Marriage is a conundrum. We come towards it with so much hope and expectation, but conduct ourselves in it in a way that often makes our desires and yearnings impossible to realise.
It is as though we enter into marriage with some magical thinking, denying the evidence and reality that is around us. We magically think that our marriage is going to be the exception, break all the rules, facts and statistics and, where others have failed and become disillusioned, I’m going to experience the love that I so yearn for.
In one sense this is understandable, given the intensity of the emotions we experience when we fall in love, as well as the deep desire in each of us to want to experience being loved. Given these forces, with our whole being screaming “yes” to this relationship, it is understandable that we embrace the logical next step, “marriage” and omit to go towards considering other factual information separate from the messages emerging from our inner being.
Let’s take a moment to consider it. Half of all marriages end in divorce. The other half is a mixture of good marriages and marriages of convenience (that is, we stay married for the kids, for the financial security, to side-step inevitable loneliness, for the business. There is evidence emerging indicating that 95% of families are dysfunctional – families where parents are struggling to model a wholesome love to one another, and cultivate an environment that fosters love that facilitates each individual experiencing a deep, permanent sense of self-worth.
According to my experience as a marital therapist for the past 20 years, no one really prepares for marriage to any great extent. Yes, a weekend of preparation might be required or at most a six-month course entailing a weekly input. Once married, couples are reticent to go towards marriage enrichment for one reason or another. Maybe they can’t agree to go; maybe one member of the couple is too tentative in bringing her desire forward to enter into some enrichment or counselling; maybe there are too many skeletons in the closet, too much unspoken over the years, too many unresolved issues and now it isn’t all that clear where to start when it comes to enrichment; or it might be a case of who is going to make the first move – is there anyone leading this marriage? On the other hand, couples might genuinely believe that their marriage doesn’t need enriching; that they have arrived; that any input or tampering with their marriage will be counter-productive, detrimental to the marriage, as though it is a house made of cards and any little tweaking one way or the other will bring its downfall.
I am reminded of a family that I was working with a few years ago. I initially saw the son, who was suffering from severe anxiety and panic attacks, with periods of suicidal ideation. During his treatment, we met together with his parents. They gave the impression that they were very concerned and asked some helpful questions. What are we doing as parents that might be contributing to or exacerbating his condition? They commented that their daughter though different and personality, also suffered with anxiety. I mentioned that from a single session with them, I was not able to identify aspects of their parenting style or dynamics within the family that might be accentuating their anxiety. What I didn’t say to them is that all am picking up in this initial meeting with them is a sense that things don’t add up – the presentation of a good Christian family, a stable marriage, concerned and caring parents who are committed to their faith. In one sense, it looked like a model family to me. Intuitively, it was not that obvious to me in terms of the entry point in bringing forward an effective treatment plan. Despite the appearance of openness, it felt as though there was also a guardedness. I was aware that something that was very dear to them, the image of a good Christian family and the components thereof, would need to be de-constructed and dismantled, before we could consider establishing another relational dance in the family that would possibly remediate the anxiety.
I suggested that we have four family sessions in order to give me more of a sense of the family when they are together, and from the information I could glean from these sessions, I would be able to offer them a more informed recommendation in terms of the way forward. The mother looked at the father. The father responded in a defensive manner stating that I could not possibly learn anything of value from four sessions. We conversed further with me attempting to address his anxieties and fears. However, the session ended with the father saying that they would consider my recommendations further and then get back to me. I never heard from them again.
I believe that for most of us, there is an overriding genuine desire and sincerity to have a good marriage. However, we go about married life in an unconscious way which, at best leads us towards us maintaining the marital relationship on a plateau, which is somewhat comfortable and agreed upon by both parties, with a tacit agreement to not rock the boat too much. At worst, it brings about a spiritual stagnation for the marriage as well as individuals, stunting the emotional maturation process of one another.
Can we approach married life more consciously, daring to push the boat out into the water, risking bringing forward those internal storms that are part and parcel of the growth process, both spiritually and emotionally, at the same time having faith that the truth of our inner turmoil won’t sink us, but will incrementally help the trust in one another to grow, as well as give us first-hand experience of our faithful God.