Outside the realm of fairy tales, marriages come with difficulties and challenges. At least that is what I have learned from my personal and professional experience.
Cinderella and Prince Charming seem so sweet together, yet as explored in the play “Into the Woods”, only a short while after the wedding, he admitted that his training in being charming did not prepare him for fidelity and honesty: “I was raised to be charming, not sincere.”
Although every couple arrives at their own specific challenges and friction, it is possible to generalize these difficulties by looking at the misunderstandings the spouses have regarding their initial agreement.
A practical path to building a happy marriage
In the following pages, I will explore this in some more detail and try to offer some practical keys to a successful marriage.
In traditional cultures, there was usually a notion of marriage as a mutual agreement, often between the families of the couple. In some cultures, there was some form of contract that spelled out clearly the commitments and obligations the newlyweds were taking. Sometimes, the consequences of not keeping these commitments were specifically listed, including in some cases the dissolution of the marriage.
Simple marriage and the importance of love in older times
Older marriage-contracts were a vow witnessed by a small community that was vital to the life of the individual as well as to the health of couples and families.
In our culture, couples often do not have a consistent wider community that can serve as a witness to the couples’ vows and hold them responsible for the commitments they made.
It seems that in our modern Western culture, the clarity of that original contract is lost in the excitement of the meeting, the celebrations, the hopes and imaginations about the nature of the future union.
It is important to note that in our time, there is an ongoing destabilization of the nuclear family unit. Until less than a century ago, that unit was also the basic economic building block of society. Mainly because women could not practically survive outside the family, and sex without children was not as simple and easy as it is today.
The acceptable age for engaging in sex is getting younger and younger, while adulthood seems to be delayed to older ages. What 18 years old used to mean: responsibility, accountability, and ability to take care of oneself while being a contributing member of society, is now happening more often around age 30 if at all.
The reasons are both socio-economic and cultural and are beyond the scope of this article. The marital impasse I explore here is often related to the greater visibility and seeming availability of sex, along with lesser capacity to manage the emotions sexual encounters entail.
As the commitments are not so clearly named, and the nature of the witnessing community has changed, it is easier to assume that one’s unconscious wishes were actual promises made by the marriage partner. One partner wished to find someone that will care for them and provide all their earthly needs, but that was never promised.
One partner might have wished that affection, touch, and sex would always be available, yet that was not consciously promised.
What can add to misunderstandings about the original agreement is the multiplicity of parties involved in it. In the early 2000s, a funny film was shown at a psychology conference. In that short film, a couple was shown together in an enormous bed. On her side were also her mother and father and on his side were also his mother and father. The four parents were constantly sharing their (bad) suggestions and advice with the couple.
The respective parents are just one example of the unconscious forces affecting the marriage union. These can include business ventures, spiritual aspirations, and dreams of saving the partner or being saved by them.
Internal Family Systems has an interesting language to describe this sadly common state of affairs. This psychological theory describes our inner life as largely comprised of protectors and exiles. The exiles are parts of our psyche that were not accepted by our environment. The protectors are the parts we each created, to make sure the exile is safe and at the same time assure that that part is not returning back to any visible role.
According to IFS, when people meet a marriage partner they expect their exiled parts to finally return home and be united, yet it is the protectors that come into the bargain just as well, and they are determined to keep the young and vulnerable exiles safe and as far away as possible.
In our time, the taboos and shame associated with divorce are significantly diminished if not removed altogether. Thus the growing divorce rate makes it easier for married people to consider divorce or separation upon the slightest difficulty.
Separation and divorce are often options but not without pain
But even when that is the preferred choice, the process is hardly ever without pain. When there is deep financial involvement and especially when there are children, the separation is harder and the suffering greater. Being honest, open and respectful can reduce mutual pain. Trying to hide a marital discord from the children, or worse, staying together “for the children” is always damaging and increases the misery for all involved.
In some cases the initial decision to get together was immature or confused and letting it go can free both partners to grow and move on. In other cases, the partners took different paths of life, and although initially they were a good match and happy together, now is the time to take separate routes.
Is love really essential to marriage?
Too often the partners are aware of a deep connection and even love and attraction, yet there is so much hurt, shame and insult that the marriage is beyond repair.
When you find yourself in one of these difficult junctions in your own marriage, ask yourself which of your expectations and needs are not being met.
Do you believe that your partner promised to fulfil that expectation or to take care of that need of yours? Try first to talk to your partner. If there is any value left in the relationship, it will only grow from an honest conversation, even if that conversation is likely to be challenging and possibly painful.
If an honest and open conversation does not seem to be a viable option right now, try consulting with a trusted friend.
You might find a new perspective on your marriage
You might realize that whatever is still of value in the relationship outweighs the difficulties, an insight that can possibly lead to healing and to a discovery of a way back to fun, joy, and pleasure. You might also get permission to realize that separation is the better option and proceed with it.
Spouses often expect their partners to fulfil all their needs. Naming your unfulfilled needs, and even rating their importance, can help to realize that some needs are actually met in the relationship while others can be sought in other places, other activities, and other friendships.
Ask yourself if your marriage is stuck
It might be of great help to acknowledge at least to yourself, that the marriage is stuck. You don’t like being in it and you are afraid to make a change or don’t know how. As unpleasant as that admittance is, it is far better than pretending or avoiding reality.
Naturally, if recognizing the stuckness of the marriage can be done together with your partner, it might help both of you to feel a little better and maybe nurture some realistic hope and a practical plan to move towards it.
Disagreements about sex; namely frequency, style, and other participants, are the most common apparent reason for marital discord.
Discussing the matter is usually not easy and requires skills and maturity. Often there is a bind involving another important matter such as children or money, that when expressed clearly sounds like: “How can we progress with our sex life when we cannot talk about x; how can we resolve x when we are not having sex?”
Spelled out, this catch22 sounds stupid, yet it can be great progress to actually come to admit that this is the actual situation. When a couple is stuck like that, one of the partners needs to find the courage to be vulnerable and make the first move. That can inspire the other partner to be the courageous one next time.
We cannot be with the “one we love” because usually that person is a figment of our imagination.
We are often unconsciously attached to that image and are reluctant to give it up for the not-so-perfect reality of a flesh and blood partner. The porn epidemic is largely a symptom of these projections and the diminishing ability to navigate safely between dreams, desires, and reality.
The poet and teacher Robert Bly advises couples to take back their projection. This deep shadow-work includes looking below the surface into our own imperfections and accepting and owning them as part of being human. It includes looking into our partner’s eyes, sharing our wildest imaginations and dissatisfactions, acknowledging that the conversation might hurt them and forgive both yourself and your partner for being human and fallible.
Choose imperfect reality over the seemingly perfect imagination
A large part of growing up is learning to choose imperfect reality over the seemingly perfect imagination.
When spouses can meet as two individual adults, who are separate yet connected, they form together something new, larger than the sum of the parts. Both of them are aware of their needs and boundaries. Each one is giving freely and receiving with gratitude, and without expectations.
Both partners are aware of their strengths and their limitations and do not feel shame about their own imperfections or their partner’s humanness. A different kind of love and joy can thrive in this kind of union with room enough to include regrets and disappointments as well.