Take Back Your Marriage
Sticking Together in a World That Pulls Us Apart
By William J. Doherty
The Guilford Press Copyright © 2013 William J. Doherty
All rights reserved.
Take Back Your Marriage
Not far from my office in St. Paul, Minnesota, is the farthest point north on the Mississippi River where the big ships can navigate the river. Have you ever stood close to the edge of a river like the Mississippi? In most places the current is silent but formidable in strength. Everything on the water moves steadily south—or sometimes east or west for a while—but ultimately south toward New Orleans. Everything that is not powered by wind, gasoline, or human muscle.
Ever since I moved to Minnesota, I have thought that getting married is like launching a canoe into the Mississippi at St. Paul. If you don't paddle, you go south. No matter how much you love each other, no matter how full of hope and promise and good intentions, if you stay on the Mississippi without a good deal of paddling—occasional paddling is not enough—you end up in New Orleans. Which is a problem if you wanted to stay north.
At first, you are so captured by the joy of being married, so embraced by the good will of family and friends, that you hardly notice that you are passing Wabasha, Minnesota, on your slow drift south. After all, you are still in Minnesota. Next comes Dubuque, Iowa, but you are still in the upper Midwest. By the time you hit St. Louis, you know your marriage is not quite what you had hoped it would be, but it's still good and satisfying—just not as soaring and special as you had expected, given the great launching up north. If you can hold it together at St. Louis, that would be fine. But your muscles are out of shape now from too much sitting and too little paddling. (Recreational paddling is not enough to stay in one spot for long on the Mississippi; you've got to work at it.)
With two of you in the canoe, chances are that one of you becomes concerned about your marital drift well before St. Louis. One of you may comment about fewer long talks and about how little "quality time" you spend together now that your first child is in your life. Or one of you may complain about having sex less often and less passionately. For some couples, these complaints are a call to start paddling more vigorously. For other couples, the complaints lead to unpleasant arguments that lead to greater distance. But even when we are inspired to try harder, the extra work on our marriage tends to be short lived—sustained for days or weeks at best—and then we resume our slow drift south.
The problem is not lack of love or good intentions. The problem is that we don't understand the river currents, we don't have the mind-set to resist them, and we don't have a strategy for getting back north. In other words, we don't grasp what we are up against in contemporary marriage, so we don't have a master plan to take back our marriage when we start losing it. The result is that nearly all of us lose some parts of our marriage to the river current. If any of this fits you and your marriage, you are quite normal. The thing is, normal these days means you have to take back your marriage and head north time and again.
WHY OUR MARRIAGES DRIFT
The natural drift of contemporary married life, in our busy, distracted, individualistic, cell phone–obsessed, consumer-driven, media-saturated, and work-oriented world, is toward less spark, less connection, less intimacy, and less focus on the couple relationship. Add in the demands of child-sensitive parenting, and you have a pretty good picture of why many marriages decline over time.
Is there a basis for these claims beyond my own opinion? Fortunately, marriage has been a well-researched topic in the social sciences. We know that about two-thirds of married couples begin a decline in their marital happiness after the birth of their first child. Like the Mississippi River current, the pulls on the relationship are steady and unrelenting during the childrearing years and beyond. The good news is that recent research I've done with my colleague Jared Anderson has shown that about one in five couples start out well and go through no decline in their marital happiness over the years, and another forty-five percent have some decline and then bounce back.
You can take one of the best measures of marital happiness and see how you compare to national averages. (Note that this and several other practical tools from the book are available for downloading and printing at www.guilford.com/p/doherty.)
The upbeat research I just mentioned had one big limitation: it only measured couples who stayed together. What about couples whose boats don't just drift but crash on the rocks, the divorce casualties of marriage? One in four of all currently married couples are likely to divorce, and the projections for newly marrying couples is still in the forty to fifty percent range, the highest of any society in human history. The biggest risk for divorce is in the early years of marriage, with half of those who ever divorce doing so within the first six to seven years. (The recently reported increase in late-life divorces is a product of the high-divorcing baby boomers reaching older ages rather than a new risk in the later years of marriage.) The divorce rate for second marriages is even higher. With such large numbers of couples divorcing, and with many others drifting toward less satisfaction over the years, we clearly have a problem.
Later on, we will look in detail at the forces that drive even good marriages south. Here I want to highlight a few everyday factors, followed by a larger cultural one.
We are too busy for our marriages. Between work, raising children, and managing daily life, many of us don't think we have enough time to make our marriage relationship a high priority in daily life.
We get too used to our mate. In marriage, familiarity breeds not contempt, but taking each other for granted. All relationships lose some degree of newness and freshness over time if we don't work to put these ingredients back. Psychologists call it "habituation," a universal threat to intimate relationships. We stop dating, especially after we have children. Special alone times brought us together, but many of us stop arranging them after we become parents.
We don't know other couples' strategies for maintaining vibrant marriages. In a culture of privacy about marriage, we don't share our struggles and successes with other couples. We drift pretty much in parallel formation, and when we do share, we tend to complain, and so do they.
Differences between spouses in their "work orientation" toward marriage get resolved in the direction of less work. Our gender training as men and women prepares us differently for maintaining our marriages. At the risk of overgeneralizing, men tend to see close relationships as needing lower maintenance and work than women do. (Look at the difference in this regard between men's friendships and women's friendships.) Many wives, after a period of trying unilaterally to make the marriage a "high work" relationship, settle for their husband's standard. I don't want to overstate this gender difference, though, because often both spouses forget how to nurture their relationship over the long haul. And the current is too strong for that level of effort.
Not only does the television absorb much of the rest of our attention during the day and evening, but many couples have a television in their bedrooms, thereby drawing eyes and ears away from each other at the only time of the day when they may have privacy.
Then there is the rise of cells phones and social media which have transformed family communication since the first edition of this book. We now carry our computers in our hands. Some commentators claim that each of us has immediate access to more people and more information than presidents of the United States did a generation ago. The ultimate consequences for our marriages remain indeterminate, but it is clear that there are major threats. An obvious one is the development of online affairs, which therapists report are increasingly common issues in their offices. More generally, we can be so preoccupied with responding to our cell phones and engaging in online communication that we neglect our intimate relationships. We can have hundreds of Facebook friends and share things with them that we fail to mention to our spouse. Scholar Sherry Turkle argues from her research that technology offers the illusion of communication without any emotional risk, and the illusion of intimacy without the demands of intimacy. I'll return to this issue a number of times in this book.
MARRIAGE AND THE CONSUMER CULTURE
The chief unrecognized enemy of marriage in today's world is the consumer culture of marketplace values, which has crept unnoticed into the family. In my book Take Back Your Kids: Confident Parenting in Turbulent Times, I argued that today's children are increasingly being raised as consumers of parental services, with parents seeing themselves as parental service providers to entitled children. Lost is the idea of children having responsibilities as citizens of families and communities. Well-intentioned parents anxiously provide their children every possible opportunity lest they fall behind in the competition to become successful adults. Parenting becomes product development.
The consumer culture has invaded marriage along with parenting, and it rides with us in the boat as we head south. The consumer attitude toward marriage is all around us and affects all of us, like global warming and air pollution. We can detect it most readily when we are bothered by something in our mate or our marriage and hear ourselves thinking or saying things like, "What am I getting out of this marriage, anyway?" Or "I deserve better!" or "What's in this for me?" Not that these thoughts are altogether inappropriate; if your spouse is having an affair or hitting you, then focusing on self-interest is quite appropriate. But when your mate is not the lover you had hoped for, or nags you more than you want, or is not emotionally expressive enough for you, then consumer thinking suggests that you have not cut the best possible deal in marrying this person. Then you start to do cost–benefit analysis: What am I getting from this relationship in terms of what I am putting into it?
I knew a couple who counted each time the other was out of town and owed an additional period of solo child care. Although they said they were trying to be fair to each other, I believe they were continually tallying what each was giving and receiving from the marriage. Later on, the husband left for another woman.
Not surprisingly, the pursuit of a good deal in an ongoing marriage makes it less likely that the marriage will be rewarding. Researcher Paul Amato has shown that focusing on "how is this going for me?" leads to less satisfaction with the marriage in the future than an attitude that is focused on commitment to the relationship. In my observation, when a husband keeps telling himself that he is entitled to better sex than he is getting in his marriage (a consumer attitude), he will continue to have an unsatisfying sexual relationship with his wife. She will not respond emotionally and erotically to his sense of entitlement. Spouses are supposed to be lovers, not providers of sexual and other marital services.
I recall the movie Lovers and Other Strangers, in which Bea Arthur, playing the mother of an adult son who has announced that he is getting a divorce because he is not happy in his marriage, delivers this great line: "Don't look for happiness, Richie, it will only make you miserable."
Perhaps you think I am exaggerating when I say that the consumer marketplace culture has invaded how we think about marriage. Advertisers know a cultural trend when they see one and are quick to use it to appeal to consumers. A magazine ad pictured a new Honda Civic with the headline, "THE SAD THING IS, IT'LL PROBABLY BE THE HEALTHIEST RELATIONSHIP OF YOUR ADULT LIFE." Honda explains: "You've tried the personals, blind dates, even one of those online chat rooms. Why? The Civic Sedan is smart, fun, reliable and good-looking. Not to mention, it's ready to commit, today." Then, lest the reader feel suddenly commitment-shy, the ad ends in the wink of a headlight: "Looking for a good time?"
Apparently we must seek "healthy adult relationships" with cars because, as an ad for Levi's jeans has recognized, marriage can't be counted on anymore. In a lavish six-page spread we see happy dating couples, with captions announcing how long they were together before breaking up. The final page shows two female roommates, one consoling the other about a recent breakup. Just behind the two roommates, on the kitchen wall, is an art poster with the Spanish words Mis padres se divorcian: "My parents are divorced." The caption underneath delivers the ad's take-home message: "At least some things last forever—Levi's: they go on."
The message is that we can only count on what we buy, not on what we share or the people to whom we commit ourselves. And the only role that endures is that of consumer. Companies that want our business will do whatever it takes to meet our needs, unlike our spouses, who sometimes put their own needs, or the children's needs, before ours. Levi's will be there for us, even if our parents divorce and our lovers leave us. How comforting.
At the heart of today's consumer culture is the idea that our purchases and our relationships should be therapeutic, good for us psychologically. Marriage is (or used to be) our culture's most cherished venue for personal growth and fulfillment. But steadfastness and self-sacrifice are not in this picture of therapeutic consumption. When the marriage relationship becomes psychologically painful or stunts our growth, there are plenty of therapists around to serve as midwives for a divorce. And most baby boomers and their offspring have an internalized therapist in our heads—the psychological voice of the consumer culture—to encourage us to stop working so hard or to get out of a marriage that is not meeting our current emotional needs. In consumer marriage, the customer—you or me as individuals pursuing our just rewards—is always right.
In 2009 many watched with fascination the results of the infidelities of Tiger Woods. I was struck not just with what Tiger did to his marriage (chronic infidelity has always been with us), but with the message his father, Earl, had left him with. Not only did Earl Woods himself have trouble settling down and being faithful to one woman, he was also a perceptive observer of the culture. Here is what Karen Crouse of The New York Times wrote: "Woods's parenting role model was his father, Earl, who was committed to rearing him after having two sons and a daughter in a failed first marriage.... Perhaps Woods was destined to be like his father, only not in the way he had hoped. Over lunch on the veranda at the Masters one year, Earl Woods said, 'I've told Tiger that marriage is unnecessary in a mobile society like ours.'" This is more than a fetching celebrity anecdote. We know from research that children of divorce have a fifty percent increase in their odds of divorce, and that ambivalence about whether lifelong commitment is possible is a likely factor in that risk. Children of divorce aspire to lifelong marriage but are not as confident they can achieve it.
I want to tell you a story of Ken and Judy, a couple I saw in therapy back when I was living in Oklahoma. They made a beautiful pair—tall, handsome, and graceful. They had met on the country-western dance floor, and they told me, with a touch of shyness, that they were really good dancers. So good that other people on the dance floor would sometimes make a circle and watch them dance. Ken and Judy had been married for three years. When I asked them when was the last time they had danced, they replied ruefully, "Three years ago." The ritual that brought them together—that helped to define them as a couple—was something they had abandoned. Dance floors, I guess, are for singles and for couples who are falling in love, not for married couples trying to sustain their love.
We fall in love through rituals of connection and intimacy—courtship rituals like romantic dinners, long talks, riding bicycles or going skiing, going for walks, exchanging gifts, talking every night on the telephone. We mostly do these rituals alone as a couple; when people are falling in love, their family and friends know to give them some space. We gladly fill our time through rituals of connection and intimacy. We develop a common language and a common experience bank. We go to dinner at our favorite spots, and we try to sit at our favorite tables. We go dancing at our favorite places. And we don't dance with everybody in the room; we dance mostly with the person we are falling in love with. And then we get married.
Why do we give up what made us so happy at an earlier phase in our relationship? Falling in love is the ultimate consumer fantasy, up there with a truly wonderful SUV or townhouse. Growing the new relationship and reaping personal rewards go hand in hand. When things go well, I give to you, you give to me, and we are wonderful as a couple. What's more, our passion is fueled by anxiety about whether the relationship will last. Romance, novelty, and fear of loss—the stuff of operas and love affairs. (Continues...)
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