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.
Great post, I especially love your response to Myth #3 that difference can challenge our beliefs and demand that we grow 🙂
I think that dealing well with difference is at the heart of making any relationship work. Not easy, however.
I always have this reaction when reading Winifred’s stuff on marriage: “finally, someone is telling the truth about relationships.” Very grounded and reassuring.
Thanks. That’s my intention.
All true. In my first marriage, we never fought. I only realized afterwards it was because of his intentional deceptions and hiding and my fear of losing him. Now, in my new relationship, we do have disagreements as two normal grown humans will, but issues are not hidden and allowed to gain power. It wasn’t always comfortable for me to have a disagreement (triggered my damn abandonment issues at first), but now I like this relationship better. I know it’s real.
In order to have constructive disagreements we do have to confront our discomfort about standing alone. Fighters and avoiders. Good material for a future a post — why people avoid conflict. Thanks.
Win! How refreshing. I have been trolling the marriage blogs consistently for more than a year now and your is one of 2-3 out of many dozens that I can read without puking. Thanks for that. All of your points here are stellar, but my fave is the soul mate smack-down. What an asinine notion, really. My wife and I know that we could have ended with any number of people and that we had better bring the mate retention goods if we want to earn our keep. Souls mates! Cripes!
I don’t believe in magic, and the soul-mate concept never really made a lot of sense to me. Marriage has the potential to develop into something deeply satisfying and much more meaningful than those fleeting moments of “bliss”. It shouldn’t be surprising that it requires effort, just like anything else worth doing.
Many thanks. Glad to have you as a reader. Love the phrase mate retention goods. 🙂
I understand the longing we can have for a transcendent union with another, but to hold it as an ideal and/or necessity for a satisfying relationship is freighted with all kinds of problems, e.g. Looking to someone else to make us feel whole. More useful I think to get on with learning how to do that for ourselves so we can bring our best self into the relationship. Thank you for sharing your experience and good sense, Im sharing it with some of my couples who are also finding it helpful.
I loved your comment “…set the bar just this side of the stratosphere”. That myth is one of the most damaging ideals to attempt to aim for. Having the right tools as you suggested to deal with issues is paramount.
Winifred, I’m so glad Rosemary mentioned you on her blog, and my husband followed up by coming over here and then insisting I come on over too. I can’t imagine how frustrating it would be to think that there is one perfect person out there, and you’re living life wondering if you got the right one. Marriage is work. It is fun. It is worth it. That’s how I feel at least. I look forward to reading more of your work.
Thanks for following.
Thanks for this post, and for your comment on my own “marriage advice” post—this is great to read. Thanks for the huge good sense. Why do these myths persist in our culture? In my first year of marriage I found myself feeling pretty betrayed, wondering why nobody ever told me that marriage was an earthly (so very earthly!!) endeavor—not (or not solely) a divine/sublime one.
This is of of the reasons I am writing in the first place. Marriage is so much harder when we labor under the illusion that it should be a magical walk in the park. I too wished someone told me to fasten my seat belt for a long, bumpy, interesting ride.