Can any marriage succeed with enough couple’s therapy, no matter how troubled the marriage? Actually, experts disagree.
My therapist colleagues probably wouldn’t agree, but I think there are some marriages so fatally flawed that they probably can’t work, no matter how much therapy they undergo.
The trick is to avoid creating a tragically flawed marriage in the first place.
Let me tell you a story.
The other night when I was on a plane, a 40-something guy sat down next to me and began telling me about his miserable marriage of seven years duration. Let’s call him Jared and his wife Janine. I had never met Jared before. He was a total stranger.
Jared told me he has a son he loves, but a wife he detests. He said that things have gone so awry that he just doesn't have any good feelings about Janine anymore.
This saddened me. It reminded me of a list of dating-and-marriage don’ts. There were so many red flags that I lost count:
• He married his wife because he felt it was “time to get married,” not because he particularly loved who she was. She was pretty. It was time. Therefore, he married her.
• He was unable to tell me any interests they had in common, either before the marriage or now.
• He went into the marriage knowing that she hated his mother (who he loved). And she told him, ahead of time, that his mother would not be invited to the wedding.
• They got pregnant on their honeymoon.
• As soon as he moved in with her, she began asserting her dominance because it was “her” house.
• She consistently said a lot of emotionally abusive things. She called him names. She flew into rages.
• Even early in the relationship, it was clear that she was much, much less interested in sex than he was.
• Despite seeing five (!!!) marriage counselors over the course of their short marriage, they still couldn’t head off fights.
Still, all of the marriage counselors they saw insisted that with enough work, the relationship could be fixed.
Of course, I was just hearing his side of things on our little impromptu onboard plane “session.” But it sticks in my mind because so many of the issues he told me sound like things I hear in my office every day from couples where both of them validate for me that such facts are true. These kinds of events and relationship patterns are more common than you would think.
Issue Number One: It was time to get married.
You would be surprised how many times I have run into unhappy marriages that began with “It was time to get married, and she was pretty”, or “I was 38, he was wealthy, he wanted to marry me, and so I got married.”
The problem here is that there was a basic lack of due diligence. You don’t have to jump into marriage with anyone without thoroughly exploring who they are and what they think about the critical issues going forward. Google “Questions to ask before you get married” and you will find several articles with excellent questions to discuss with your potential spouse.
Believe me, I understand that all too human feeling of “time is running out.” But a few more years of loneliness is preferable to many years of misery.
Issue Number Two: No interests in common
Psychologist Sam Hamburg, Ph.D., wrote a book called “Can Our Love Last.” Dr. Hamburg says that the way most people pick partners is based on what “should” work. For instance “I went to an Ivy League School and am Chinese; he went to an Ivy League school and is Chinese, so we are a good match.”
Dr. Hamburg argues that the key to a satisfying marriage lies in choosing the right partner based on compatibility in three areas: on a practical level, sexually, and in "wavelength."
One of the areas he feels is important is that you have some outside interests in common. There is nothing easy about monogamy. Having some interests and passions in common is part of the recipe for a satisfying and fun marriage. Then, even when you are bored or angry at each other, you can pursue the joint activity or interest together and get reconnected.
Issue Number Three: Obvious conflicts about family relationships
One of Dr. Sam Hamburg’s important areas of compatibility is being in agreement about how to deal with family members. If you love your parent, or parents, and the other person can’t stand them, that marriage is destined to be rocky.
Remember Maya Angelou’s quote: “When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time.”
Jared’s wife showed him a basic flaw in her character before he ever married her. Jared loves his mother. Clearly, Janine was showing herself to be rigid and selfish from the outset. He should have had the good sense to bail the minute Janine said she would exclude his mother from the wedding. Instead, he ignored this red flag and they eloped. Janine was hateful to his mother from before the marriage up until this day.
Issue Number Four: They got pregnant on their honeymoon
No matter how many times I hear it, this one makes my head spin. Take this advice: Use birth control in the beginning of the relationship, especially if you don’t know your partner extremely well!
It takes a few years of marriage to actually come to an understanding of who this person you just married is. All of us are on our best behavior in the courting stage. And the dynamics change after the socio-legal-psychological event of marriage. So even if you are worried about diminishing fertility, no unprotected sex for at least 18 months. That way you’ll have a chance to see who your partner really is.
Check out my marriage quiz and see how Jared and Janine do on it so far.
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