Expectations of Marriage: Why So Many Marriages are Doomed
What do we really want out of marriage?
“Don’t be surprised when you see a lot of our peers get divorced,” a friend confided in me recently. This was in response to watching a long-time marriage unravel after all the kids left home.
I don’t think of myself as naïve but I was a little shocked by her statement. Until I began to do a little reading. I started with Gray Divorce: What We Lose and Gain from Mid-Life Splits by Jocelyn Elise Crowley and moved on to reread Surrendering to Marriage: Husbands, Wives and Other Imperfections by Iris Krasnow.
From different perspectives and with different agendas, they both raise the same issue: Expectations – and how they shape our response to our marriages. Sometimes we counsel young couples about the power of expectations in terms of what they experienced in their family of origin versus what their partner experienced. Those types of expectations can be powerful and can shape responses to situations in unexpected ways. This can range from the trivial – “My mother always served two different kinds of fish on Friday nights” (yes, it’s true; I’ve heard it!) to the moderate – “My father was treated like a king and never got up to clear the table” (not a judgment here; just a possible point of contention and differing expectations), to the more serious – “We were a family of yellers and that’s how we resolved issues as opposed we never raised our voices and consider screaming to be a sign of hostility.” These types of differing expectations can have a profound impact on marriages and certainly need to be addressed.
But I’m talking about something more basic, more fundamental and perhaps, in the end, more profound – our very expectation of marriage itself. Ms. Crowley suggests that perhaps the preponderance of divorce after long-term marriages (over 25 years let’s say) may be due to a change in expectations. It’s not that our parents or grandparents just stayed in unhappy marriages because they had no other choice (that famous canard) but rather they looked at the goal of marriage differently. Marriage fulfilled a societal function – it was a source of stability, financial security, an opportunity to have and raise children and it provided some companionship. Now we want (read: expect) marriage to be so much more.
We want marriage to provide happiness. If it doesn’t, I’m out of here. “Life’s too short” and all that. I’m not saying there is no merit to this argument. But, as Ms. Krasnow wisely points out, we take ourselves with us wherever we go. It’s rare that someone outside of us is the cause of our unhappiness. If we’re unhappy with this partner whose flaws we know all too well, chances are that once the heady excitement of someone new wears off, his or her flaws will be just as off-putting. (And perhaps even more difficult to deal with because they are less familiar). But who ever said that marriage or a spouse was supposed to provide happiness?
Yes, we want to enjoy our marriage. And that requires work – from both of us. It’s a little shocking how many adults still expect this to occur magically – with the right partner. Like some type of Disney fairy tale…
No one human being can satisfy all our needs. It’s an unfair and unrealistic pressure to put on any marriage.
Iris Krasnow pushes this idea little farther. She suggests that it’s more than happiness we seek from marriage but total fulfillment, that the Baby Boom generation who continues to believe they can have it all (despite all the evidence to the contrary) feels that marriage should totally fill all their needs (along of course with government day care and a host of other services that spare them the messy choices and trade-offs of reality). If it doesn’t, why should I stay? Especially now that the kids are grown…
With these expectations, marriages are doomed from the start. Real marriages involve embracing and growing from the imperfections, challenges, choices, compromises and giving required to build a life with someone else. Perfection is not available in this world and no one human being can satisfy all our needs or even come close. It’s an unfair and unrealistic pressure to put on any marriage or human being.
In Surrendering to Marriage, the author quotes a Thornton Wilder play, The Skin of Our Teeth: “I didn’t marry you because you were perfect. I didn’t even marry you because I loved you. I married you because you gave me a promise. That promise made up for your faults. And the promise I gave you made up for mine. Two imperfect people got married and it was the promise that made the marriage…”
Of course we need to work on ourselves, on those imperfections. But it’s commitment that counts. We need to flip our expectations on their head. We need to expect our marriages to be imperfect, our parents to be flawed (as we are) and our lives to be challenging. But with a commitment to each other – despite all that or even because of all of that – we can have wonderful marriages. And we can achieve personal fulfillment – not through our spouse but through the work we do on ourselves and the connection we forge with the Almighty as we struggle and pray through this process.
I love this line in her introduction: “Marriage is not designed to make us happy; it is God’s way of forcing us to grow into responsible adults.” I think she’s right and I’d like to add some words that I think she would second.
If we accept this responsibility with joy and embrace the effort involved, we will end up with wonderful marriages – messy, complicated, sometimes challenging, wonderful marriages.