I immediately think of at least two responses individuals tend to have when met with an impossible task. The first is the idea of learned helplessness. Realizing what they have been asked to do is impossible and sensing no other alternative, the individual resigns themselves to be tossed about by circumstance, accepting everything that comes with it as the new normal. This is a life-sapping condition that no one would ever want to find themselves in: forever discontent with no hope in sight. The second response people exhibit when recognizing the implausibility of a task at hand is to cut their losses and to divert their energies into something more productive and rewarding. There is no point in continuing on the current path so let’s start to develop plan B. They abandon plan A, learn from the situation as best they can, and move on to whatever is next.

With the bar for marriage set so unattainably high, it is no surprise that these relationships are ending: they’ve been set up to fail from the beginning. Here is where the problem of seeing divorce as an isolated relational event contained within an individual couple becomes clear. From this perspective, when my partner can’t be everything that I need her to be, I see that primarily as a failure on her part instead of the excess of expectation that the world and I put on her. Maybe it is I who failed by not weighing all of the social pressures for her to be superhuman. Maybe I have demonstrated a tacit acceptance of these demands. Regardless, since she cannot be all of the things that I’ve been told she should be, I become disenchanted with her. Our relationship suffers and because I believe that she is no longer completes me in a way that is complementary to my needs.

Honestly, she never could.

This is why, even as a couples therapist, I find myself advocating for the end of the modern American marriage. Yes, it is time for marriages like this to end. I believe that the apparently tepid faithfulness that we have shown as a society to the institution of marriage is less about the slipping away of some long-standing value set and more about a rejection of the absurdity of the expectations we have put on the institution itself. We are no less drawn to the ideas of love and fidelity than our parents were. We have simply gotten to the point where we no longer see the value of adhering to such a list of irrational demands. We no longer want to be complicit with a structure that has been used to impose particular expectations about which relationships are valid and which aren’t. We are deconstructing and truly interrogating our relationships. We are not interested in making extreme demands that require more from our partners than they are humanly able to provide.

I am not saying that divorce is the answer. Ending a relationship with the hopes of starting fresh is pointless if there aren’t changes we pursue in ourselves. Instead, I am saying that there is the opportunity to reframe the issues that we have in our relationships and to see them with a fresh perspective. Are you relying on your partner to be something for you that you’re unable or unwilling to be for yourself? How often are you or your partner having to play the role of superhuman and when do you get to be your unassuming alter ego? Where are the areas in our lives where we are expecting more than our partners can give? Are those problems with our partner's ability to meet the expectations or a problem with the expectations themselves?

If I were being pushed beyond my limits every single day, I would want to reject that reality, too. We all would. Maybe the problem is not with my inability to keep up. Maybe the problem is that keeping up is simply impossible.

Three Thoughts That Might Help

I believe that there are at least three ideas that could be helpful in adjusting to this emergent view of marriage. First, it’s OK to not like how things currently are. Whether in your own relationship or across society as a whole, I want to validate and normalize your instinct that there is something wrong here. There is something wrong here. That something is probably not you. It’s also probably not your partner. If you’re feeling overwhelmed and that the marriage you find yourself is not the marriage you signed up for, it makes sense and it’s OK to feel that way. Marriages can never deliver on the expectations we seem to have for it.

If that describes you, maybe it’s time to reject the idea of marriage in its current form within your own relationship. Being frustrated with your marriage may require your to tear it down and to rebuild on a reasonable foundation of things that are, for one, humanly possible. Rejecting marriage in this way doesn’t require a divorce. On the contrary, if you both agree that you want to fight these expectations together, you might need your partner more than ever. You’ll need to know how to communicate well and provide feedback. You begin to see each other teammates in this scenario, united against the common rival that is the impossible marriage, rather than each other.

We are taught that doubt is bad in relationships. We are taught that apprehension is poison for marriages. Shouldn’t we be in love all the time? It’s important to know that doubt and apprehension are absolutely normal. They’re not symptoms of the impending end of your relationship. They’re clues that something may be wrong. But, that something may be fixable if we think about it in the right way. Doubt is OK. Apprehension is OK. These are not things to avoid but things to lean into and to learn from.

The second thought can get a little more personal. If all we had to do was to figure out how to team up with each other to reset the expectations about our marriage, the process would be relatively easy. When we recognize that there is a problem with the way that marriage has been packaged and sold, though, moving towards a stronger relationship requires us to figure out a different way to accomplish what we had hoped marriage would accomplish for us. In other words, now that we’re releasing our partner from the expectation to be superhuman and meet our personal needs, we need to find a way to meet those needs for ourselves. We can’t expect them to be responsible for our anxieties. We can’t expect them to be the one to cheer us up when we’re feeling down. They cannot be an endless salve for wounds from other parts of our lives. Building a new foundation of marriage will require us to heal our wounds for ourselves.

The title of a book by Dr. Richard Schwartz captures the idea here: You Are the One You’ve Been Waiting for. Rather than putting the burden of meeting those needs on someone else, Schwartz makes the compelling case that we have the innate capacity of managing and mastering our internal world where parts of us can be simultaneous drawn to and distanced from our partner. We are multidimensional and complex. When we commit to understanding and responding to our internal world, when we understand our impulses, we can better address our own hurting parts and not need someone else to be that for us. Then, we get to interact with our partner in a way that is less demanding and more inviting. When we take on the responsibility of managing our internal world ourselves, we need so much less from our partner and they can come to us without the pressure to perform or to meet some unspoken expectation. Rather than beg them for help, we can invite them to enjoy.

After teaming up with one another and developing your own ability to meet your unspoken needs, you’re ready for the third idea: to name and reject the expectations in your relationship that are causing problems and to collaborate on what you want your new marriage to look like. You can choose a marriage that celebrates each others’ individuality rather than attempting to form them into a crude implement to shore up those places in your own life where you feel less secure. We can invite our partners into a relationship that we co-create and that honors who we are as individuals and as a couple. In such a relationship, we no longer need our partner to be a missing piece or the treatment for a deep wound. We get to choose to turn towards our partner rather than feel as though we must desperately cling to them.  Instead of spinning our wheels trying to meet someone else’s expectations, we can decide for ourselves those things to which we aspire for our relationship. We can move more deliberately towards them.

This third idea can’t easily be summed up in a single paragraph. It’s not something that can easily be framed with an expected timeline applied. The process is lifelong; it’s never-ending. It requires ongoing self-awareness and checking in with each other to monitor the condition of the relationship, too. It might require working with a couples therapist to support you both as you move towards what you want marriage to be. What I hope you’ll find is that this third idea emerges naturally when you activate the first two.

To say that you don’t like your marriage is not to make an indictment of your partner. It is absolutely acceptable to not like the current state of your marriage and thinking that does not require you to blame yourself or your spouse.

We all have those hurting elements within us that can become surprisingly energized when our partner says or does something that feels similar to the source of our wounds. This is normal. Our partner may be able to temporarily play the role of superhuman to meet our needs in addition to their own but this is not sustainable. We are the ones that we’ve been waiting for and we must be the ones to relieve those parts of ourselves.

We can be free to collaboratively construct how we want our relationships to be. When we commit to monitoring and managing our internal world on our own, we can be more authentic in the relationship with the person we love. We aren’t bringing conditions to the table that must first be met. Instead, we’re coming with more energy to dream and reflect and to move forward.

It’s true that overcoming Marriage: Impossible will require energy. It will require both partners to commit to understanding and taking leadership of their interior world. It requires time and dedication. Unlike the poorly-set expectations around marriage, there are no guarantees. But, it may be possible to reconstruct a relationship that is life-giving and rewarding. It can be something that you choose to enjoy forever.