Marriage and commitment are often at the top of the list when I talk to people in my office. And for good reason! Research 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? My experience indicates that most of it boils down to unmet expectations.
The fact that things work out so differently from the way people expect suggests that they don’t know their partners very well to begin with. In other words, people who are more “in love with love” and the idea of being married are the ones most vulnerable to disappointment. “I thought he was going to be different.” Well, why is that? Didn’t you know him well enough? Sometimes people fall into marriage-think long before they really know the person to whom they’re about to make a lifetime commitment. It’s like choosing your career after just one week of college.
The primary error lies in placing the IDEA of “getting married” above the REALITY of being with that 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. If they do end up marrying, it’s only after a period of time when circumstances or legal considerations make it necessary.
If you’re in love with love for its own sake, you’re more likely to select a partner who’s not what you really need or want. You can’t place the desire to be part of a couple above the wish to spend most of your time with one particular person. It’s the person that you love, not the abstraction of marriage.
Here are four factors that are the most predictive of a successful coupling:
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 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 or your friends. 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 sentences isn’t stupid as much as just unwilling to use his mind. A woman who expresses feelings without any basis in fact isn’t “overly emotional” as much as unwilling to consider her emotions prior to expressing them.
Accommodation: Recognition that both you and your spouse have a self. Just as you should be the center of your own universe of desires, your partner is the same. Narcissists don’t acknowledge that. They only recognize their own universe. The blame rests not with the presence of a self, 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, respect comes automatically.
Vulnerability: You refuse to pretend when it comes to your anxieties or displeasure. People who pretend will say “no” when they really mean “yes,” or make believe that all is well when it actually isn’t. This breaks down communication and ultimately destroys the commitment.
In and of itself, marriage is not intended to validate. 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 and celebrates that happiness; but shouldn’t create it. Marriage is just the icing on the cake.