Why is marriage so hard?
Why is it so difficult for two people who love each other to get along? Why do so many couples end up miserable and divorced? There are three underlying causes of marital misery. Fasten your seatbelts as we explore each of these troublemakers.
When we marry, we come installed with a set of emotional needs and the spoken or unspoken expectation that our partner will meet our needs. I wrote about Dr Harley’s 10 core needs in a previous column. Women need affection, conversation, honesty and openness, financial support and family commitment and men need sexual fulfilment, admiration, recreational companionship, an attractive spouse and domestic support. Other psychologists have identified different needs but they fall into these categories.
Emotional needs are hard-wired into humans and it is legitimate to expect our partner to meet them. However frustration sets in when one or both partners fail to deliver and a struggle ensues. The more one partner complains, the more the other feels criticised and gets aggressive or withdraws instead of hearing their partner’s cry from the heart.
Sometimes one partner has an insatiable unmet need left over from childhood, which no amount of admiration, affection, security or excitement will satisfy. I know a woman who yearned for comfort and understanding from her husband, which is what she needed as a child from an unaffectionate distant dad. But she provoked him with hostile demands so he withdrew and withheld instead of consoling her. Her insatiable need continued for years until she learned to simply ask for hugs and her husband learned to respond with tenderness.
Defences against Pain
The second troublemaker is pain. We all carry repressed internal pain from the past; nagging worries about the unknown future and external stresses and hurts in the present. Humans have ingeniously devised a variety of coping strategies and defences to handle pain. Most of us will do anything rather than just FEEL and express pain in a healthy way.
Coping strategies include denial, suppression and repression, blame, angry outbursts, controlling behaviour, avoidance and distraction, escapism through fantasy, delusion or dissociation, idealisation, acting out pain (through illicit sex, violence or addictions), medicating pain with food, alcohol or drugs or mood changing behaviours like shopping or gambling; self harm, obsessive compulsive disorder and other psychological conditions.
Coping strategies and defences were formed as children. Subsequently they are obsolete in adulthood and yet we continue to use them in destructive ways, which impact our close relationships. In the vulnerability inherent in an intimate connection, we have the ability to continually trigger each other's buried pain, shame and fear.
It is only through feeling our stockpile of pain; repressed anger, fear, shame and grief that we can heal and grow in authenticity and develop higher spiritual qualities such as compassion, gratitude and strength of character. Contrary to New Age philosophy, personal growth comes not through pumping ourselves up with self-importance but through humbly searching our souls for our brokenness and hidden wounds and seeking healing.
Immaturity and Dysfunction
The third troublemaker is dysfunction. In his book, Changes That Heal, Christian psychologist, Dr Henry Cloud explores four essential developmental stages. In growing up, we need to achieve four “tasks”; bonding, separating from parents, sorting good and bad and becoming an adult. When any of these tasks is incomplete we suffer immaturity and dysfunction. If we did not bond with our mother as an infant, we will find attachment threatening as an adult and can suffer from depression, emptiness and isolation yet resist intimate connection.
It is necessary to bond before we can psychologically separate from our parents. Without separateness, we create enmeshment and co-dependence in marriage and fail to assert our opinions and beliefs, feelings and needs, wants and preferences and fail to respect our partner as a unique individual. In co-dependence, one partner feels dominated. Ironically it is not just the “controlling partner” who creates the unhealthy dynamic but the partner who is passive, enabling and does not set boundaries.
Another tragic result of failure to establish autonomy is repeating generational patterns. For example, when your child reaches the age you were when your parents divorced, had an affair or got sick, you risk repeating these traumas in your own life.
In becoming mature, we must face our weaknesses, faults and mistakes and accept and integrate our “badness”, instead of hiding behind a façade of perfection. People whom have not integrated their badness, are defensive and sensitive to criticism and also refuse to see faults in others, hero worshipping those they admire, and searching for a non-existent “ideal partner”.
Lastly, we must become responsible adults by moving from one-down, parent-child relationships to equal relationships with other adults, starting with our partner. If we are psychologically immature we will be inadequate to cope with decision-making, problem solving and conflict resolution.
Only by growing up can we develop the skills and substance required for a healthy, loving and respectful marriage.
This article was published in June 2007 in XL Extraordinary Lives, an international magazine for entrepreneurs and business people.