It’s understandable that you may feel disappointed in the amount of work it takes to sustain a happy, long-lasting relationship. Instead, the next time you feel discouraged with your partner, stop second-guessing their reactions and examine your own responses.
I believe that the best gift I can give my children is a realistic perspective of marriage. Since I grew up with parents who resolved conflict poorly and divorced when I was young, I don’t always have a good understanding about the work that it takes to keep a marriage strong. It wasn’t until middle age that I realized my unrealistic view of matrimony and my quest for a soul mate set me up for disappointment when I was faced with the inevitable ups and downs of married life.
The idea of a soul mate is romantic but also damaging because healthy relationships are developed and don’t just appear. Author Lisa Arends writes: “A fulfilling relationship occurs when both partners are open and vulnerable, creating an environment of mutual understanding, and intimacy. It takes time – often lots of time – and effort to reach this point.” In some ways, our belief in a soul mate can hold us back from sustaining a healthy relationship and may even cause some people to postpone or abandon the option of tying the knot.
In fact, there has been a quiet shift in the landscape of family life over the last fifty years, with approximately 45 to 50 percent of all marriages ending in divorce in the United States. Interestingly, only 50% of adults over age eighteen are currently getting married; this number is compared to 72% in 1960, according to The Pew Research Center. But in spite of a declining marriage rate, demographers predict that most Americans will marry at some point in their life. Currently, about 72% of U.S. citizens will marry by the age of thirty-five.
Additionally, a recent survey found that 84% of women and 82% of men crave commitment and report that being married someday is “very” or “somewhat” important to them. However, many adults don’t grow up with a healthy template of marriage when it comes to nurturing and sustaining a committed relationship, making it difficult to know where to start.
In Marriage A History, Author Stephanie Coontz offers a historical view: “People expect marriage to satisfy more of their psychological and social needs than ever before.” As a result, women today, myself included, tend to view our partners as soul mates who we can find deep love and companionship with. Coontz posits that women are more likely than men to see their partner as someone to grow with and might consider divorce if we feel he/she is holding us back in some way.
Today many people (especially women) are looking for a partner who wants to share a deep love, and who satisfies their need for emotional and sexual intimacy. One of the most common reasons why couples develop serious problems is because one or both partners withdraw and go into the “silent treatment” mode due to feelings of hurt, anger, and resentment. In a recent landmark study of 14,000 participants conducted by Schrodt, women are usually (but not always) the ones who demand or pursue and men tend to withdraw or distance.
For instance, Scott and Kylee, both in their mid-thirties and married for eight years, are considering getting a divorce. “I’ve been miserable for some time,” complains Kylee. “I feel rejected by Scott emotionally and sexually. I can’t remember when the last time was when we were affectionate or had a good laugh.”
Scott responds: “Kylee loves to criticize me and I just can’t seem to please her. She keeps talking about leaving, and I don’t know what to do.” In order to strengthen their marriage, Kylee and Scott need to work on defining what they want from each other and work on changing the negative dynamics that create a disconnection between them and ongoing dissatisfaction.
Here are 8 helpful steps to maintaining a healthy respect and commitment to Marriage:
1. Work on creating a shared vision for your marriage and discuss it regularly.
2. Make your marriage a priority.
Don’t neglect your relationship with your partner. While it can be a challenge to carve out time together, make doing things together (away from your children or others) a priority.
3. Don’t buy into the guilt trip that your children (or job) will suffer if you devote too much time to your partner.
Kids are incredibly resilient and they will become self-reliant if they have down time to play alone, with siblings, or peers. Show them through your actions that your marriage is a priority. Jobs are essential to success in life but simple steps such as turning off your computer and phone after 8pm can improve your quality time with your partner.
4. Adopt a mindset that great relationships are formed not found.
This means they require a lot of effort and an intention to pay attention to your partner’s needs. John Gottman recommends that couples practice “turning towards” one another, rather than away when they are having communication difficulties.
5. Develop a growth perspective about dealing with conflict.
Gottman’s research informs us they 69% of problems in marriage don’t get resolved but can be managed successfully. He posits that happy couples don’t actually have fewer conflicts than miserable ones. What predicts which ones will stay together is the ability to repair arguments before they get out of hand.
6. Take responsibility for your part in the conflict or dispute.
One person’s ability to do this can change the dynamic of the relationship. Julie and John Gottman write: “One person’s response will literally change the brain waves of the other person.” Apologize to your partner when appropriate. This will promote forgiveness and allow you both to move on.
7. Don’t give up on love and commitment too quickly.
Unless your relationship is abusive stay married for at least ten years. Consider marriage counseling when things are starting to get difficult – don’t wait until you’re ready to throw in the towel.
8. Foster admiration and friendship with your partner.
There is recent evidence that happy, lasting relationships rely on a lot more than a marriage certificate and that the secret ingredient is friendship. Look for qualities you admire in your partner and remind yourself of these admirable qualities regularly.
In sum, it’s understandable that you may feel disappointed in the amount of work it takes to sustain a happy, long-lasting relationship. Instead, the next time you feel discouraged with your partner, stop second-guessing their reactions and examine your own responses. Your focus needs to be on working on ways to repair hurt feelings and to get back on track. Breaking the cycle of an unhappy relationship dynamic requires a realistic mindset about the fact that great relationships take effort and persistence.