Why Marriages Fail: And How to Make Sure Yours Doesn’t
Allan and Jen asked me to do some marriage preparation counseling with them. Both Catholics, and both from divorced homes, they wanted to know what it takes to “make it.” As Jen explained to me in our first conversation, “Allan and I love each other, but I think our parents loved each other too when they got married. We want to know what happens to couples along the way. What trips them up? What do we have to watch out for?”
I appreciated their concerns. After all, everyone says that marriage is hard work, but few people can describe what that work is, much less what it entails. What do exceptional couples know that others don’t? I’ve discovered six reasons marriages fail, and some of the ways exceptional couples avoid those traps.
1. Wet cement
I recently asked one engaged couple, Liz and Mike, “Why are you getting married?” and they offered an answer not unlike that of many couples. “We want to get married because we love each other. We have a lot of the same interests and goals, and it feels good to be together. We want to grow old together.”
This answer represents a good start, but building a marriage on this sentiment is like building a house on a foundation of wet concrete. The basic structure is there, but it’s not necessarily strong enough to stand the test of time. For example, what will happen to Liz and Mike when, at some point, they become so stressed, sick, or busy that they wake up not feeling particularly loving? What happens if the interests that hold them together change, or if they are not able to pursue those same interests once children come? If a couple have only common interests, warm feelings, and good intentions, then the struggles common to all marriages have a very good chance of derailing them.
While exceptional couples do share common interests, they also have a secret weapon, what I call a Marital Imperative: a set of deeply held and personally significant spiritual values, moral ideals, and personal goals that make up the guiding principles for their lives together. In other words, they have a personal and relational creed that guides them in all the choices they make in their marriage.
Why is this important? When couples encounter hard times, they have to choose how to respond. Couples that primarily rely on warm feelings to hold them together tend to also rely on emotional responses to get them through times of conflict. Unfortunately, these emotional responses are rarely productive. Exceptional couples acknowledge their feelings, but more importantly they ask, How do my values and ideals require me to respond to this problem? This soul-searching leads, on average, to more empathic, rational reactions. As Marlene, married to Geoff for 23 years, said, “There are times that we want to throttle each other. But when we get really angry, even when we feel like a dog with a bone, we take a break. Geoff and I both ask God to show us what we are doing wrong — no matter how right we feel inside — and we ask for the wisdom to figure out what each of us has to do to get through this together.”
Regardless of the spiritual or philosophical tradition they uphold, couples who actively try to help each other remain faithful to their principles, especially in the little events and disagreements of everyday life, have staying power.
2. Unhappy couples just say no
“If you want to have a good marriage,” says Peter, married to Angie for 35 years, “sometimes you have to be willing to make yourself uncomfortable for love’s sake.”
Peter is talking about generosity, the willingness to do those things that communicate love, respect, or attentiveness to your spouse, even when those things don’t make sense to you.
Of course, you have the right to say no to any request that offends your moral principles or undermines your God-given dignity, but the generosity required of a good marriage necessitates a willingness to say yes to any request that does not. In other words, if my mate asks me to learn more about her hobbies, or her work, or to participate more in her life in any way, there is more virtue and intimacy to be found in assenting than rejecting the request on the grounds that “I don’t wanna.”
“I would rather do something I didn’t like with Angie than something I did like without her,” says Peter. “She’s my best friend, and when I learn about the things that are important to her, I learn more about myself. She’s opened me up to worlds I never would have discovered on my own, and I like to think I’ve done the same for her.”
3. Stay right where you are
The other day, a woman called me in tears. “I just want some time, some conversation from my husband but he won’t share anything with me,” she explained. “When I ask him why, he just says that’s the way he was when I married him and I should get over it. I’m just so lonely.”
Many spouses think that on the day of the wedding they signed a contract that required each buyer to accept the merchandise “as is.”
But exceptional couples understand that marriage is a process of growth and maturation. Because of its power to challenge our weaknesses and force us to grow, sometimes even when we don’t want to, renowned family therapist Cloe Madannes says, “Marriage is the best form of group therapy.” Likewise, the Church teaches that marriage is a sacrament, which means that marriage must always be about spouses working and growing together to become the people God created them to be. Digging in one’s heels and saying, “I won’t grow and you can’t make me!” is not only a recipe for a lousy marriage, it is a recipe for a miserable and impoverished life. By contrast, the more willing a spouse is to face a shortcoming, the happier he or she will be in life and marriage. And the more that both will have their mates to thank for the gift of a new self.
4. Blurry vision of love
More-conventional couples tend to think of themselves as loving as long as they can say they hold some warmth or affection for their mate. Thus assured of the goodness of their intentions, these couples then proceed to ignore each other with abandon, losing themselves in their work, their solo interests, and their community involvements. Sadly, this self-centered approach to “loving” eventually catches up with couples who suddenly wake up one day to discover that they have grown apart and that “we love each other, but we aren’t in love with each other.”
By contrast, successful couples understand that being a good spouse requires more than just knowing you love someone. It is something you demonstrate through the attentiveness and service you offer to a mate every day. To love a spouse means to plan your schedule with your mate in mind; to make decisions and plans with your marriage in mind; to look, every day, for opportunities to make your mate’s life easier or more pleasant in some way. As Michelle says of her 15-year marriage to Ben, “We work hard to make the time to do the little things that say ‘I love you’ every day. Sometimes the most romantic thing he’ll do for me isn’t bringing me flowers, sometimes it’s just saying, ‘I’ll take the kids,’ or he’ll clean the house on his own when I’m feeling tired. That means so much to me.”
5. In this cornah!…
Many couples think of arguments as metaphorical boxing matches. They come out verbally swinging, and whoever is left standing at the end wins. This is a recipe for disaster.
Exceptional couples think of arguments not as boxing matches, but as deep-muscle massages that, in the words of one husband, “are kind of uncomfortable when you go through them, but they leave your relationship feeling more intimate and more flexible because you’ve worked through something tough together.”
What’s their secret? They remember three rules: 1. They agree that there are certain things they will not do or say no matter how angry they get. “I want a divorce” or “I wish I never married you” should be considered off-limits. 2. They try to follow the same rules that make business discussions go well. (For example, no one would ever think of saying to a boss, “You’re just like your crazy harpy of a mother!”) And 3. They never negotiate the “what,” only the “how and when.”
This last point is especially important. It means that if you tell me that you need something, I am not going to tell you that you are crazy, stupid, or ridiculous for wanting that thing. I will simply say that I understand this is important to you and I would be willing to support you as long as we could address my concerns, too. The rest of our discussion revolves around how we can best deal with my concerns and meet your needs. Exceptional couples keep the discussion in play until just this thing happens, and they are not afraid to seek outside help when they need assistance in applying this principle.
6. Can’t get no respect
Respect is the foundation of friendship, which, in turn, is the foundation of marital intimacy. One study found that a whopping 95% of couples who were not five times more affectionate, complimentary, and thoughtful than they were complaining, criticizing, or argumentative were divorced within five years.
If you are willing to do the work, marriage can be your best chance for becoming the loving, joyful, generous person you were created to be. Couples who have what it takes work hard to maintain respect and a positive atmosphere throughout the relationship. As Chuck, married to Gina for 30 years, says, “We work hard to look out for each other every day so we can give each other the benefit of the doubt when we disagree.”