Back in the day when I performed weddings, starry-eyed couples would come to my church office to do premarital counseling and plan their (elaborate) wedding ceremony. I guess I never stopped to consider it much, but I assumed, as did they, that the promise to be “faithful until death parts us” was seriously considered and solemnly promised before and during the wedding service. They only had eyes for one another.
Yet, I knew that about half of all the weddings I would perform over the years would end in divorce. That statistic didn’t stop anybody, it seemed, from being certain about themselves. We can do it, the couple assumed. We can be each others’ partner for life.
I now have been in the marriage counseling field for 8 years, and practicing full-time for 6. It’s not a lot of experience, but believe me: it’s enough. Enough to feel like I have a new sense of the difficulties of pledging a life-long partnership, and the challenge of not only growing and aging in some kind of parallel line with one another, but often raising children, dealing with work demands, managing health issues, sometimes moving across town or across country, or going to war, or dealing with trauma and grief.
I now think that it’s pretty awesome that 50 percent of those marriages make it a life time. In fact, I think that is nearly close to miraculous.
I’ve been thinking about the various, very human, reasons that marriages don’t make it a lifetime. And the list keeps piling up. Now, granted, my sample of the human spectrum is rather narrow, since happy couples are generally not calling me for appointments. And I do practice in a very narrow economic and cultural range in Dakota County, MN. So, that said, here are a few thoughts on the matter. I hope to write some more about it later.
1. Monogamy, sexual exclusivity with one partner, isn’t for everyone. I used to think that monogamy was just a choice, and that adults could manage it. I now believe that some of the most devoted of husbands and wives suffer from sexual struggles around having just one partner for ever. And that sexual simplicity drives them to have affairs, or other kinds of sexual acting out. What I once thought of as a cop-out I now consider a simple fact of human sexual life. Not everyone will enjoy monogamy. Many people get around this not by having affairs, but having multiple marriages, amounting to a serial monogamy with several marital partners. Half of all marriages go this way.
2. When partner family of origin preferences are very different, whether around matters of alcohol, or vacations, or habits around conflict or gender roles, or religious practice, child rearing or politics, I see those habits beat out intention more times than not. The power of family habits is hard to resist.
3. Personalities are notoriously hard to change. We are individually shaped by our genetics, our nurturing by parenting, good, bad or indifferent, in families, and all the unique things that happen to us in our lives. Many people marry their partners, despite clear problems and pain, believing that they will change their partner for the better. While we do influence our partners all the time, I have never seen a marriage based on the belief that “marriage will change them” work. Never. EVER.
With all the things getting in the way of a successful lifelong partnership, I have become a person who sees the 50% success as a definitely glass-half-FULL issue. It’s amazing that that many people getting married stay married, and say they are happy. If you are one of them, congratulations. You are a relationship rock star.