7 Relationship Myths Smart Couples Don’t Fall For

hands-raisedIf you think marriage is hard, raise your hand.

Yep. You and everyone.

Yet, when the going gets rough, it’s as if we develop amnesia about how universally challenging marriage can be and think, instead, that our struggles are a sign that things have gone terribly wrong.

We don’t say, “No big deal. We’ll get through it. All couples struggle.”

What we do is freak out.

Some couples end up concluding they’re not cut out for marriage. Others are convinced that they picked the wrong spouse. Many think that they’re the only ones struggling — or, worse, that their marriage is beyond hope.

Back when I was having serious trouble in my marriage, I, too, imagined that other couples were effortlessly thriving. And, unfortunately, very little that I found in the popular media disabused me of that notion. Books and articles and marriage advice talk shows made it seem like there were five or ten simple things we could do to make our marriage fantastic, and I naively assumed that all the wildly successful couples around me were already doing them.

Those who weren’t (like my husband and I) were, presumably, sunk.

Or so it seemed.

The truth is, married life is a challenge for everyone. Without exception. Not just the ill-fated, mismatched, or poorly equipped.

How could it be otherwise? We step into marriage with zero experience and no clear instructions about how best to proceed. True, we come with our good ideas and enthusiasm and the sage advice of others, but every marriage is different and none of us can prepare in advance for the unique challenges we’ll face. The best any of us can do is approach the whole business with an adventurous spirit and make a commitment to put in our best effort. Marriage provides us with plenty of “on the job” training— which, by definition, means that most of our learning will come from our mistakes.

Even so, when those mistakes arise, many of us fall into the trap of believing that something is wrong with our relationship, even though what’s happening is perfectly normal. Challenging, complicated, and perhaps even painful, but normal all the same.

If all our time is spent thinking that the ship of our marriage is sinking, we’re not doing the thing we most need to do: learn how to sail.

How many of these relationship myths have you let steer you off course?

1. Marriage shouldn’t require this much work

It’s amazing how often I hear people question why marriage entails as much work as it does. One commenter on another post that I wrote said that all the talk about having to work hard makes marriage sound dreary and tedious, like a 9-5 job that you hate. Why bother? she said.

Why not bother? I thought. After all, anything in life that’s worth doing takes effort. Imagine asking why do I have to work so hard in order to be a brain surgeon… or a chef… or for that matter, a parent?

The misconception that marriage should be easier than it is keeps people from making an effort when they most need to, which is when things aren’t going well. Why not think if it takes this much work, we need some better tools to address our difficulties? Or, if we have to work this hard, maybe there’s something I’m doing that’s making it even harder.

Better still, if it takes this much work, we’re obviously committed to having a high-quality marriage.

big and small dog2. 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 reveals our inflexibility and intolerance and embroils us in conflict. Many will blame their struggles on the fact that their spouse 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 as they prefer.

Consider this: Any two people, no matter how different they are, can have a satisfying marriage —  if they want to and they’re willing to work at it.

3. 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, or worse than those who fight tooth and nail. 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 repair are exhausting and problematic and erode a couple’s goodwill. But couples whose conflicts lead to deeper understanding, empathy, and reconciliation — no matter how fired-up and loud they may get — report high levels of satisfaction and often consider their fights to be worthwhile.

The belief that fighting is a relationship death knell can lead people to withdraw from their conflicts, leaving their issues unaddressed. They also cause them to worry unnecessarily that about not seeing eye-to-eye. Many will fight about fighting (Why are you getting so angry? Why do you have to make a big deal out of nothing? Don’t talk to me in that tone of voice!) rather than engage in the valuable and necessary process of working things out.

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 and only 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 we make them our “person.”

Rather than think there must be some perfect someone out there and unfortunately I didn’t marry her, a more realistic (and healthy) notion is this: there are many hundreds, if not thousands, of suitable 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.

Boy Giving Pretty Girl A Kiss5- Aren’t we supposed to make each other happy?

There’s a lot more to being happily married than most people imagine. When my husband and I were first starting out, I’d assumed that because we were in love, because we had common values and compatible dreams, we had everything we would need to be happy together. I knew, in the abstract, that we’d hit bumps in the road and that relationships take work, but I never doubted for a moment that our union would be a happy one.

Most couples have these same assumptions — they come into marriage hoping for a lifetime of love and happiness, despite how little they know about what might give them their best shot at having those things. Many presume that if they choose the right person and do the right things, there’s a pretty good chance that their marriage will be a success.

But marriage is much more difficult than any of us expect and when trouble arrives, our experience of being “happy” in our relationship can take quite a hit.

Many are disappointed to find that the “shooting-star” feelings they felt in courtship aren’t sustained throughout marriage. Some mistakenly assumed that having a good marriage would mean that life with their partner would be blissful — in fact, should be blissful  as if being happily married is the same thing as living happily ever after.

Forget about bliss. It’s overrated and fleeting. The key to marital happiness is to figure out how to be happy without needing to be “perfectly” happy. To be happy despite the fact that your spouse snores, or leaves her keys in the front door, or forgets to send in the mortgage check; despite his not always being a good listener or spending way too much time playing Angry Birds.

Remember, happy couples aren’t happy 24/7, and they don’t expect to be. Sometimes they’re driven nuts by some of the things their spouse does. Sometimes they face serious issues that don’t have quick and easy solutions.

I was married many years before I realized that if I wanted to be happy in my marriage I had to figure out how to make peace with imperfection — in my husband, my marriage and myself. I recognized that if the conditions are bad enough we can choose to leave. If we stay, then we might as well figure out how to thrive.

6- The trouble is “Marriage”

It’s amazing how much bad press there is about marriage. People regularly talk about how nearly half of all marriages fail rather than focus on the fifty to sixty percent of marriages that succeed. They say marriage is the end of freedom, the end of romance, and the end of____.  (Fill in the blank with your favorite thing about sex.)

Then there’s the bounty of mean-spirited jokes: A wedding is a funeral where you smell your own flowers. Marriage is a relationship in which one person is always right and the other is a husband.

People blame marriage as an institution rather than think, Man I’m really not very good at this, or Wow, did I have unrealistic expectations.

Marriage is indeed a tough teacher and we all have plenty to learn.

Young beautiful woman in rubber gloves holding her nose7- The trouble is my spouse

Most people come into my office convinced that their marital problems are caused by their spouse. If he or she weren’t so difficult… stingy… forgetful… foul-tempered…. everything would be fine.

Though they rarely say it outright, many expect that once I’ve heard “both sides of the story” I’ll take their side. Then, at last, they’ll get help with the thing they want most: to get their partner to change.

There’s no denying that many of us struggle with serious, painful issues in our marriages. Infidelity, rage, alcohol, overspending. We have differences in parenting styles and want different things to happen in sex. Maybe we have a partner who has depression or anxiety attacks or chronic pain and refuses to get help. Maybe our partner can’t keep a job.

Like it or not, the only thing we can do is request change, though we have no guarantee that we’ll get it. After all, the only person who can change your partner is your partner, and only you can change you.

Though it may seem frustrating and unfair, our only choice is to focus on ourselves: how we respond and react, how we manage our emotions; the interpretations we make, the conclusions we form, and what we say and don’t say.

No couple can expect to live in a state of perfect harmony or non-stop bliss. Fortunately, good marriages don’t require it. My advice: forget about hoping for soul mates, smooth seas and a spouse who is flawless.

Real marital happiness comes from accepting our limitations and building on our strengths, from knowing that hard times are part of the package and our work is to become strong and solid enough to deal with them.


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20 thoughts on “7 Relationship Myths Smart Couples Don’t Fall For

  1. As ever, a great list and I’m guilty (ahem) of most of them! I’d be keen on your view on another two I often hear – married couples should work well as a team (possibly no myth) and each partner should know how to “handle” the other or calm the other down.


    • Again, this is why I love comments like yours! Yes, these are two good ones.

      As for working as a team – I like to be realistic. Sure, couples are a team, but like all teams, sometimes they play better than they do other times. Sometimes they foul out.
      Many people think function as a team also means think alike, agree, want the same things. Why “teamwork” would be a myth is that sometimes what’s needed is one person taking an action, unilaterally. e.g- confronting a spouse’s drinking or refusing to lie to their boss.

      As for calming the other – you’ve given me the topic of a future post! In brief, great to be a voice of reason or gently kindness when possible, but often as couples we’ve got all we can handle to manage our own reactivity/anxiety when tensions are running high. And I’m certainly not big on encouraging thinking that implies manipulation or tip-toeing around a partner who isn’t working at regulating him or herself.

      Thanks for you addition to the conversation.


      • Thanks so much Winifred. It’s great to be able to have a conversation here too. I look forward to your post on calming each other down and taking responsibility for that ourselves. I hear the two myths I mentioned alluded to at weddings a lot.


  2. Pingback: What Others Had To Say This Week | Awen Therapy Blog

  3. Thank you. A realistic look again at relationships. One useful tip that helps, is to try and ‘cool down’ when one partner is ‘heating up’ and vice versa. It is really possible and means that there are fewer times when both flare up and escalate together in anger. It takes longer to repair if screaming nasty things at each other happens frequently.


    • Hard as it is, keeping cool when your partner is heating up is key. As you say, it really is possible. Once people learn to stay steady, it’s a great relief since there’s much less of a mess to clean up.

      Thanks for commenting, Sherry.


  4. “Though it may seem frustrating and unfair, our only choice is to focus on ourselves: how we respond and react, how we manage our emotions; the interpretations we make, the conclusions we form, and what we say and don’t say.”

    Thank you for the wonderful reminder Winifred. I often blame my partner for what is wrong in our relationship, that I forget I also need to work on myself.

    It’s always a pleasure to read your posts.


  5. I think there are valid reasons why marriages are exceedingly difficult these days. I, for one, can’t seem to find someone with a healthy sense of frugality and some common sense as to “how much stuff” and “how many activities” is reasonable. It seems that far too many people in North America are jacked up on Starbucks, and running themselves ragged trying to spend themselves into financial oblivion. Maybe one day I will find a person, like me, who wants a more sensible pace with life. I don’t find hurrying about doing far more than is reasonable… they say “Parenting is SOOOOOOO stressful!” Why? Maybe the kids don’t need FOUR organized activities after school. Maybe it’s okay to just let the kids play in the park and catch some rays once in a while. And maybe some of these “must have” modern luxuries – fancy kitchens and appliances, spec homes… big name SUVs and “crossovers”. Why? I only need reliable transportation. A roof over my head. Do sandwiches made on granite counter tops taste better? Some would say yes… My first (and probably last) marriage was a harrowing experience of stress, insane financial situations and a woman who will never be happy because there is no limit and no end to “I want I want I want”. I really think it’s either a systemic narcissism or materialism run amok or both. It’s just not the kind of life I want to live, and the vast majority of married men I know are truly miserable, in debt up to their eyeballs and think muttering “happy wife happy life” and clinging together in quiet desperation and “show and tell” BBQs is somehow going to make it all better. Sorry for the dark outlook, but marriage is hard work – so when people add a bunch of meaningless material crap and needless stress onto an already challenging situation, you get what we have here in modern times: all these kids being brought up in broken homes in blended families with step parents and step brothers and sisters. Sorry, but I wanted more for my kids, and I feel I have failed them in the worst possible way despite every effort to meet all of the demands, expectations and whims of my ex-wife. I just can’t believe things today are the way things were supposed to be. Somewhere along the line, as a species, we have lost our way. Even the planet itself cannot handle our “needs” and our excesses anymore. It’s depressing and even frightening really.


    • Marriage is hard. And not for everyone.
      My position is that people can be successful if there’s a willingness to consider the other’s needs and concerns to be as important as theirs. Mnay people get married thinking that FINALLY they have someone to take care of them, or cater to them, or to do what they want.

      Marriage can be deeply rewarding once spouses are willing to do their part in making things go well.

      I appreciate your sharing you point of view.



  6. “Why not bother? I thought. After all, anything in life that’s worth doing takes effort. ”

    What makes marriage “worth doing”? What if it wasn’t or isn’t “worth it”? What if people make the assumption that there is worth in being married but there actually isn’t. Wouldn’t that explain the 50+% divorce rate? And wouldn’t that also explain the marriage-is-hard “discovery”?

    What if the reality is this: Marriage seems worth it before we marry (but it isn’t), we look around and everyone is saying it is worth it (but it isn’t), we get married and we say it’s worth it (but it isn’t), we reach a point when reality sinks in and we finally see that it isn’t worth it (because it isn’t). At that point, we realize we’ve poured 20 years (or more!) into a worthless activity. But everyone around us is still saying it’s “worth it”.

    So here is the challenge to you. If it’s worth it, prove it.

    If it is worth it, then the glorious benefits of a marriage should clearly overcome all of the negative downsides of a marriage. If it isn’t worth it, then the benefits are less than, equal to or barely above the costs. And it should be worth it for substantially more than half of the people who marry (say 80 – 90% of them are happy).

    Wait, why the asymmetry? Why does “worth it’ have such a higher burden of proof?

    Here’s an analogy. I have a friend but hey he makes me feel kind of good about half the time. Is that a worthwhile friendship? Hell no! To be “worth it”, my friendship has a much higher standard than “half”. It’s gotta be good most of the time and it’s gotta be pretty damn good some of the time.

    And that has to be be true for most of my friends, nearly all of the them in fact. Again an analogy. I have 10 friends, but 5 are great or just ok, and the other 5 are mediocre at best or just plain suck. Are the ones who suck “friends”? Probably not; in reality I probably only have 5 friends.

    So that’s the standard for a friend. But … for a “soulmate”, for a “life partner”, for a “wife”, shouldn’t the standard be much, much higher?


    • Thanks for your thought provoking comment.
      I’m going to take your question as a fun challenge for a future post.

      I know my personal reasons that lead me to believe my marriage is worth the effort I’ve put into it. A main one being that I figured out how to bring the best of myself to my marriage. In doing so, I discovered strenghths I didn’t know I had, tenderness I didn’t know I was capable of. And, though I had no guarantee as to the outcome, in showing up in whole and healthy way, my husband picked up his game as well.

      As I wrote to another skeptical reader, “Marriage can be deeply rewarding once spouses are willing to do their part in making things go well.” If you follow my blog in the coming months you’ll hear more about this as I talk about my forthcoming book.


      PS- Accurate divorce statistics are that the divorce rate for first marriages is somehting more like 33%.


      • A “fun challenge” and “another skeptical reader”? Anecdotes from your personal life? And a reiteration that “Marriage can be deeply rewarding…”?

        Sorry, but these are not answers. A “fun challenge” is an ad hominem attack in that my query to you is not something to be taken seriously but can be addressed in a light, off-hand way. Ditto for the “skeptical reader” comment. I am not skeptical, I am asking you to show some meat, some heft behind your comments, in short – proof.

        As a scholar you must know that anecdotes don’t count as proof. The blind man can easily and correctly declare the world is dark, but that doesn’t make it so.

        Reiterating your initial statement also doesn’t count as proof.

        > A main one being that I figured out how to bring the best of myself to my marriage. In doing so, I discovered strenghths I didn’t know I had, tenderness I didn’t know I was capable of.

        The implication here is that you couldn’t have discovered these things about yourself without being married. That you could not have brought the best of yourself to someone else unless you were married to that person? Did I get that right?

        Can I ask if you have ever tried to bring the best of yourself to others, to people you are not married to? What if you showed that tenderness to a friend or a stranger? Would you not have discovered that you are capable of being strong and of being tender without being married to that person?

        Perhaps it was the specific strength and tenderness that you didn’t know you had. You *had* to be married to discover that specific strength or that specific tenderness. If so, I’d like to know what specific strengths and tenderness’ are only displayed during a marriage and not in any other scenario.

        >Marriage can be deeply rewarding once spouses are willing to do their part in making things go well.

        What if only one spouse is willing to do their part? And what are the odds that one spouse is more willing to do their part vs both? My guess is very nearly all relationships are lopsided most of the time. If I put out, there is no guarantee she will. And vice versa. Perhaps this year I am willing but my spouse is not, next year she is willing but I’m not. If we’re both willing then we’ll have a good year. Summed over a 50 year marriage, what are the odds both partners put out?

        > PS- Accurate divorce statistics are that the divorce rate for first marriages is somehting more like 33%.

        Granted, that skews the odds a bit, but I don’t think it supports your claim that “marriage is rewarding”. You must also know that economic conditions keep people together. The 33% rate is down from 50% over the last 40-50 years. However, purchasing power over those same 40-50 years as eroded substantially too. It may be that it’s economically worthwhile to be married (e.g. for the second income) but that does not make marriage emotionally rewarding.



      • Sorry to have offended you, John.

        One cannot “prove” opinions. Anecdotes are evidence, but not proof.

        This is not a scientific paper. It’s a blog about how to have a better, more satisfying marraige.

        I’m not here to say that marriage is necessary, or that it is the only way a person might grow. I don’t think all marriages are good marriages, nor do I suggest people stay married when they don’t want to.

        Marraige is a choice and I believe it has benefits. I have no stake in what people choose for themselves.


  7. You didn’t offend me Winnie.
    It seems I’m looking for something else then. Your points are all correct, one cannot prove opinions and anecdotes are not proof, etc. But I need, I think, something more … what that is I don’t know … for the next thread in my life.
    In any case, good luck to you.


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