In a restaurant the other day I heard a man say, “I love my wife and we don’t have kids but it seems nothing, absolutely nothing could have prepared me for this thing called marriage.” It was a moment of truth and took my breath away.
This Holiday Season, as I watch shoppers, I find myself reflecting on the rarest of gifts; the one thing people want most and money can’t buy:
A long-term, happy, not-perfect-but-relatively stress-free marriage (or long-term committed relationship) where they can feel valued, respected, appreciated and heard.
It sounds simple and perfectly rational, right?
But it’s not. In fact, a happy, long-term marriage, is becoming so rare that it is now emerging as a luxury item and the #1 status symbol in America.
Why? Precisely because it eludes people and it’s rare. You see, unlike fine jewelry, luxury cars or million dollar homes, you can’t buy it, lease it or have it built for you – at any price.
If you want it, you’re going to have to create it and you can’t do it alone.
It takes special skills you might not use anywhere else. Or if you do, it’s different in your intimate relationship.
This…….. is where you might want to take a deep breath.
People find it surprising when they discover that, as a Marriage and Family Therapist, I almost never discuss marriage and only focus on relationship. I’m interested only in its quality and how it works.
At Wellness we use ‘couples therapist’ or ‘relationship consultant’ instead of the antiquated term ‘marriage counselor’ to describe the creative and collaborative work we do with couples.
When it comes to working with people in an age of gender distrust, I’ve learned that men and women come from the same planet. How we show emotions and what we do with them can differ a lot.
I’ve also learned that humans have inherent emotional needs. In marriages and generations past, women’s primary concern was financial security and men wanted domestic skills. Today almost everyone puts love and acceptance at the top of their list of ‘must haves’ for romantic partnership.
Humans want other intangibles too – like safety, comfort, closeness, and support.
Unfortunately, even the most loving connections unravel when people expect these qualities to be solidified for a lifetime through marriage….. without paying attention to the relationship itself.
When I work with couples, I sometimes wonder out loud, “Who’s in charge of this relationship? I mean, who’s responsible for making sure it’s nurtured, healthy and in good shape?”
Inevitably and without exception, both people look at me like deer in headlights.
It makes sense because today’s couple is too busy, too exhausted – running around, managing kids, careers, schedules, finances, social lives and trying to make things work. They’re focused on a very long list and the relationship is somewhere at the bottom while everyone hopes things will get better soon. One thing we know for certain — time doesn’t fix a distressed relationship.
Modern marriage is about love, not about survival the way it once was. Marriage is also more fragile than ever before.
The good news: the divorce rate is down slightly from 20 years ago. The bad news: it’s largely because more people are opting not to marry at all. The rate of marriage is declining rapidly plus, people are waiting longer to marry for the first time. This huge social shift is just beginning and has long term implications for children and families.
Typically, divorce happens within the first seven years of marriage or around the 20 year mark — when the kids leave home. Without putting their relationship first, emotional bonds fray and parents grow in different directions. Years later they can’t find their way back to each other.
New evidence shows the divorce rate among Baby Boomers has surged more than 50% since 1990; doubling for those age 50-64 and tripling for those over 65.
This brings new worries about issues of aging and most folks grieve the loss of collapsing families, shared friends and companionship.
It’s not as if people who are single or divorced don’t want to be happily married. They do! They want to be committed to someone they consider special.
Meanwhile, support systems are dwindling, people are living longer and there’s no clear model of what works.
The Ozzie and Harriet (1950’s) style marriage with one provider working in a stressful job seeking comfort in a perfectly managed home or a Brady Bunch (1970s) model of a blended family where adults and children all love each other and get along beautifully……. are failing miserably in the 21st century.
The more contemporary, dual career couple with kids and nannies in tow (think Gwyneth Paltrow & ‘Conscious Uncoupling’) are faring a little better – but not by much.
All this can be confusing and makes cohabitation look like a better option but that doesn’t seem to be working either.
There’s a deeper answer here.
What’s emerging, with clarity, is that couples in happy, lasting relationships are held together by shared values and secure emotional bonds.
Here’s how that might translate for you:
• It’s when your partner likes you and thinks you ‘hung the moon’,
• is there for you,
• listens to your stories,
• talks to you,
• understands when you’re scared,
• comforts you,
• laughs at your jokes,
• appreciates your efforts,
• values your opinion,
• has your back and
• will be there in those difficult moments when you call and need them the most.
Securely bonded relationships also make room for grace, forgiveness and humor because there will be times when you both miss the mark!
Remember, this is a two way street and MUST work for both partners and when it happens, it’s transformative. The best part is….all this emotional safety translates into the kind of closeness and contentment happy couples have and everybody else wants!