Why do we marry? It is a crazy thing to do. Talk to most married people and you will hear that the hardship is substantial. How many really happy married couples do you know? Beyond the happy faces couples shine when out in public, scratch the surface and you will learn of marital strife. All couples have their issues. Marriage has a bad reputation well expressed by the HL Mencken quip “Marriage is a wonderful institution, but who would want to live in an institution?” Forty to fifty percent of marriages divorce well before realizing the ideal of “until death do us part.” The average length of a marriage is about eight years.

     What about the couples who remain married? The statistics don’t suggest that they are happy; some stay together for the kids; some cannot afford to divorce; others don’t wish to endure how it will look to others; still others value the package of house, savings and financial security over the uncertain future after a divorce. The relationships of unmarried couples, on average, end more quickly.

     Sounds pretty bleak! And I am a proponent of marriage. It is almost as if we cannot help but couple-up; we are hard-wired to do so. Some couples serve as a sparkling example of wedded bliss, though they represent a minority. The delicious feeling we have when discovering that love and attraction are mutual always tricks us into forgetting the enormous work that follows forming a bond of love; similar to how a beautiful store-front window pulls us into the store. Love truly is blind. We cannot help ourselves.

     When we begin a new phase of life celebrating is common, for instance with the birth of a child or when a student is accepted into a college. An engagement is also on this list.  A wedding ceremony is part a grand party honoring a newly bound couple. In each case the celebration heralds the beginning of a new kind of work. Work is hard. But unlike the obvious work of raising a child or studying for a degree the work of marriage tends to be unacknowledged. When the work appears in the form of marital difficulties most couples are caught off guard. The denial disables couples from being prepared to cope elegantly with the sure-to-arrive rigor.

     Hidden in plain sight is the reality that love relationships offer the possibility of tremendous growth. Some call it maturation, others call it being battle-tested. The growth arrives in the form of a deepened capacity to love. Patience, acceptance, unconditional love, putting desires in their proper place and forgiveness are some of the loving ways developed when we practice love within a marriage. It is a universal but unrealistic hope that marriage will just feel good; that we may be “lucky in love” and experience no marital adversity. Because of the misconceptions of marriage when issues develop, which they almost certainly will, partners conclude that something is wrong with the marriage instead of realizing that a lesson in the normal process of growth is ready to be learned. 

     Marriages become deeply troubled and stuck when problems are avoided and growth is resisted. However, extreme solutions must be considered in response to extreme situations, such as when a partner is violent, abusive, self-destructive and resists all attempts to outgrow dysfunctional patterns. In such an instance growth for the healthier partner may come in the form of loving oneself through self-protective measures.

         The strong boundaries of a committed relationship provide a self-imposed containment which ultimately forces partners to face painful personal limitations and weaknesses. The loose structure of non-committed relationships allows partners to more easily avoid rather than face uncomfortable tests of character. Having no choice but to find a solution creates a dire situation that promotes a potential paradigm shift of exponential growth. Once teamwork, friendship and intimacy are established within a marriage, the work of marriage is to maintain them.

     Compared to the fantasy of marriage the real experience stacks up rather poorly. When the glories of growth are considered marriage becomes an important part of a life worth living. The inability to adjust, adapt and change constrains a relationship to live within dissatisfying limits. We all must change…and it is called growth, which in its essence means progress and improvement. When growth ceases within a couple, the spark of love dies. Until we as a society sing the praises of marriage for its true deeper purpose of growth, marriage will remain vulnerable to the unrealistic expectations that doom it to high levels of divorce.  Andrew Aaron, LICSW