by Helene Brun
As a marriage and family therapist, and as one that specializes in couples counseling, I have worked with numerous types of relationships. In this article I will focus specifically on new marriages (premarital to three years after the wedding). Working with these couples is especially important and challenging, because they are the creators of, not only their own marriages, but of the new visions of marriage for all of us.
A divorce rate of about 50% (Marano, 2000) would indicate that it has become as difficult to stay married as it is to leave. While we are more informed than ever about everything, we have become less sure of what and who to trust including ourselves. We have the freedom to choose anyone, but we are beginning to loose the capacity to commit to someone for life. The future of lasting marriages depends, in my opinion, on whether or not we can lower the expectations of marriage.
The main reason to marry, and stay married, is really not love. This is rarely acknowledged by the couple, or even by the therapist. To the degree people’s reasons for marriage are not labeled, normalized, considered and put in perspective, they are potential destroyers of marriage. What follows are some points to keep in mind when working with new couples. In order to stick to general principles, I am assuming the work is with average to high-functioning couples. I am also assuming that a history of each individual has been completed, and that couples therapy has been determined to be the treatment of choice.
Marriage is separate from love. They often coincide, certainly, but for new couples, the love has not yet deepened and grown strong. Instead they often rely on infatuation, sex, friendship, fears, fantasies, conventions, conveniences, etc. to build the marital house. All these are normal aspects of all marriages. They are not, however, love and to call them that in discussions will undermine the marriage, because it will not ring true. It is better to help the new couple describe the many human and understandable reasons why they prefer to live with another person. Though clients initially find it risky to admit to being together for any reasons additional to love, it usually is a relief when they can take responsibility both for loving the other and for having less altruistic reasons for being in the marriage. We all use each other in many normal and healthy ways. It is liberating to distinguish that use from abuse of any sort. If not discussed, use and abuse tend to be confused.
Marriage is a societally prescribed milestone. People very much want to prove themselves able to reach this milestone. Marriage, particularly for people over thirty, still has higher status than being single in most people’s minds. The expectation is often that getting married will make one a respectable adult or, at least, one will be seen as a respectable adult. Consequently people often prematurely pull themselves and another into marriage without giving the choice of mate, or even more importantly oneself as “mate-material,” deep and careful consideration. This later leads to doubts and disappointments. The rush to achieve turns the milestone into a millstone. A few generations ago, the marriage would have continued, mismatched as it might have been, and eventually it might even have succeed. Today, the rushed marriages tend to end in divorce. That is why most experts recommend getting to know each other slowly before marriage (Marano, 2000).
The road to divorce is paved with high expectations. People divorce, often without recognizing their own expectations as being problems. Rarely have I worked with a new couple who truly understands the limitations of marriage. They want to believe that their spouse will make them happy and/or they want to believe that they can make their spouse happy, but people do not create happiness for others. They can certainly help facilitate happiness; they can please, entertain, humor, and help each other but they cannot make anyone happy except themselves. Furthermore it is fundamentally problematic to pursue happiness as a goal in itself; but it is characteristic of American culture to do just that (Viktor Frankl, 1992). When “I want to be happy!” or “I just want her/him to be happy” is the presenting problem, usually bitterness, disappointment and resentment soon emerge as well. In troubled marriages people do not typically take the initiative to do things that would bring happiness as a byproduct. Some people spend a lot of time feeling depressed or entitled, and in both cases they feel helpless. The depressed blame themselves, the entitled blame others. Both types can liberate themselves from feeling victimized by adjusting their expectations, not using blame as a strategy, and becoming more proactive and capable in their own pursuits. When taking responsibility for oneself in the marriage in this manner is seen as attractive and possible, the spouses move to a new level. They begin to be responsible to the other, not for the other.
People do not like to clarify. It is easy to say “I love you,” but what does it mean? It is romantic to say “I will do anything for you,” but it is never the truth. “It is in language that our world-designs actually ensconce and articulate themselves” (Rychlak, 1981). Phrases automatically repeated in relationships need to be consciously considered for a person to begin to authentically relate to another. For the therapist it becomes important to help the spouses clarify and express what they personally and currently know to be true. A consistent dealing with reality “as is” not “as wished” ensues. Once the couple realizes this strengthens their marriage, as opposed to breaking it up, the therapist’s task becomes easier. The couple begins to shift to internal and intermarital supports. Gradually those become the preferred ways of getting support. When that occurs, the individuals have developed themselves to the point where they have the capacity and the courage to deeply love the other. This is the time in marriage when commitment can actually occur. It is also the time when therapy can appropriately be terminated.
Things Take Time. Ideally couples would spend time before marriage educating and developing themselves to better deal with their choice of marriage. It is, however, common that they come to therapy after the wedding when the initial romance has slowed and their differences begin to be less charming. That is when they come, and that is when they have to” back-track” in order to develop further in the marriage. For additional reasons, not discussed in this article, a large number of remarriages are also likely to end up in therapy. My experience is that awareness and responsibility can be enhanced at any point of life, and at any stage of marriage. Still, it is my hope for the future that support for individual development and education about marriage will start earlier, and that the throwing of the bouquets will wait longer.
Frankl, V. (1992). Man’s Search for Meaning. Beacon Press, Boston.
Marano, H. E. “ Divorced?” Psychology Today, March/April 2000, p. 57-62.
Rychlak, J. (1981). Personality and Psychotherapy (Existential Analysis: Binswanger and Boss). Houghton Mifflin, Boston.
Copyright 2000, Helene Brun. All rights reserved.
Helene Brun, MFT 650.949.2879 firstname.lastname@example.org www.helenebrun.com