How to Make Modern Marriage Function Well

Rethinking the expectations of spousal partnerships
© Can Stock Photo / Foma A

My marriage is nothing like I would have expected half a lifetime ago when I first met my husband. In fact, I swore I would never marry. Yet, by the time we said our vows, I was thoroughly convinced I was marrying into a modern-day partnership where household chores, career choices, and childcare would be divvied up equally, and happiness, health, and good sex would rain down upon us forever after.

Although we’ve been together since we were barely adults, we went into the commitment part slowly and with caution. We broke up a few times and dated others, travelled our own ways, lived together, bought a house, combined our bank accounts one-by-one, and adopted a dog all while “waiting to see.” We even went to pre-actual-marriage therapy. By the time we got legally married, we really thought we were doing it eyes-wide-open.

Don’t we all think that?

It’s true what they say: marriage is hard work

I thought I was well-prepared for the work of marriage. Yet all those emotional highs and lows of figuring out who I was, who we were together, who we were after having kids, and then having to revisit these at each major life stage was harder than I had expected. Maybe the process became more refined, but it never got easy.

Marriage is this intricate dance of partners trying to work, raise children, walk the dog, do the breakfast dishes, and find time for personal development, while still trying to stay connected to one another. The pressure can feel impossible and completely overwhelming.

The complexity of marriage has led to a meteoric rise in best-selling books, podcasts, TV shows, and couples’ retreats, focusing on solving marital issues in the hopes of achieving the best marriage possible, or at the very least, not becoming one of the 30-40% of couples that permanently separate.

Navigating marriage has also led to an increase in couples’ therapy. In a 2017 study of 1,000 engaged, married, and divorced couples, 49% of the respondents said they had attended some form of counselling with their partner. The study also found that millennials have attended more marriage counselling than any other generation. And while the study found that 71% of those who attended couples’ counselling found it “helpful to very helpful,” divorce is still rising. My grandmother’s generation would never have gone to therapy or read self-help books at the rate we do now, and those marriages, while subject to largely the same issues as our current-day ones, managed to last longer. With our ample access to resources aimed at helping to solve our marital strife and the freedom to openly discuss our problems, what is it about modern marriage that leaves us floundering? Has marriage actually gotten harder?

Expecting perfection

It’s the first question I asked when I sat down with Judith Ansara, MSW, and Robert Gass, EdD, who have worked individually with couples and together have run popular couples’ retreats for many of their 50 years of marriage. Both agreed that “The fundamental, persistent challenges have continued over time: communication, money, stresses of children, sex, and how do you put together different personalities, styles, and needs together in one life.” And yes, these pressures are often intensified in modern families with the juggling of careers outside of the home, home equity, raising children, and the needs of aging parents.

What have really changed are our expectations, they say. We now require our partners to provide more than economic security or lend a hand with raising children: we also expect a best friend and a great and unflagging lover as well. With the rising expectations come rising disappointments, especially when those things aren’t fulfilled.

Marriage redefined

Along with the changes in expectation in marriage comes a redefining of marriage itself. No longer only confined to the monogamous, legalized union between man and woman, and beyond even the introduction and inclusion of same-sex marriages, more and more couples are exploring ideas of conscious polyamory, gender re-definition, and even conscious separation.

So, if marriage isn't just two people for life, what is it? Robert and Judith refer to modern marriage as a “conscious coupling” or “sacred union.” This union becomes like a third entity that both partners support through their time, attention, and love. And while they say that the boundaries of these unions are much more flexible than they used to be, there still must be boundaries. “If the boundary is too open, as soon as things don’t feel good, one partner says I am out of here, it doesn’t create a strong enough container … vessel … for the marriage to deepen.” There must be a “commitment to the notion that it’s worth staying together if there is to be [growth],” says Robert.

What happened to happily ever after?

With fewer religious, cultural, and family expectations demanding marriage, many people, including economists and psychologists, wonder whether marriage is still worth it. It would seem that more and more people in Canada and the US are deciding it’s not. In fact, there’s been a steady decline since the 1960s—from 72% to 50%. And although research has been done into figuring out exactly why marriage is declining or if there are specific conditions that make a marriage better, no one to date has been able to prove marriage makes people happier. This despite a number of scientific attempts and meta-analyses aimed at proving just that. Indeed, over time, singles may actually be slightly happier according to Bella DePaulo, PhD, author of Singled Out: How Singles Are Stereotyped, Stigmatized and Ignored, and Still Live Happily Ever After.

Robert and Judith say that of their three children, two have not chosen marriage and may never—something that is becoming more typical. Yet, in their work they primarily see those who have chosen marriage and they emphasize that the gifts that come from a healthy sacred union can make all the work worthwhile. “By turning into that [sacred third] over and over again, we heal ourselves and heal the broken places within ourselves and help the other heal,” says Judith.

But sometimes couples need to separate in order to keep the relationship healthy, and Judith and Robert help there too, in the same way they help those wishing to continue on their relationship journey gain the skills and tools necessary to remain together. Robert is noticing a changing trend in his work: “It used to be people would blow-up their relationships to get out … cheating, et cetera, and now more people are separating while they still like each other.”

“We like to think of a relationship like a garden. It needs to be planted and tilled but it also needs constant tending. There is an art to tending a garden. Most people have not received the education of what it takes to grow a successful relationship,” says Robert. They both emphasize that these skills can be learned.

© Can Stock Photo / Wavebreaker Media

Why does everyone else seem fine?

We all know some “perfect couple” that has suddenly gotten divorced. This is because “What you imagine a couples’ life is like from what you might see of them socially is not at all the whole truth,” says Judith. There is a tremendous amount of secrecy around the difficult parts of marriage. Sometimes, the biggest help to a couple comes just by showing up at a couples’ retreat or in a marriage group setting and realizing that all couples struggle, often with very similar issues.

This is particularly true with sexuality. They both agree that huge transformations are possible simply by people coming together to discuss difficulties, fears, and the day-to-day reality of living as sexual beings. This is a “huge area where there is a lot of challenge and a lot of self judgement and belief that other people have it better,” says Judith.

Do other people have it better, when it comes to sex?

“A few,” says Judith. But it’s rare.

Don’t worry, they say, people can learn to become better lovers, just like they can learn to be better communicators, listeners, and partners in other ways. There’s good reason that most relationship experts say some version of the same thing: learning how to be a better lover can start with finding the connections in the daily interactions. There are also sex therapists, sex books, and workshops specifically designed to teach how to please yourself and your partner through words, touch, and intercourse.

Whether you have been married for decades and want to become a better lover, or you are newly married and want to become a better listener, it’s not too late. There are methods that will help any intimate relationship blossom.

Developing a flourishing union

Expressing skillful communication

Communication is such a hot-button issue for couples that it rates amongst the primary reasons that couples seek out therapy. Judith says it all starts with really good listening skills. “One of the main complaints we hear is that people don’t feel listened to or understood.” She suggests allowing your partner to feel as if they can rest into the listening, without interrupting or waiting impatiently for your turn to speak.

Almost every book on marriage devotes some amount of time to how to better communicate, but perhaps the most popular of these is The Five Love Languages, by Dr. Gary Chapman. This book has been on the top of the New York Times’ best seller list for much of the last two decades and tops most charts of relationship books to read. Chapman suggests that the way people communicate their love and related needs, as well as experience these from others, are foundational to our personalities. He believes that people speak in “love languages” or  communication styles, and by understanding both our own love language and that of our partner’s we can work to communicate in a way that the other experiences as loving.5 For instance, if acts of service rate high with them, try bringing them their morning cup of coffee in bed. Giving yourself a weekly goal of expressing love in your partner’s primary love language is a simple way to show them, in a way that they will receive it best, that you love them.

Turning towards your partner

Robert and Judith speak often of this idea of “turning towards” your partner. But what does that mean? According to Dr. John Gottman, author of the New York Times’ best seller, Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, it’s about accepting “each other’s bids for emotional connection.” As a psychologist and clinician, Gottman has studied hundreds of couples, tracking their heart rate, blood pressure, and immune function over time to see how they fare. And while he has done extensive analysis to create his strategies for what makes marriage work, he says he can tell in moments just by being in a room with a couple whether their marriage will last by how the partners accept each other’s bid for emotional connection. 

Practicing personal responsibility

“We have much capacity to create the relationship we want, but a lot of our attention goes on what the other should do,” says Robert. He encourages couples to break the myth of 50/50: “I’m doing my half and you’re going to do your half.” Because, as he points out, who decides where the “half” point is? It’s easy to become an expert on all the things our partners could do that would surely improve our lives if they were to change. Yet, “We have almost no capacity to actually help someone else to change.” Unfortunately we do have a great deal of capacity to drive our partners out of their minds with our constant nagging. Instead, Robert recommends we ask ourselves, “What can I do to create more of what I’d like to see and experience in our relationship?”

Gottman says that the majority—almost 2/3—of relationship problems are unsolvable. In other words, no matter how vehemently you fight about those issues, they will not go away. Learning how to love your partner with their flaws and accepting your own part in the patterns of unrest is perhaps the hardest part of partnership, but it’s also among the most crucial. In the marriages that I've gotten to look at more deeply, it is the thing I admire most: partners who mutually love and accept each other as they are. It's also these partners that seem to grow the most individually.

Allowing state-shifting

Robert and Judith say that where most couples get in trouble is when one or both are “triggered.” This is where there is an emotional reaction that is disproportionate to the thing or event that has just taken place. “It’s like a lifetime of feelings gets evoked,” says Robert. When this happens, the tendency for most people is to act from that place of trigger, which can then trigger the other partner, which can quickly lead to a downward spiral where “a lot of damage can happen.”

Gottman calls it emotional flooding and he’s looked at the physiological symptoms that emerge when it happens: the heart speeds up, blood flow to the kidneys and gut slows down, and adrenaline starts to pump.

One solution is to take a time-out. Either partner can call it and it needs to be at least 20 minutes, but not more than 24 hours. The other partner must be willing to discuss it later, but a time-out guarantees some breathing room. Time-outs to stew aren't real time-outs, they just continue the stress. Separating yourself from the issue by consciously not thinking about it and instead taking some meditative time to calm down by going for a walk, reading, or listening to music can help. It is also helpful if the partners can use humour, conjure a particularly loving image of the other, or re-read a love letter from your partner.

The key to this state-shifting is to learn how to recognize one’s own emotional state and how to relax and calm yourself down before reengaging on the issue. “Yes, they are real issues that have to be dealt with,” assures Robert, “but when one or both people are that activated, no real issue can be dealt with.”

Creating a shared meaning

Because there is no longer one social contract that fits for most couples, it is “very useful if couples share a vision of what they want,” say Robert and Judith. If the “partners aren’t aligned on what they are trying to create, that lack of shared picture will show up as bumps or dissatisfaction.” They advise couples to make a practice of looking at the next cycle of their lives, whether that be five or ten years or more, and each ask themselves: “What do I value in relationship? What does my partner value?” And out of that, negotiate and come together around a shared picture of the sacred union and what is important to them. Then the couples come up with new resolutions or vows around that shared vision and either voice them informally or even recite them to each other in a sort of recommitment ceremony.

Gottman has a list of activities around creating shared meaning from his book The Relationship Cure that include sharing a common life vision as discussed above and talking about that vision, sharing little moments of connection, such as listening to stories and jokes (even if you've heard them before), offering spontaneous invitations to spend time together, asking for advice, offering compliments, laughing together, sharing a hug, volunteering together, playing games together, sharing moments from your day, calling up the other just to say hi, and reading books out-loud together, just to name a few.

© Can Stock Photo / YakobchukOlena

NOTES FROM A MARRIAGE 

When I went into my marriage all those years ago, I did not imagine I’d end up in a union where I do most of the child-rearing, my husband does most of the money-earning, and where I spend weeks at a time without seeing him because our home and his job are far apart. Yet, here I am. And while it might not be entirely accurate to say that every day I love him more, I certainly wish him dead a lot less than I used to. And I hope that I am loving him better than ever before.

At times he and I have used all of the above strategies and even a few that are probably far less “expert approved.” I spent an entire year where my meditation was simply to pretend that my husband was my boyfriend. Since all the books and marriage therapists say that you just recreate the same issues in your future relationships, I figured this was actually not as crazy as it sounded. So, I kept asking myself, Would I be dissecting the way my boyfriend was spending time with my children like I am doing now? Would I be running this list of unfinished household chores or just appreciate that he brought all my week’s wood down for me? Would I be appreciative that he took the time to make me tea in bed, even if it’s cold or would I complain that he didn’t do it right? So while my best friends thought I was crazy, I deliberately became (almost) as nice to my husband as I was to my imaginary boyfriend. And, in turn, he treated me more like my imaginary boyfriend would. Sure, it was just an exercise, but it helped me find pleasure in the things he did do instead of dwelling on what he didn’t.

It is perhaps the one thing no one tells you about marriage—that the work, the hardship, and even the frustrations, can coalesce into something even more fulfilling than you thought possible. The happily-ever-after you had dreamed of as a child might not be the one you end up with, but maybe, just maybe, it can be something even more.

Seven principles of connection according to Dr. Gottman 

Enhance your love maps 

Learn the details of your partner’s life and interests. Know their favourite movies, which kind of chocolate they like, their fears and aspirations.

Nurture reciprocal fondness and admiration 

It’s less important that you share interests than it is that you appreciate the other’s positive characteristics.

Turn towards each other 

Each day, in many little ways. Build up a bank account of many little positive moments to help you through the harder ones.

Let your partner influence you 

Let their opinion and thoughts matter to you.

Solve your solvable problems 

Solvable problems are the ones that are largely situational and not so emotionally charged. They may be about household chores, in-laws, or disciplining children. Gottman has a six-step approach to dealing with these problems that includes what we call sandwiching in my family: start nice, find common ground, and create compromise.

Overcome gridlock 

Move your perpetual problems to a place where you can really talk about them. Figure out what is underlying the conflict. The goal is to “declaw” the issue, rather than solve it, so it is no longer a source of such great pain.

Create shared meaning

Gottman suggests that this is done through the use of rituals, roles, goals, and symbols. It's in the collection of inside jokes you share with your spouse, shared songs, and holding an image of what your marriage means to the two of you.

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