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Why Marriages Fail

Posted Feb 19 2009 5:13pm

During a recent session, a couple who had been married for about five years decided to end their relationship. The wife told the husband very matter-of-factly, saying that "they had simply grown apart and couldn't stop fighting." Neither he nor I were surprised given they we had spent almost a year working on their relationship with no improvement in their ability to resolve conflicts or even increase their interest in spending time together. And, although the reality of the words 'I want a divorce' initially made him very anxious and distressed, he agreed that they were no longer happy together and didn't see the point in continuing as well.

Couples in therapy split up more often than you might think. Couples therapy has a horrible track record for two reasons: one is that the couple usually waits far too long to seek help, long after arguments have gotten out of hand and the dyad has drifted in directions that can't be saved. The other is that "therapy success" is often measured by whether or not the couple stays together. Unfortunately couples often arrive for therapy with some knowledge that the relationship is either hanging by a thread or even that one or both members is seeking a sort of permission to dissolve the connection. In this case a good therapist helps the couple to acknowledge that separation is the best course of action and that it can be done somewhat amicably and respectfully.

The couple who decided to divorce marks the third time in my career I've seen a relationship end in session. The first was in graduate school when an extremely young couple - each about age 19, with a child - decided to break up after realizing their youth was preventing them from making a meaningful commitment that could withstand another 60 years. The second occurred during my post-doctoral training when a middle-aged husband left his wife for a significantly younger woman. This couple had been having trouble for well over ten years. At that time I thought I had failed as a therapist. My supervisor, a Psychologist in her late 60's, pointed out that I was being naïve, not only about the notion that "therapy can fix everything," but also that "every marriage isn't meant to go the distance."

"Sometimes all you can do is give your blessing to a couple that it's time to move on," she said. "There's no shame in that and it's your professional obligation to do so." Some might view this as a controversial take on marital therapy, especially Christian counselors, but the reality is it's unethical to try to force a square peg into a round hole. If people are miserable together, the shrink's position is to help them separate and live happier lives apart.

The couple's recent separation got me thinking more about why marriages so often don't work out. Depending on where you get your numbers, one in two new marriages ultimately end up in divorce. Statistics are dubious entities but even as a simple approximation, a 50% divorce rate is a scary proposition. There is some fluctuation in this number depending on certain demographics: a lower divorce rate is seen in those who are college-educated, as well as those who wait until they are over age 30 before getting married. If you marry in your teens or early 20's your risk of the relationship dissolving goes through the roof.

What makes this "1 in 2" figure even more sobering is the implication that the 50% of marriages that remain intact are happy ones. I see both individuals and couples who remain in the relationships for a plethora of reasons: financial, religious, a belief that it benefits the children, a belief that one doesn't deserve better, fear of being alone or simply a lack of desire to deal with the legal red tape. If we look for the number of "successful" marriages that include both a formal retainer as well as mutual satisfaction we are considering a fairly low number that hasn't been well established in the clinical literature.

With respect to obvious precipitating factors for divorce such as abuse, addictions or adultery, let's focus on some of the most salient reasons why marriage can be such a difficult business, as well as some things that can help those relationships thrive:

1) Marriage requires compatibility not just at the point of saying 'I do,' but across the entire life span.

You won't be the same person in five, ten, or twenty years. Your goals, ideals, perspectives and interests can all change as you evolve. This isn't a bad thing. However, as you move along your adulthood as an ever-changing being, your spouse is doing the same thing. Two people who marry at 25 won't be the same people at 35 or 45, so your compatibility over the lifespan requires that you both evolve in mutually beneficial ways. This is no easy task and is why you often hear of couples 'growing apart,' or one partner saying 'he/she isn't the person I married.' Like the couple who recently split up, neither of them were the same people from five years ago. Couples need to realize that they will both change and have to strive for changes that allow them to remain connected in a viable way.

The best way to address this together is to first acknowledge the issue. Couples who are considering marriage should ask themselves and each other: where could one of us be in a year, three years, thirty years? What are the potential barriers to us 'growing old together?' What will we do if one of us drastically strays from our current plan? You don't need to have definite statements, but answers such as "don't worry, that won't happen" will not suffice. There needs to be an acknowledgment that a real deviation could occur for one or both partners and that, ideally, it will be discussed and managed together.

This may sound overly scientific, but picture your self-growth as a vertical line advancing upwards with deviations to the left and right. Those deviations could include a change in job focus, a loss of sexual attraction, a newfound desire to have a child (or perhaps more children) or a new area in which you wish to live. Your partner has a similar line and it will move as well, also forward and left/right. If those lines don't remain at least somewhat parallel to each other over the adult life span, the relationship will become unsatisfying.

2) Assuming that marriage implies monogamy, the institution itself is counterintuitive to biology.

Most species are not hardwired to be with one partner and humans are not different. You're programmed to be producing with different partners. Almost invariably people report that they often feel a sexual attraction to others who are not their spouse. While most don't act on those drives, many people view this as a sign that 'the marriage is not meant to be' or that the relationship is inherently flawed. This usually happens around the time when sexual excitement wanes and it becomes harder to live a passionate lifestyle in the bedroom. This realization of a damaged relationship isn't necessarily accurate simply because our make-up promotes the seeking out of new mates. What people need to realize is that the ideal marriage is striving for a greater good than can be obtained in lieu of multiple sex partners. But make no mistake: marriage is a man-made institution, not a natural one. Without an appreciation for the magnitude of commitment prior to starting the marriage, both sexual and emotional, a person can become disenchanted very quickly.

3) There is far too much emphasis on 'weddings' as opposed to 'marriages.'

Pretend that I could marry you and your perfect mate (real or imagined) right now. By simply reading this paragraph, you are married. For women this means no ring, friends, family, flowers, dress, undivided attention or celebration of any kind. For men this means no bachelor party, tuxedo, strippers or Best Man. Neither of you would even be signing papers down at City Hall. Just this and you're legally committed. Do you still want to be married to this person right now?

If you said 'no' or hesitated for more than a few seconds before replying you're immediately setting yourself up for failure. Don't confuse the terms 'wedding' and 'marriage.' Your wedding occurs on Day 1, but your marriage is every single day after that. Can you name any other situation where one would hyperfocus on less than .001% of the pie? Unfortunately, women (and some men) are taught that the wedding day is the most important thing in a person's life. You don't need to watch Bridezillas or Rich Bride, Poor Bride to know how inherently self-absorbed people can become when it comes to their wedding because of the magnitude placed on it. It's a person's 15 minutes of fame. But the price tag with that comes with that fleeting moment of glory can be colossal. Unless you are fully prepared to be with your partner regardless of the means to get there you're missing the point of the institution.

4) Many couples do not know how to fight fairly.

This is somewhat cliché in the shrink world but true nonetheless. There are countless books and therapeutic approaches on this topic that go beyond the scope of a single blog post but the long and short of it is that any successful long-term relationship will have its fair share of conflict. This is a natural aspect of emotional intimacy. But too many people shy away from raising their voices or asserting their needs to each other for multiple reasons: fear of abandonment, a belief that fighting is a sign that the relationship is failing, an inherent desire to not be like other couples who are constantly screaming at each other, etc. At the other extreme, there are couples who simply can't control their emotions, where every day brings a new, explosive battle in the relationship. And of course there are always relationships where one partner is a fighter and the other a peacekeeper. Fair, balanced fighting is an art that many couples simply can't master. It involves a mutual respect for both your own and your partner's emotional state, a verbal working through of the feelings and issues, and a resolution (although, as discussed, this resolution does not always come immediately ). No shrink would promote verbal or physical abuse in a relationship but those worth their salt know that anger and its expression are part of the human condition and shouldn't always be suppressed. When they are over a long period of time, resentment and a lack of fulfillment results.

One technique that helps couples was taught to me by a supervisor in graduate school. She called it the Mirror Trick. It works like this: before you approach your partner with a grievance, take a mental peek into the mirror. What aspect of yourself, what issues or 'stuff,' either past or present, are you bringing to the discussion about this problem? For example, if you don't like the amount of time your partner spends with friends, ask yourself "what does his/her spending time away from me mean to me specifically?" It could be an issue of feeling inferior to them or unwanted, something that cuts beyond the core of "a man/woman needs to be home with his/her spouse." If you can 'look in the mirror first' you can then approach your partner with the grievance in the form of your personal idiosyncrasy with the issue as opposed to simply pointing the finger. This will often decrease defensiveness and lead to a more productive outcome. Consider: "When you spend such a large amount of time with your friends, it taps into my fears that you don't want to be with me. I feel inferior to them." Compare this with: "I hate it when you're with your friends so much. You need to be home more." Which approach is more likely to get the more productive response?

I'll fill you in on a little known secret: couples that don't ever fight eventually don't have sex either. Why? They are both forms of passion. If you give up one form of intensity you'll ultimately leave the other as well.

5) Marriages solve problems.

No, marriages amply problems. I can't count the number of times individuals and couples in the office have said "once we got married I assumed he would stop putting me down," or "after the wedding day I assumed she would want to have sex more often." A ring or a marriage certificate doesn't improve an individual's insecurities, solve problems or alter personalities. The increase in physical proximity and time spent together will probably increase any issues you already have.

The fact that you have problems isn't a reason to not get married; rather, it's a sign to start to address those difficulties and not assume they will 'take care of themselves.'

6) People settle for less than what they want.

Society puts a colossal pressure on people, especially women, to be married. Without a partner many people wonder "what's wrong with her?" Some of this thought process is natural, as humans are social creatures and we have a natural tendency to come together with another. But many people who enter their 30's or beyond without having been married are perceived as flawed, or at least weird. Because of society's demands many make a decision to get married based on flawed reasoning: to have children, to not be alone, to find someone who fits an arbitrary mold or to satisfy their parents and society's demands. If you are making a lifelong decision to meet ulterior motives, it's not likely to bring to you much happiness.

7) Couples assume they are immune to reasons 1-6 and believe that hard work isn't part of the deal. They think that love, sex, children or some combination thereof will be enough.

Research suggests that only 10% of couples maintain that intense "puppy love" experience years into their partnership*. Whether or not that bliss can sustain a marriage in and of itself is up for debate, but the reality is that for most couples, no force other than mutual effort can power a relationship. And if you refuse to buy into the idea that marriage is work, that your feelings will simply carry you through, you'll ultimately be disappointed. A partnership of such intensity requires a commitment to building and nurturing it. It's not unlike your physical body: without a decent diet, exercise and various lifestyle issues (e.g., not smoking, keeping alcohol in moderation) you will decay at a rate much faster than nature might want. Your marriage requires maintenance and effort as well or else it will collapse. I've had couples say to me, "that's so unromantic. It shouldn't be work, we should be able to do this naturally if we truly love each other." While I wish I could agree with them on that score, it's simply not reality, and this viewpoint is the precipitator for so many of the marital problems seen today.


The goal of this post isn't to create a 'doom and gloom' notion of marriage. In fact, successfully married couples often tell me it's the greatest decision they've ever made. Rather, this information is to empower people who are considering marriage and to help those who are struggling with their current marriage take a fresh view at what might need to be done. For those who can't seem to move past their problems in their relationships, for whatever reason, I would recommend seeing a professional therapist with some experience in working with couples. As mentioned previously, the sooner you can begin that process, the better, as my personal experience has shown that couples who don't wait to seek out help have better outcomes than those who come in as a last resort. Rarely does a person say that saying a marital therapist prove pointless, even if he/she can only say "this helped me to see that it wasn't going to work out between us." I would also recommend an excellent book entitled Love is Never Enough by Aaron Beck. This is a practical guide to helping couples navigate through communication problems commonly seen in committed relationships.

* Why this is the case is not entirely clear, but many believe there is a strong biochemical component to this.

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