Linda: We live in a time of growing and pervasive cynicism about marriage. The marriage rate in America has hit a record low and is expected to drop even further. The Pew Research Center recently found that about 40 percent of unmarried adults believe that marriage is becoming obsolete. Only about half of Americans are married now, down from 72 percent in 1960, according to census data. The age at which one first gets married has risen by six years since 1960, and now only 20 percent of Americans get married before the age of 30. The number of new marriages each year is declining at a slow but steady rate. Everyone knows a friend or family member who married with great enthusiasm and love, whose relationship turned sour, ultimately ending in a bitter divorce. To avoid the same painful scenario, a multitude of people are deciding to prevent such grief and heartache, they won’t get married in the first place.
But it may not be the institution of marriage itself that is at fault here, but the cultural changes that are demanding more from us to create successful partnerships. Since the rigid guidelines and requirements of how marital partners must behave have been relaxed, each couple is on their own to design a form that works for them. It is a time of transition, a crazy-making time and one with the potential for enormous creativity. While the old form has been forsaken, the new forms of personal growth, development and self-actualization have not quite yet been established and solidified. It’s good that things are changing, but we are all called upon to design the next ways of being in partnership that will be successful and that will bring the deep satisfaction we are seeking. It certainly is a step in the right direction:
*that divorce carries way less stigma than it used to, allowing those who are miserable in their marriages to exit them.
*that women to have career options outside of the home, to follow their interests, make their own money and contribute their special talents and skills to their community. But decisions about where to live and how much time and attention is devoted to work, require hours of communication with a spirit of good will to arrive at choices that work for both partners’ career development.
*that gender role description are relaxed indicating that both can perform household tasks and child-care. With the lack of rigid roles, there comes a requirement of a lot more discussion and strong negotiation skills to work out the issues around who does what.
*when in recent decades, scripts are no longer shoved into our hands by family or religious community about how to be a husband or wife.
There is a huge opportunity available for each couple to co-create a partnership that fits their individual values, interests and beliefs. But we must each know ourselves well and have negotiation skills so that we each can lobby to have our needs met. There is a higher demand for us to take responsibility when we are no longer provided a script and are challenged to write our own.
While we may have a strong work ethic that is enhancing our career development, romantic illusions may dominate our thinking that keep us from applying this very same work ethic to our partnership. In the realm of romantic partnership, many people don’t believe that a strong work ethic should apply. The Romantic myth operating is that the happiness and well-being should be present just because we love each other. In such thinking, there is not enough significance paid to the signature strengths that each of us must develop to be eligible for a great relationship. Nor does the romantic myth allow for the tremendous importance of communication, conflict management, and negotiation skills that are a requirement for eligibility. Nor does this myth allow for the misguided beliefs to be that examined assessing if notions we have picked up along the way are really true. While these beliefs remain unexamined, they may be damaging our relationship and may be running it right into the ground.
The expectation that the marriage be filled with love, happiness, well-being and personal growth is a tall order, but not out of reach. People marrying today come with these expectations and they are all worthy goals both for our life and marriage. To have lofty goals is a good thing. But to reach high, we must have an intention and a commitment to work toward attaining these goals. By working with the cynical, impatient, irresponsible, or immature parts of ourselves, we can break free from the belief that our partner should magically bring it to us.
When a deep, long, look is taken at marriage, what may be discovered is not that the institution itself is flawed or outmoded, but that the old form has surpassed its usefulness. Each of us can vision a new form of marriage, one in which both people mutually support each other to develop into the best that they can be. The vision can be accompanied by a realistic action plan. It is important that the vision and action plan includes room for some discomfort. For there is pain as we give birth to ourselves and to the healthy, hearty relationship. As we continue over time, to redefine and co-create new visions and actions plans, the context is set for the fulfilling partnership. That bond that we have longed for has a chance to finally unfold and manifest in our lives, making the striving for it worth all the effort.
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That Which Doesn’t Kill Us: How One Couple Got Stronger at the Broken Places is newly published and has been met with rave reviews. The book is a very personal joint memoir written in alternating chapters describing their experiences during a ten-year period of their marriage in which they endured a series of challenges and ordeals that brought them to the brink of divorce. The book details the process of their descent into relationship hell as well as the process that enabled them to re-establish a connection that was stronger and more mutually fulfilling than what they had ever previously experienced.
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