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"What Marriage Can Do For You"

By Helene Brun

This year marks the 40 anniversary of the birth-control pill.  Two generations of women have now had reproductive freedom.  Add to that the relative financial freedom of many people today and we often get ” free me from commitment” as well.  The traditional reasons to stay married are eroding.  The divorce rate has never been higher.  Should we, as a culture, begin to consider that an inevitable part of evolution? Should we, as counselors, facilitate rather than fight divorces?  If a couple has children, most agree divorce is a last resort, but what if there are no children, or they are grown? 
As a marriage therapist I take a neutral stance as to “what is best” for a particular couple.   My role is to help clients clarify, communicate, and make conscious choices about their specific situations.   While in most cases it would seem easier to leave and start over with someone new, many clients come to see, not just the work, but the value of staying with their current  partner.  Most of us still want to be involved with someone long-term, if not at all costs. 

What follows are considerations of both the value of long term relationships and some of the work required to achieve them.

Dating was so much better

When people start out dating, they see each other as individuals.  There is usually mutual interest and respect, good behavior, and pleasant interaction.   People assume they can take that with them into marriage, but they cannot.  They have to re-establish their individuality as married persons.  As people get more involved, they get more enmeshed and their sense of personal boundaries is weakened.  This is normal and necessary, temporarily, for two people to become a couple.  Eventually they drift into taking each other for granted.  But while some taking for granted is inevitable and benign,  an attitude of “I own you” can creep in.  Spoken and unspoken expectations can begin to clutter the marriage.  If spouses do not talk about this, they can end up in a fairly unconscious marriage.  This may work for some, but many feel stuck or get divorced. 

The truly committed relationship will only develop if conscious attention is paid to what you do and say.  As you gradually separate emotionally and re-establish your individual boundaries, within the marriage, you can come to feel strong enough to  “see” each other again.  If this happens the courtesy that was present when you were dating will emerge again.  Of course the truly committed couple is doing much more than dating. They have a history  together, so their mutual interest and respect is even more rewarding.  It is also more dependable because the attraction is now based  on reality and less on infatuation and image.  Because of the stability they can afford to experiment.  They know each other now having developed their own resilience and curiosity.  This is the circular promise of staying together:  It can be even better than dating.        

I never promised you a sculpture garden

Marriage can do nothing for you.  If you take that attitude your marriage will be better off.  And you cannot “work on” your relationship.  It is not a lump of clay you pull out on the weekends and try to sculpt.   It is not an entity that can do something for you or that you can mold. It also doesn’t work to try to change your partner.  Everyone has tried that...and eventually, hopefully, given it up.  Trying to change your partner is often fueled by fear.  “What if I don’t get him to change?”  “ What if he doesn’t measure up and I’d have to leave him?”  Such an inner monologue can be translated as:  “If I were to respect myself, I would have to leave...So I’ll try to get him to change, and I won”t have to face those choices and efforts.”

The only way to do anything differently in a marriage is for people to work on themselves as individuals.  But much of the individual work is best done with the partner.  Couples counseling, for example, can help people long term, if it facilitates that individual clarity and responsibility in communication and action, and if it does so in relation to the spouse, not  to the therapist.
It’s all in the asking

While giving is important in good relationships, more important is how we ask for things.  The other person owes you nothing.  S/he was not put on this earth to give you anything, or be your parent or therapist.  Certainly those are aspects of all relationships.  But if you have the philosophy “you owe me nothing, but I will ask for a lot,”  you can ask for all kinds of things.  Asking from the point of  “you owe me nothing” is different than demanding, expecting, manipulating, or falling apart.  Request whatever you wish, even changes in your mate’s behavior,  but cut the demands out.
It is an easier way to live, not harder.  People who can ask for what they want clearly, without demanding, and who are prepared to take care of themselves if they do not get what they ask for, are easier to be around.  We sense their strength, that they are not going to be a burden on us, and that they have “use” for us.

What’s in it for me

Aside from children, the perceived rewards of staying in a committed relationship include:  Safety,  money, help, support, fun, sex, and a shield against loneliness.  These benefits, and the wish for them, are present  to some degree in all relationships.  In a truly committed relationship, however, these benefits are not the main focus.  They may be present sufficiently.  But also the individuals are willing to provide them for themselves, if needed.  For the partners in these relationships other unexpected and unsolicited rewards emerge as they go about being honest and decent partners.  All their relationships are gateways to more learning about self, others, and life.  Their primary relationship is simply the most important and elaborate portal.

Couples that are likely to break up, or who live restricted lives, are very brittle about what they can handle hearing about each other or disclosing about themselves.  There is only a narrow area that it is all right to talk about.  If that area is acknowledged by the couple, it can be expanded over time and they have a chance to be fully known.  It is in the vulnerability of individuals that the intimacy of couples exists.   Deep satisfaction comes from the effort and the progress of expanding the area of our lives that is known to ourselves and others.

The ultimate reward

The biggest reason for being in a committed relationship is to have somebody actually know you before you die...good, bad, and ugly.  It seems right that it has to be someone outside the family of origin.  It should not  be mom or dad or a sibling after we come of age, nor our own children  That is nice too, but we really want to reach out into the world and find somebody out there.  We want a witness to our adult life.

The ultimate reward of being in a truly committed relationship... is a paradox.  It prepares you to deal with the loss of your mate.  And, in a way, it prepares you to deal with your own death. 

In psychology we sometimes talk about traumatic bonds that kids form in families.  If you grow up in an abusive home, for example, you have a harder time leaving emotionally than if you grow up in a pretty good home. The kid keeps hoping he will get OK parenting, so he has a hard time letting go, even though he is being treated lousily.  The child who is treated pretty well, can leave easier. 

It is the same in relationships.  Having a really good, solid, committed relationship makes it easier to deal with the terrible loss of the partner than if you never connected.
In the latter case it may take longer to manage the loss.  It’s a double whammy:  People who had a relationship where they dealt with things less directly, albeit with less conflict  perhaps, pay for it long term, subdued by working it through slower.  They grieve less directly.

Personally, I want someone to know me before I die.  I would like to feel at home somewhere on earth.  That there would be that feeling.  Being deeply committed to someone can lead to ultimately feel at home in this body.  If we don’t feel at home in this body and on this earth, it is harder to leave.  This is how a good partner can help you face your own death. 

Marriage can do nothing for you.  But it is amazing how  individuals can do the ultimate for each other when they truly commit.  Nobody wants to live unrelated to others.   Today we have many  acceptable ways to relate authentically to others in life. 
Marriage is just an obvious, well traveled avenue to continue to consider.

Copyright 2000, Helene Brun.  All rights reserved.

Helene Brun, MFT    650.949.2879    helenebrun@sbcglobal.net    www.helenebrun.com

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