Sometimes people ask me if working as a marriage and family therapist has caused me to lose hope in marriage. Honestly, the answer is no. While I am no stranger to the resentment, disappointment, and struggles which sometimes result from saying “I do,” working as a therapist has given me insight to what makes (or doesn’t make) a healthy marriage.
Even the healthiest marriages are hard work
Even the healthiest marriages are not immune to conflict and difficulty. With this being said, however, I believe that some of the struggles that couples face in a marriage can be avoided when wisdom is used in selecting one’s spouse. I’m not saying this to shame any couple who is experiencing difficulty in their marital relationships. Problems are not always a sign of an unhealthy marriage. Even when couples may have married for less than ideal reasons, I believe that healing can occur in any marriage no matter what the beginning of that relationship may have been like. I have witnessed it.
Problematic motivations behind the decision to marry
The intent of this article is to raise awareness of problematic motivations behind the decision to marry. I’m hoping that this article will help prevent poor or hasty relationship decisions which would result in unnecessary struggle or hurt in the future. The following are common motivators for marriage that I most frequently see in couples with a weak marital foundation. Having a weak foundation creates unnecessary conflict and makes a marriage less likely to withstand natural stressors that may arise.
- Fear that no one better will come along
“Someone is better than no one” is sometimes the underlying thought that causes couples to overlook each other’s red flags.
It’s understandable that you don’t want to be alone, but is it worth committing your lifetime to someone who either does not treat you right or does not excite you? Couples who get married out of fear of being single feel like they settled for less than what they deserve, or less than what they wanted. Not only is that disappointing for the spouse who feels like they settled, but it is hurtful to the spouse who feels they have been settled for. True, nobody’s perfect, and it’s unfair to expect that your spouse will be. It is possible, however, to feel mutually respected and enjoyed by one another. That is realistic. If you don’t feel this way in your relationship, you are both likely better off moving on.
Marriage is sometimes placed on a pedestal, especially within Christian cultures. This can make singles feel like they are less than whole individuals and can pressure them to enter in to marriage hastily.
Couples who do this often care more about being married than who they are marrying. Unfortunately, after the marriage vows, they may begin to realize that they never really got to know their spouse, or never learned how to work through conflict. Know the person you are marrying before you marry them. If you’re rushing into marriage just so you can feel like you are starting your life, it’s probably a sign you need to slow down.
- Hoping to inspire change in their partner
I have worked with multiple couples who were completely aware of the “issues” that are currently causing problems in their marriage prior to walking down the aisle. “I thought that would change once we were married,” is often the rationale they give me. When you marry someone, you are agreeing to take them and love them just as they are. Yes, they might change. But they might not. If your boyfriend says he never wants kids, it’s not fair to get mad at him when he is saying the same thing when you are married. If you feel your significant other needs to change, give them opportunity to change before marriage. If they don’t, only marry them if you can commit to them as they are now.
- Fear of others’ disapproval
Some couples get married because they are too worried about disappointing or being judged by others. Some couples feel they must get married because everyone is expecting it, or they don’t want to be that person who breaks off an engagement. They want to show everyone that they got it right and are ready for this next step. However, the temporary discomfort of disappointing others or being gossiped about is nowhere near the pain and stress of entering into a lifelong commitment with someone who is not right for you.
- An inability to function independently
While the “You complete me” method might work in the movies, in the mental health world, we call this “codependency” which is NOT healthy. Codependency means you derive your value and identity from another person. This creates an unhealthy amount of pressure on that individual. No human can truly fulfill your every need. Healthy relationships are made up of two healthy individuals who are stronger together but able to survive on their own. Imagine a healthy couple as two people holding hands. If one falls down, the other is not going to fall and might even be able to hold the other one up. Now imagine the codependent couple as two people back-to-back leaning against each other. They’re both feeling the weight of the other person. If one person falls down, both fall and end up getting hurt. If you and your partner depend solely on each other for survival, your marriage is going to be difficult.
- Fear of lost time or energy
Relationships are serious investments. They take time, money, and emotional energy. When couples have invested heavily in each other, it is difficult to imagine breaking up. It is a loss. The fear of having wasted time and emotional energy on a person who is not ultimately going to be one’s spouse can cause couples to agree to marriage against their better judgment. Once again, while it might be easier to choose marriage over a breakup in the moment, it’s going to lead to a lot of marital issues that could have been avoided.
If you resonate with one or more of these, it’s something to consider prior to making a marital commitment. If you already are married, do not despair. There is still hope for your relationship.
Unhealthy marriages can be made healthy
Motivators for marriage in healthy couples generally include a deep respect for one another, sincere enjoyment of the other’s company and shared goals and values. For those of you who are unattached, seek out someone who has the qualities of making a healthy marriage partner, and work on becoming a healthy marriage partner for someone else. Do not rush the process. You will prevent yourself and others from unnecessary emotional pain.