Written by John Stewart
Our culture’s obsession with immediacy (I feel ignored if my email is not answered within an hour), simple answers to complex problems (kill all of the radical Muslims, this will teach them not to hate us) and impermanency (I long for the new IPhone before I have learned to use the majority of features on my current one) seem to have significantly impacted our thoughts and approach to marriage. As a psychologist working with couples and families I so often see marriages torn apart by these forces, setting the stage for couples to trade in workable but imperfect relationships for the loneliness, collateral damage (kids) and disappointment of their next “flawed” relationship. I don’t wish to suggest that divorce is never an appropriate option, but rather that within our current culture we do little to support marriage and the development of secure and loving long-term relationships.
Historically, the institutions of family and church have supported marriage, but these supports are less available as our culture has become far more mobile (children living away from extended family) and secular. In the absence of these supports our culture has turned increasingly to clinical resources to address marital difficulties, often not boding well for marriage as clinicians so frequently feel obligated to a assume a value neutral position on the preservation of the client’s marriage.
As divorce has become such a common part of our culture it too quickly hits the table as the solution to the relational problem of the moment. Couples, particularly young couples, so often enter into marriage with unrealistic expectations that lead to rapid disillusionment when the inevitable and necessary struggles begin to play out. Marriage is between two individuals; therefore unless one is hidden or subordinated by the other, conflict will and must arise. This is how relationships grow as well as how couples learn how to disagree, listen to one another and become skilled in offering and seeking forgiveness. The clinical literature on attachment teaches us that relationships are similar to muscles in that they are strengthened by the process of connect-tear (as in torn)-repair. If the culture does not support and teach young couples of the inevitability of the tears, or the healing and strengthening impact of the repairs, they will move towards hopelessness and despair in response to the normal growing pains of a shared life.
Many years ago a professor of psychiatry at Stanford, Paul Watzlawick used an old Polish saying “the situation is hopeless, but not serious” as the title for a text on relationships. Within this saying lies great counsel and wisdom for how important it is to know the difference between a situation that is hopeless and one that is serious, and how easy it is to confuse the two. Marriage for all of us will have aspects of struggle that may seem hopeless (ask my wife of 37 years), but if we know this, understand it, accept it, and work to manage it we will have a good foundation for surviving the inevitable “tears” and finding the “repairs” that heal and strengthen our relationship.
I certainly don’t have all the answers to the relationship problems within our culture, but I do know that we must recognize that marriage is in trouble and develop means by which to protect and nurture it. That means finding ways to celebrate the benefits of long-term commitment, teach the requisite skills, and provide access to help for struggling couples. This effort will “take a village” that believes in the value and benefit of marriage” without requiring alignment with religious institutions from which many are estranged.
In sum, our commitment to our partners must transcend our unrealistic demands for immediacy, simple solutions and the pull to “trade up” or it, we, our kids and ultimately our culture are in trouble.