The Future of Marriage

Shining a light on intimate relationships

For most of history, it would have been considered absurd that people would choose mates on something as irrational as love. People have always fallen in love, but it was not the main reason for getting married. For thousands of years, marriage served economic, political and social functions. Couples were not to put their feelings for each other above the more important commitments such as ties to their parents or responsibility to their community or religion. But around the 19th century, a new set of values that allowed for freer choice in how we form relationships began spreading around the globe and love came to town.

"When two people are under the influence of the most violent, most insane, most delusive, and most transient of passions, they are required to swear that they will remain in that excited, abnormal, and exhausting condition continuously until death do them part."

This pithy statement by George Bernard Shaw heralds a contemporary idea of marriage. Many couples buckle under the strain of trying to uphold the unrealistic expectations of a cherished and modern cultural idea that marriage should be based on intense, profound love and a couple should maintain their ardor until they are parted by death.

The significant gifts of relationship are quite different from those offered by the movies and the top forty love songs. When a modern marriage is stable, it can be in a more potentially enriching way than in the past. In Western Europe and North America, married people are generally happier, healthier and better protected against economic setbacks and psychological depression than people in any other living situation. But several studies reveal exceptions to this in Japan, where couples living outside of marriage report being happier.

Interestingly, when pressure to marry is high and divorce is hard to obtain or is highly stigmatized in a society, many people remain marooned in unhappy marriages. Bowing to family or societal pressure and staying in an unhappy marriage leads to more psychological distress. Women are particularly at risk in a bad marriage with higher rates of depression and alcoholism.

The benefits of marriage would disappear if we continue to insist on the "one size fits all" model, or on the societal norm of lifelong marriage for everyone. In my counselling experience, I have seen relationships other than legalised marriage work quite well. This includes same sex couples raising children, single parent families and blended families from divorced parents. Having more choice in how we view arrangements other than marriage and social acceptance of alternatives is good for the future of marriage. So is having a more accepting attitude to divorce.

If your life journey has been fated with a committed partnership, how has the journey been so far? Has it been mainly a search for ways to endure and find patience? Are you still waiting for the love and respect from your partner that you thought was there in the beginning? Would your travel diary tell tales of active delight? Are you absent from anxiety? What are you asking of your beloved that you need to be doing for yourself? Are you burdening your relationship as a treatment for loneliness?

If there is no joy, communication doesn't include negotiating, or the conflicts have dragged on for too long, you can sincerely ask yourself if you have to stay together. Perhaps it's time to seek professional help to aid you in navigating a safe passage through separation and divorce.

If you want to ensure a promising future for your marriage, one with a chance of enduring, it's essential to consciously examine what assumptions and beliefs you have that may be keeping you from loving with awareness. It's not possible to assume that two people can merge all their interests and beliefs. And if you hope to change your partner to match your expectations, you are bound to fail. A starting point is to look at what you bring to the marriage, instead of whom to blame for it's imperfections. Once you clear your agendas that cause you to lash out or regress, what will you do with all that energy?

In couples counselling, it's sometimes not so simple or even essential to predict which relationships will last, but it's apparent which ones are headed into a pit of pain and suffering. It's encouraging that more couples are reaching out to friends and counsellors for help. Relationships based on friendship and respect, with each partner having equal validity and value are more likely to succeed. By diligently attending to the process of clearing out what obscures giving to and receiving from each other, the love for one another can lead to a richer experience of loving life itself.

Posted on 26 June 2008 in - Library - Relationships

Sandra Kimball

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