What is good marital advice?
Marriage is probably one of the most discussed areas in the field of psychology, especially since over the last 15-20 years, the divorce rate has skyrocketed. Fortunately, in the last 5-6 years, the divorce rate has tapered off and has remained somewhat stable. One can speculate why the divorce rate has not continued to escalate. However, we will save that for another time. We will keep this topic fairly simple, focusing on marital advice and help. We will discuss some of the philosophical principles behind marriage, and whether marriage should exist at all. We will look at monogamy as defined and practiced in our culture, as well as other cultures.
For pragmatic reasons, we have marriage. We have husbands and wives. We see same sex marriages occurring more frequently. We see a cascade of problems that arise during marital life.
But before we offer advice, a discussion of marital dynamics is in order.
What are marital dynamics?
There are three entities in a marriage of two. What does this mean? There is the partnership of two separate individuals, and then there is the marriage/relationship itself. The “relationship” is the third entity, and viewed separately. As each individual has his/her own needs and wants that need addressing, so does the entity of the “relationship,” the needs of which are quite different than the needs of either party in a relationship. When fully understood, each individual in a marital relationship are better able to look past themselves, past their egos and self-absorption. This is the first step. If achieved, progress can easily be made in a marriage.
There are three main problem areas that contribute to marital conflict, and consistently appear in many cultures. These are money, sex, and communication, not necessarily in that order. Clearly, before financial and sexual issues can be addressed, communication must be improved upon. If there is only marginal communication/sharing of feelings and thoughts with your friend/soul mate (or whatever name you’d like to assign to your partner), the other two issues fall by the wayside. Please see Marriage Communication for further information on this topic.
Marriage must involve friendship, which includes trust, disclosure and sharing of gifts, not concrete practical gifts, but verbal gifts to each other. This author finds it very interesting that in nature, there are very few animals that are monogamous for life. Canadian geese and wolves are two such species. Both are monomorphic, meaning that each gender looks the same, as opposed to dimorphic. In looking at mallard ducks, as well as other species of waterfowl and other birds, the male of the species is very colorful and performs elaborate dances to gain the female’s attention. However ducks are not monogamous. Canadian geese and wolves mate for life, and males and females are identical to one another. What does this tell us? In our society, we place a great emphasis on looks, being thin, smelling good, looking good, our hair has to be perfect; our clothes have to be designer, in order to catch and meet the approval of the person we are courting. Is this the correct path? One would speculate not. However it is the primary path western society has taken.
There are marriages that are definitely not destined to work. When individuals marry young, their judgment in regard to many issues has not reached optimal development. If their parents are dysfunctional, young couples are without the tools to formulate what a truly healthy marriage is, as that has not been role-modeled to them. Without the proper tools, we fall into patterns of inappropriate behavior, and are unable to extricate ourselves. We stay in marriages because we are fearful of causing pain to others. There are many other reasons why we stay in bad marriages, as well as many reasons why we should get out of certain marriages.
Tips on marital advice?
Marriage is work. Marriage is literally another job. If one dedicates the time and effort to the marriage relationship, the payoff is huge.
- Sacrifice. In a marriage, each individual has to be willing to sacrifice some of their own needs and wants for their partner. At the same time, their partner must be willing to make the same sacrifice. This is called reciprocity. Example: He may not enjoy going to the opera. However she may. For true love, he will make the sacrifice and go to the opera to keep her company, even though it is an activity he intensely dislikes. At a later date, she may have to make a similar sacrifice by engaging in an activity she dislikes.
- There needs to be time designated to the marriage. Time that is specifically allotted to the relationship, not for each other, but for the marriage.
- Express feelings and thoughts without the fear of a defensive posture or response. This can be very difficult, but is extremely important when communicating. However once a pattern has been established over years, where one is feeling blamed, put down or criticized, it is very difficult not to take a defensive posture. This takes a lot of effort and recognition on the part of the person who is being defensive. However this can be broken down.
- A team approach is extremely important in a marriage, because a marriage literally is a team effort. Whether you are attacking bills or financial issues, approach it as a team, and doing it together can be extremely helpful, as you are not alienating your partner. If your partner does not want any part of the bills or financial affairs, that is acceptable. However, many times partners feel like they are being left out. Money has been hidden, bills are not being taken care of, one is overspending. Subsequently, approaching the relationship as a team effort can be very helpful.
- Personal space. Everyone needs personal space. This is a teeter-totter, if you will, in terms of balance, for one individual may feel they are getting too much, and the other individual may be needy. Again, at certain times, there may need to be mediation to discuss what is a good amount of personal space that can be a balance for both parties.
- Sexual needs. Respect each other’s feelings. INTIMACY AND SEX SHOULD NOT BE CONTINGENT ON BEHAVIOR. There should not be a reward scenario surrounding sexual intimacy. Sexual intimacy is not a payoff, and is horrendous if used as such in a marital relationship. Nothing like mimicking a child-parent relationship, I always say. You cannot make sexual gratification contingent upon chores and tasks being performed at home. Why? Household chores need to be shared because they are the responsibility of both parties. If sexual intimacy is reduced to a reward scenario for tasks performed, chaos will eventually result. I guarantee it. If not chaos, it can definitely lead to a superficial relationship.
- Reach some type of resolution before bedtime, even if it is an agreement to disagree.
- Life is very, very short. Remember to cherish the one you love. Life is precious. Try to remember why you married this individual in the first place.
“Marriage” is the end result in a series of steps or stages that occur after two people join in couple-ship. What does this mean? It starts with an attraction between two individuals. Next comes a partnership. Next comes friendship, which was defined above as trust, disclosure and sharing of gifts, not concrete practical gifts, but verbal gifts to each other, which will be discussed further below. Finally, over time, there is a “marriage” between two individuals . This can take years, or never result. Being legally married or bonded may or may not result in a “marriage” as described above. The attraction is a no-brainer. That is the easy part. A partnership takes time, and is a give and take, as in a business partnership. The third stage is friendship. How does friendship occur? There are 3 things needed for a friendship to develop. One is time. Time has to pass. Once time has passed, and during this time, there has to be a sharing of gifts. These are not tangible gifts, but is verbal sharing of one’s past with each other. Then, and only then will you reach trust, which leads to friendship. Lastly is the stage of marriage. Even though a marriage has been legally binding for years, a marriage does not occur unless you have first established a partnership and a friendship.
What not to do in a marriage:
- Heated arguments routinely give rise to hateful, untrue/true statements. This is what I call the teakettle syndrome. What does that mean? In a relationship, over time, you feel defensive, or your partner has developed a defensive posture, there is no progression in the communication stage of the relationship, emotions consistently built up, you feel you have a lack of communication, a lack of trust, and it only takes a very small incident for the teakettle to boil over. Subsequently there will be some untrue and true statements that are made, which will lead to more distancing and more anger, as well as more distrust.
- Be aware of passive aggressive behavior. Passive aggressive behavior is classic when an individual refuses to be honest with their feelings for some of the same statements this author just mentioned.
- This author is frequently asked if individuals should live with each other before they get married. Research with longitudinal studies has shown that living with a partner before marriage is grossly irrelevant to the success or failure of a marriage. It does not increase or decrease the divorce ratio in western society.
In closing, it is important to note that in existing long-term marriages, many of these rules do not apply. What does this mean? Frequently I have seen individuals who have been married for 30, 40 and 50 years. They have ingrained behaviors and patterns, and are still very much in love with each other. This is an awesome sight. This does not mean that clinicians should try to change them through marital therapy, which would be disastrous. Sometimes there are ingrained behaviors that may not be healthy for a newlywed couple. However because they are ingrained and because they have learned to live with each other over 3, 4 and 5 decades, they actually “do the dance” very well. We are all familiar with the old adage, if it is not broken, why fix it?
Good luck, and keep trying.