On Myths & Mysteries
We all know how mysterious marriage can be. Witness the apparently incompatible couples who seem to have more fights in a week than most spouses average in a year, but still stay together for a lifetime. At the other extreme are couples who avoid conflict like the plague, unable or unwilling to discuss, let alone resolve, what would seem to be critical issues in their marriage. And yet, these same couples raise families and celebrate Golden wedding anniversaries despite comment that “It will never last.” What everybody knows is not always true. Attempts to turn perfectly good, conflict-avoiding or volatile marriages into the ideal marriages portrayed in movies and television are unsuited to the real marriages of today.
The truth is, the patterns on interaction that make or break marriages is still a mystery to most of us. And much of the marital advice that permeates the popular media, whether it works or doesn’t, has only the frailest of foundations. Our common perception of successful marriage almost always portrays couple’s who listen respectfully and empathize with each other’s point of view. They don’t interrupt much and if neither can persuade the other, they negotiate a workable compromise. Not that this couple doesn’t argue. They do, but their arguments seldom become heated. When they disagree, they recognize conflicts, then address them calmly before they degenerate into shouting matches. It is often believed that either a lot of fighting or no fighting at all are signs of a marriage on the rocks. Whichever it is, fighting or no fighting at all, couples have come to believe they must uncover and “hash out” their differences, then come to a compromise so they can achieve the ideal balance. The idea that the only truly satisfying marriage is cast in this mold is wrong. It is not whether couples fight all the time or never fight at all, but the way they resolve conflicts and the overall quality of their emotional interactions.
Marriage in the Real World
Certain marriages that would seem doomed to failure are actually quite successful. Perhaps the most classic example of the presumably endangered marriage is the volatile type between spouses who apparently live to fight. These couples have intensely emotional marriages, characterized by petty bickering, sarcastic comments, and hair-triggered tempers. Unlike the highly congenial couple that we idolize, these excitable couples do not fight fairly. When they argue, they rarely listen to their mates, and they attempt to force each other to accept their respective points of view. And yet, that these couples engage in a lot more fights than most couples could tolerate does not, of itself, meant hey don’t have good marriages.
At the opposite end of the spectrum are the couples who “cannot stand fighting.” These couples are likely to conclude that although conflict exits, it is not as important as the many areas of common agreement they do share. They simply agree to disagree, and then drop the subject. Nonetheless, like the volatile couples, conflict avoiding pairs also have a very good chance at making and keeping a healthy and solid marriage for life, despite the fact that they do not follow the marital “rules” implied in our television culture.
Ingredients for Success in Marriage
In solid and satisfying marriages, couple are inclined to be deeply involved and frequently dramatic. Because the spouses tend to be passionate, their relationship, when it is satisfying, can be much more exciting and intimate than the marriages of less emotionally engaged people. Recognizing disagreement and engaging in it, helps couples cope with difficult issues, while enriching and stimulating both of them. Anger, when directed at a particular issue and expressed without contempt or global criticism, is healthy, and perhaps even necessary.
Partners who work together in managing everyday responsibilities, but also experience occasional storms in their relationship, and likely to be more happily engaged and involved in their marriages than those who don’t. They are also less lonely, less stressed and less likely to suffer from serious health problems. Clearly, what is indicated here is not the fabulous, curative powers of doing housework together, but the mutual and supportive engagement of spouses in a good marriage. It is the balance between positive and negative emotional interactions in a marriage that determines it’s well-being. The good moments of mutual pleasure, passion, humor, support and kindness outweigh the bad moments of criticism, anger and defensiveness.