Marriage Is Not Dead, Obsolete by Sheila Kreifels, LMFT

Marriage Is Not Dead, Obsolete or Irrelevant

Sheila Kreifels, LMFT

I recently read that 40% of Americans believe that marriage is outdated and no longer relevant and that 1 in 2 marriages that begin this year, will end in divorce. Only 51% of the adult population is currently married and more people are opting to live together and have babies out of wedlock. Many people are saying good riddance to marriage. Why?

I do not believe that this is a positive or healthy trend for our society. Imagine being 22 years old, falling in love and longing to get married. However, fear comes over you as you walk down the aisle because no one in your family or in the media has had a successful marriage. You wonder, “How can I beat the odds?” I am here to tell you that you can! Read further to understand why marriages are failing and how you can succeed.

There is an old Aesop’s fable called, “The Fox and the Grapes” that helps us to understand the negative portrayal of marriage in our culture today.

A very hungry fox walked into a vineyard where there was an ample supply of luscious looking grapes. Grapes had never looked so good, and the fox was famished. However, the grapes hung higher than the fox could reach. He jumped and stretched and hopped and reached and jumped some more trying to get those yummy grapes, but to no avail. No matter what he tried, he could not reach the grapes. He wore himself out jumping and jumping to get the grapes.

“Those grapes surely must be sour,” he said as he walked away, “I wouldn’t eat them if they were served to me on a silver platter.”  It is easy to hate what you cannot have.

When something is inconvenient, difficult or we feel powerless to achieve it, we simply say, “Oh, that’s outdated or no longer relevant.” As a marriage therapist, I often witness people making up there own relationship rules based upon fears rather than on facts. I see couples who live on two different continents and their marriages are struggling. They attempt to define the problem as communication, jealousy or other issues rather than look at the obvious issue – they both want to be in charge and fear the loss of their own autonomy or the loss of self. Career becomes more important than marriage. Defining the real problem would mean that they would have to come to grips with their “emotional blind spots” and relationship deficiencies. That is often painful and difficult because they are often products of a failed marital system themselves and do not want to uncover the past pain. So rather than solving the tough underlying problems, couples create an unhealthy and unsustainable system of their own.

We live in an “anything goes” culture. The rules and traditions of marriage are being redefined, mostly out of convenience even though there is much history and scientific evidence to prove the benefits of marriage for men, women, children and the society as a whole. Living in Silicon Valley, where work-a-holism is a virtue, I have seen all of the crazy attempts to justify and rationalize faltering or failing marriages, “It wasn’t meant to be.” “People are not suppose to be monogamous.” “We are too different and have nothing in common.” or “I fell out of love with my spouse.” My reality is simple. Marriage is not dead, outdated or irrelevant, we are just not very good at it as a culture.

There are three primary reasons for this trend: First, when I ask a room full of couples to raise their hand if they want a marriage like their parents, only one or two hands go up. With the divorce rate skyrocketing, many people have had lousy marital role modeling and therefore, have not witnessed the skills necessary for a lifetime marriage.

Secondly, there is also the dilemma of roles in marriages today. As in the above example with two income earners and careers, there is very little time and effort to put into the nurturing of a marriage. I find that couples are very unsatisfied with their role and their spouse’s role in their marriage. If two people are on horseback and both are holding the reins, there is still one who sits in front. The power dynamics in this “gender-blender” culture are confusing to most people because even though they may want to ascribe to being progressive in their views, their biology sings a different tune. “I want to be equal, but my husband better take care of me financially.” or “My wife wants to work, but I wish she were not so stressed out all the time so that she would be interested in more love making.” Men are becoming more passive and women more demanding and they both tell me that they don’t like it and they want to stop. Marriage is a dance and couples are stepping all over each other’s toes!

And thirdly, we are a self absorbed, individualistic culture where, “What’s in it for me?” often competes with a spouse’s needs. This makes it exceptionally difficult for couples to merge from a me state of being into a we state. Couples compete, or avoid conflict and struggle with the loss of autonomy and effort that it takes to really learn how to collaborate with one another. Collaboration is the only conflict style that truly preserves a relationship.

Your relationship success depends upon these three foundational concepts: Commitment, Communication and Conflict. And they tend to work in a circular fashion. Couples are committing less to long term marriage out of fear. It is often the source of conflict, but conflict and communication is avoided because there is no long term commitment.

First of all, marriage is an art. And like all artists, we do not simply come into the world knowing how to paint. Sure, some artists may have more natural talent than others, but all artists have to learn, practice and commit to their craft. Imagine if you would learn skills, practice the skills and commit to improving your relationship how much better it could be? As human beings, we all have the ability to learn. The choices we make, the habits we create, the energy we invest all help us to grow our relationship skills. Once we gain mastery over relationship skills and our marriage becomes of supreme importance to us, the permanent commitment of a relationship is reinforced and valued.

Secondly, Human beings naturally move towards people who make them feel good. Therefore, if your communication style is blaming, shaming or complaining, it will evoke a defensive, avoidant or contemptuous partnership. Learn how to communicate effectively by taking ownership of how you are feeling, thinking or behaving (remember no one is perfect).  Develop empathy and deeper understanding for your spouse through listening and being attentive. And affirm and encourage your spouse on a daily basis. Take the time to define your roles, responsibilities and expectations in marriage and communicate them with one another. Work at it until you are gliding on the dance floor of life together like Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire.

Thirdly, like childhood developmental stages, there are stages in a marital relationships. Some of the stages (like adolescence) are tougher to get through and couples can get stuck. (For a full discussion on these stages, read How To Be A Couple: Sex, Love and Marriage available at HowToBeACouple.com. Couples generally come into marriage therapy because they are stuck in stage 3, setting boundaries or stage 4, conflict negotiation stage. Both of these stages send romantic love and infatuation feelings into a tail spin as our differences emerge and fuel a fight or flight reaction. Couples begin to doubt their choice in partner. “Who did I marry. I thought you were different!” I enjoy teaching couples that there is purpose in our differences. It is the ingredient that transforms each one of us to become a better version of ourselves. Getting through this stage successfully requires fair fighting rules, problem solving skills and a collaborative style of conflict resolution. Otherwise, the marital house that you are building, will not have a secure foundation.

The path of least resistance is to follow the fox and exclaim that marriage is irrelevant. However, remember that the fox really did want the grapes, he just did not know how to get them. 
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