According to research reported in Scientific American Mind, about half of first marriages fail in the U.S., as do two thirds of second marriages and three quarters of third marriages. The researchers suggest that it’s because people usually ‘enter into relationships with poor skills for maintaining them and highly unrealistic expectations.’
It’s not just the expectations themselves that are the problem. The very fact that things work out so differently from the way people expect suggests that they don’t really know their partners.
People who are more in love with love—or more in love with the idea of ‘getting’ or ‘being’ married—are the ones most vulnerable to disappointed expectations.
How many times have I heard, ‘I thought he was different’? Well, why did you think he was different? Didn’t you know him well enough? Early on in a courtship, people will sometimes get into ‘marriage think’ before they really know the person well enough to make a lifetime commitment. It would be like choosing a career after initial enthusiasm over just one week of college classes and concluding, ‘Yes, this is the career for me.’ Excuse me? This is the career for you based on three hours of classes? I doubt that even the most immature of college students would make such a mistake. But people considerably older than college students routinely make that mistake when it comes to marriage.
I believe that the root error in so many disappointed marriages lies in placing the idea of love itself (or the notion of getting married) above the reality of being with a particular person.
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 a fundamental cause. Either they never get married, or they do so only after a long period of time when circumstances make it rational—having a child together, health insurance, writing wills, what have you.
There’s certainly nothing inherently wrong with getting married and there are often good reasons for doing so. But if you’re in love with the idea of love for its own sake, then you’re subject to selecting a marital partner who’s other than what you really need or want. The hard lesson here: You cannot place the desire to be married, or merely to be part of a couple, above the desire to actually live your life with, and spend most of your time with, this particular person. It’s an actual, individual man or woman you love, not the abstraction of ‘marriage’ or ‘love’ itself.
The Scientific American Mind research also reports: ‘A study of arranged marriages in which love has grown over time hints that commitment, communication, accommodation and vulnerability [italics mine] are key components of a successful relationship. Other research indicates that sharing adventures, secrets, personal space and jokes can also build intimacy and love with your partner.’
Commitment? In plain English, this means a belief that ‘I plan to stay, exclusively, with this person because this is the person I want to be with.’ Commitment does not require a ring on the finger, a marital ceremony or a caterer. If commitment does require such a thing, it’s not a real commitment. In a real commitment, you’re married whether or not it’s recognized by the state/community/ whomever. People don’t have to witness our love in order for your love to exist.
Communication? In plain English, this means a willingness to speak your mind in a rational and effective way, the way you’d like to be spoken to. Communication also presupposes a willingness to think. People who don’t think don’t communicate well. Well spoken people become that way because they think and reflect on a regular basis. A man who grunts or speaks in half-digested sentences isn’t stupid so much as simply 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? In plain English, this means a practical 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. People considered ‘selfish’ (in the conventional sense) or ‘narcissistic’ recognize their own universe-centeredness but ignore the universe-centeredness of others. This evasion leads to countless problems. The blame for this is not the presence of a self in the narcissist but the lack of respect for the presence of a self in others. Also, a narcissist does not love a person for what he or she represents. A narcissist simply wants a slave or a servant, emotionally and otherwise. A rational person loves himself, but also loves his spouse for whom he or she is. As a result he or she experiences personal (i.e., selfish!) happiness at seeing this person happy. To a person who loves in a healthy way, accommodation and respect is a no-brainer.
Vulnerability? In plain English, this simply means you’re willing to be honest about your anxiety or displeasure when those things are present. It means refusing to pretend. People tend to arrive at relationships as either the types who pretend or the types who don’t. If they’re the type who pretends, then they’ll do things like saying ‘no’ when they mean ‘yes’ and pretending they think all is fine when they strongly believe it is not. This breaks down the possibility of communication, accommodation and ultimately destroys the commitment itself.
Marriage is not a state of existence designed to validate you or bring you happiness. On the eve of your wedding, you don’t think (or, at least, you shouldn’t be thinking), ‘Tomorrow real happiness begins.’ Nor should you be thinking, ‘Tomorrow I’ll be even happier.’ You marry someone because they’re already worth marrying. The pomp and circumstance simply codifies your happiness; it does not create it. You don’t marry because life without marriage is worthless. Marriage is the icing on the cake—not the cake itself.
Source: ‘How Science Can Help You Fall in Love,’ by Robert Epstein, Scientific American Mind, January/February 2010