Of all the things that people ask me about (both in and out of my office), marriage, relationships and commitment are always at the top of the list. And for good reason! Research published by Scientific American Mind shows that, in the U.S., about half of first marriages fail, as do two-thirds of second marriages and three-quarters of third marriages. How can this be? Well, the studies indicate that most of it comes down to expectations that are misunderstood, and therefore not met.
The fact that things work out so differently from the way people think that they should suggests that they don’t really know their partners very well to begin with. In other words, people who are more ‘in love with love,’ or the ‘idea’ of getting (or being) married are the ones most vulnerable to unmet expectations. I hear over and over again, ‘I thought he was going to be different.’ Well, why is that? Didn’t you know him well enough? People sometimes fall into ‘marriage think’ long before they really know the person with whom they’re planning to make a lifetime commitment. It would be like choosing a career after just one week of college classes. ‘Yes, this is the career for me!’ Excuse me? You’re basing this on three hours of classes? Yes, it sounds ridiculous, but people routinely do the same thing when it comes to marriage.
I believe that the root error lies in placing the notion of ‘getting married’ above the REALITY of being with that particular person for the rest of your life. Frankly, some of the happiest couples I’ve seen are people who wouldn’t dream of getting married, or for whom marriage is simply a byproduct of their love, not the fundamental cause. If they do end up marrying, it’s only after a period of time when circumstances such as having a child, health insurance, or writing wills make it necessary.
If you’re in love with the idea of love for its own sake, you’re more likely to select a marital partner who’s not what you really need or want. You can’t place the desire to be married, or to be part of a couple, above the desire to spend most of your time with one particular person. It’s the person that you love, not the abstraction of ‘marriage.’
Scientific American Mind listed four factors that are the most predictive of a successful coupling: commitment, communication, accommodation and vulnerability. Let’s look at each one individually:
Commitment: A belief that ‘I plan to stay with this person exclusively because this is the only person I want to be with.’ It does not require a ring on the finger, a ceremony or a caterer. If it does, then it’s not a real commitment. In a real commitment, you’re ‘married’ whether or not it’s recognized by the state, community, your friends or whomever. People don’t have to witness your love in order for it to exist. It exists because it’s real, not because someone danced at your wedding.
Communication: A willingness to speak your mind in a rational and effective way — the way you’d like to be spoken to. It also presupposes a willingness to think. People who don’t think don’t communicate well. A man who grunts or speaks in half-digested sentences isn’t stupid so much as just unwilling to use his mind. A hysterical woman who expresses feelings without any basis in fact isn’t ‘overly emotional’ as much as unwilling to rationally process her emotions prior to expressing them.
Accommodation: Recognition that both you AND your spouse have a self. Just as you are, and should be, the center of your own universe of desires, your partner is the same. Narcissists don’t acknowledge that. They recognize their own universe, but ignore that of others. The blame rests not with the presence of a self in the narcissist, but with his or her lack of respect for the presence of a self in others. The narcissist simply wants a servant. To a person who loves himself and his spouse in a healthy way, accommodation and respect come automatically.
Vulnerability: You refuse to pretend when it comes to your anxieties or displeasure. People who pretend will do things like saying ‘no’ when they really mean ‘yes,’ and making believe that all is well when it’s actually not. Not only is it annoying, but it breaks down communication and accommodation; ultimately destroying the commitment.
Marriage, in and of itself, is not designed to validate or bring happiness. On the eve of the wedding, one shouldn’t be thinking, ‘Tomorrow real happiness begins.’ We marry someone because they’re already worth marrying. The pomp and circumstance codifies that happiness; but shouldn’t create it. Marriage is just the icing on the cake.