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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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 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
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.
2000, Helene Brun. All rights reserved.
Helene Brun, MFT
650.949.2879 email@example.com www.helenebrun.com