As a newcomer to the world of marriage blogs, I’ve been spending a lot of time checking out what relationship advice others have for their readers. What I’ve found has run the gamut from truly thought-provoking and inspiring to useless and impractical. The most troubling, however, is the overly romantic and idealistic advice— advice that perpetuates dangerous myths about marriage that can send a struggling couple right over the edge at a time when what they need is support.
Are they kidding? I thought when reading a recent Huffington Post blog that talked about couples striving to be “two souls merging into a beloved unity.” How useful is it, I wondered, to set the bar just this side of the stratosphere by telling couples that together they can make “time stand still?” Countless bloggers talked about soul mates in perfect harmony and a surprising number of them used the word “bliss.”
When I sit across from a struggling couple, bliss is the farthest thing from their minds. In fact, the very notion of wedded bliss can be one of the most damaging notions there is. To a couple in trouble, bliss is what others feel while they are, instead, contemplating murder or hoping their spouse will be abducted by aliens.
Back when I was struggling in my own marriage the worst thing I could do was believe that everyone else must be effortlessly thriving (let alone achieving a magical state of oneness). But, unfortunately that’s exactly what I believed, and very little that I read disabused me of that notion. Despite the near fifty-percent divorce rate, I still assumed other couples were off doing the five or ten simple things couples should do to make their marriage great and getting terrific results.
The truth is that every couple will struggle at some point in their marriage, in ways small, medium or large. Yet most of what we’re led to believe about marriage seems to downplay the difficulty and highlight the bliss, with the end result being discouraged couples who worry something is wrong when what’s happening to them is perfectly normal.
Myth # 1- If it’s this hard, something must be wrong
It’s amazing how often I hear people speak this very sentence. Frequently it’s followed by “marriage shouldn’t take this much work.” I usually respond by saying: actually, if it’s this hard, you must be married. Most couples laugh until they realize that I’m not kidding. The misconception that marriage should be easier than it is keeps people from working hard when they most need it, which is when things aren’t going well. Why not think if it’s this hard, we need some better tools to address our difficulties? Better still, if it’s this hard, is there something I’m doing that’s making it even harder?
Myth # 2- Fighting is a sure sign of trouble
Research has shown that couples who fight are no more unhappy and no more likely to divorce than couples who don’t. In fact people who don’t fight can be having marital troubles as serious as those who have big blowouts. There’s a world of difference between having good problem solving skills that keep fights within bounds and stuffing things under the rug in the name of peace. Circuitous fights that do not end with deeper understanding and effective repair are exhausting and problematic, but couples who fight and then make-up report high levels of satisfaction.
The belief that fighting is a relationship death knell can 1- lead people to withdraw from their conflicts, leaving their issues unaddressed and 2- cause them to worry unnecessarily that something is terribly wrong because they don’t see eye-to-eye. Many will fight about fighting (why do you have to make a big deal out of nothing? Why are you getting angry?) rather than engage in the valuable and necessary process of working things out.
Myth # 3 Maybe we’re just too different
There’s no such thing as being too different. No matter how different two people happen to be. People can be too stubborn, too reactive, and too self-protective to deal effectively with each other, but that’s not because of their differences!
At best, difference challenges our beliefs and it demands that we grow. At worst, it highlights our inflexibility and intolerance and embroils us in conflict. Many will blame their struggles on the fact that their husband or wife doesn’t see the world exactly as they do, rather than examine their own fear or rigidity, or their sense of entitlement to have things go their way.
I believe that any two people, no matter how different they are, can have a satisfying marriage— if they want to.
Myth # 4 People should marry their soul mate
Okay, look. Maybe you know some people who are convinced that their husband or wife is the one person on earth for them and that they miraculously found each other. In case that’s not you, don’t sweat it. Most of us marry someone who is a combination of positive and negative traits of our parents; a person who, for better or worse, resonates with our learned experience of love growing up in our family. We pick them, we marry them, and they become our “person.”
Rather than think there must be some perfect person out there and chances are I didn’t marry him, a more realistic notion is this: there are many hundreds, if not thousands, of potential partners to choose from and we just need one. Whomever we choose, he or she will sometimes push our buttons and sometimes touch our heart.
No couple can expect to live in a state of perfect harmony. Fortunately, good marriages don’t require it. My advice: forget about hoping to melt into oneness.
Real marital happiness comes from accepting our limitations and building on our strengths, from knowing that hard times are part of the package and we’re strong and solid enough to deal with them.
Real happiness does not need fairy dust to keep it alive.