Chapter One: The Question: What Makes Marriages Happy?
Mystified by Love
A young woman -- call her Jane -- sits on the couch in my consulting room. She is wearing a tailored wool suit and has the crisp, put-together look of the successful career woman that she is. Jane is distraught and tearful. Her long, straight hair sweeps across her face as she cries. Between her sobs, this is what she says:
I don't know if I love Bob anymore. But why shouldn't I? He's the perfect person. He's handsome, thoughtful, polite, hardworking, successful. He's from a great family. I know I loved him in the beginning...I think. But now, after being married five years, it's different. And then this guy in the office, Jim. I know he's interested in me. And I'm so attracted to him, he's getting harder and harder to resist. He's not nearly as good-looking as Bob, yet when I'm around him -- when I think of him -- I get this sexual rush. And when we talk, I feel so in tune with him. I think I love him -- but I shouldn't.
Like so many people, married or not, Jane is mystified by love. She knows how love feels, but she doesn't know what love is. She can't account for why it flowers in her heart and why it withers. Mystified as she is by love, she can't answer one crucial question -- a question whose answer will determine the future course of her life: Am I with the Right Person?
Men and women in love are haunted by this question. You may be haunted by it right now. You know that most people's marriages are not happy. You know -- we all know -- the statistics: Half of all marriages break up. As for the other half, you know that many of those people are not happy. They're trapped inside their "intact" marriages. And what spooks you most of all is knowing that many of these unhappy people were passionately in love at the start -- just as you may be right now.
But you also know that some people's marriages are happy, and stay happy for a very long time -- forever. You've seen and read true stories about happily married couples -- Paul and Linda McCartney, for example. You may even know a happily married couple or two yourself. You see that the people in these marriages seem to work together smoothly as a team. They seem to genuinely like each other and to enjoy each other's company. And if you know them well enough, they may have even confided to you that they enjoy each other in bed -- even after having been together for many years. When we get married, we hope that ours will be one of those exceptional, happy marriages. What makes the difference between a happy and an unhappy marriage?
The message of this book, a message rather different from what you will find in other books about marriage, is that the key to a happy marriage is picking the right person in the first place -- someone with whom you are deeply compatible. The aim of this book is to equip you to do that. But you cannot choose the right person without first understanding the pressures -- on you and everyone else contemplating marriage -- to choose the wrong person. And you will not be really motivated to choose the right person unless you understand exactly what compatibility is and why it is so important to the happiness of your marriage. By the time you finish the first part of this book, you won't be mystified by love anymore. You will understand exactly how love works -- where love comes from, why it disappears, and the crucial role that compatibility plays in keeping love alive. Then you'll be ready to go on to the second part and use it to evaluate whether you and your partner are compatible enough to have lasting love.
The idea that compatibility is the key to happiness in marriage may surprise and confuse you because other books have claimed that other things are the key. What does make marriage happy? Let's round up the usual suspects.
Hard Work? -- Guess Again
These are the usual suspects, aren't they? You've read about them in magazine articles. If you've ever read a self-help book about marriage, you've definitely read about the key importance of communication, commitment, and hard work. If you've seen the authors of self-help books on television, you've heard them speak about it. Well-meaning people may have spoken to you personally about how important communication, commitment, and hard work are to happiness in marriage.
When we hear the same reasonable-sounding message repeatedly from experts and other people we have reason to trust, we tend to assume it's true. Often that is a safe assumption, but sometimes it isn't. When we look closely and critically at something we have taken for granted -- evaluate the logic of the argument and the soundness of the facts -- we sometimes discover that it is not as true as we had thought. Let's take that kind of close and careful look at the claim that communication, commitment, and hard work are the key to happiness in marriage.
Communication has become so identified with marriage and its problems that many couples come into my office and say, "We have a communication problem," instead of just saying, "We have a marital problem." They have learned this from marital therapists.
It so happens that the pioneers of modern marital and family therapy were communication-oriented. They thought that all sorts of psychological problems could be caused by pathological communication. For example, they thought that schizophrenia could result if a mother communicated in paradoxical and confusing ways that made it impossible for her child to understand what the mother wanted. One example of such a "double bind" is the command "Disobey me." If you disobey in response to that command, you are obeying!
Contemporary marital therapists don't think that bad communication can cause quite such devastating effects as schizophrenia but they do think that bad communication contributes greatly to marital problems. Accordingly, these therapists devote a lot of time to teaching couples how to communicate better. They train their clients to express their feelings more directly and listen to each other more sensitively, and they teach them techniques for handling conflict and for negotiating and problem solving.
It's a great advantage, in marriage, to have good communication and problem-solving skills. In happy marriages, these skills help partners express their love for each other, and they help day-to-day life run more smoothly. But when marriages are in trouble, it's not necessarily because the partners lack communication skills. Most people with marriage problems are perfectly good communicators. In fact, research has shown that spouses who have problems communicating with each other have no trouble at all communicating with anybody else.1 And I have done marital therapy with scores of unhappily married lawyers, upper-level business executives, sales and marketing people, advertising and public relations people, and even writers. They all had wonderful communication skills; they were all ace problem solvers. Not being able to communicate was not the problem for these couples.
Not only did the partners in these very unhappy marriages communicate perfectly well, they got each other's meaning perfectly well. Men and women do not need translation from the "language" of one sex to that of the other. Especially if they have been partners for a while, they know what the other is trying to convey. When he thinks she's being critical of him, it's because she is being critical of him -- and they both know it. And when she thinks he's trying to avoid her, hiding down there in the basement with his computer, she's right. He's not just surfing the net. He's in the basement because he doesn't want to be anywhere near her. They both know that.
When couples in unhappy marriages do have communication problems, it's generally not because the communication problems caused the marriage problems but the other way around: The marriage problems caused the communication problems. It's easy enough to see why. The emotional tension of being in an unhappy marriage -- the disappointment, the resentment, the rage -- makes it hard to sit there quietly, listen to your partner attentively, and respond reasonably.
The fundamental problem for many couples in unhappy marriages is not communication but rather understanding. The partners fail to understand each other, despite their ability to communicate. They understand what their partners are saying, but they don't understand how their partners could say that -- how their partners could think and feel as they say they do.
You may be familiar with that kind of failure in mutual understanding from your own relationships, whether romantic or nonromantic. For example, you may have had the experience of debating a passionately held belief (on abortion or gun control or the like) with someone who held an opposite view. You each understood what the other was saying, but you both walked away from the encounter unable to understand how the other could think and feel as he or she did. You were too different from each other, as people, to understand each other in an empathic way. Or, to take a hypothetical, and much more extreme, example, a highly articulate serial killer -- think of Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs -- could eloquently explain why he does what he does, but you wouldn't be able to connect with the experience behind the words and understand what it might be like to be him. You and he are too different from each other, and words can't bridge that gulf in understanding.
The articulate, unhappily married people who complain of communication problems don't understand each other as people because they are so different from each other that even their highly skillful communication can't bridge the gulf in their mutual understanding.
And that's the problem with the idea that communication is the key to happy marriage: It doesn't take into account that, for empathic understanding between people, communication is not enough. For people to be happy in their marriage they must be able to understand not just what their partner is saying, but the experience behind the words. When people are different from each other -- when they are not compatible -- they cannot do that. They cannot understand what it's like to be their partner -- to understand their partner empathically -- and the best communication in the world won't help.
"Commitment" sounds lofty, and it is high on many therapists' lists of essential ingredients for a good marriage. Frequently used marital-assessment questionnaires inquire into spouses' commitment. And I must confess, I ask almost every couple I see to rate their present level of commitment to their marriage. But, like good communication, strong commitment is more a result of happy marriage than a contributor to it. And I think that's as it should be.
par"Commitment," like any word, can be used to mean different things. The dictionary defines "commitment" as "the state of being obligated or emotionally impelled." When I ask people to tell me how committed they are to their marriage, I tell them that all I mean by that is how much they want to stay married.
People can be highly committed to their marriage for a variety of reasons that have nothing to do with happiness. Some people are committed to their marriage because they pledged to stay in it. This comes closest to the dictionary's definition, and there is no arguing with it. If someone wants to stay in a marriage because of a pledge made to spouse or God, then that is what he or she must do. Other people are committed to their marriages because they are financially dependent on their spouse. No matter how unhappy they are in the marriage, they see no way they could survive, economically, outside it. This was the case for many women in my parents' generation, before the economic disparity between men and women started to improve in the 1970s, partly as a result of the women's movement. Some people are committed to staying married because they are dependent on their spouse in some other way -- emotionally, for example. Unhappy as they may be, they cannot conceive of living alone. And, of course, many people feel committed to the marriage for the sake of the children.
The point is that commitment coexists with great unhappiness in many marriages. Commitment guarantees nothing about how happy a marriage will be. All it guarantees is that the marriage will continue.
For most of us who do not feel unalterably bound by our marriage vows and who are not dependent on our spouses in some limiting way, how committed we are depends on how happy we are. This makes sense, and it is how we respond in other domains of life. If our job is unrewarding and meaningless, we try to find another job if we can. If the ethnic or religious traditions we were born into come to feel alien or stifling to us, we don't practice them as our parents did, or we don't practice them at all. Why on earth stick with something that is frustrating and makes you unhappy?
And sure enough, in most couples who come in for marital therapy, the commitment of one of the spouses, or both of them, is wavering. Marital therapists ask these couples about their commitment because in marital therapy things often get worse before they get better, if they get better. Highly committed people will be more likely to cooperate with the treatment and to endure the pain that precedes the gain.
Naturally, there is a reciprocal relation between commitment and happiness in marriage. When couples who are not happy let each other know that their commitment is wavering, that itself further increases their unhappiness with the relationship, which leads to even less commitment. When happy spouses let each other know that they want to stay married forever, that increases their sense of security and their happiness, and leads to even more commitment. I have seen lots of couples who are committed because they are happy, but I have never seen a couple who were happy because they were committed.
This one's my favorite. Some writers of self-help books on marriage say two contradictory things without seeming to realize the contradiction. First, they say, "I believe in marriage," by which they mean that they believe that marriage is a good way to achieve happiness. Then they say -- and I bet they feel virtuous when they say this -- "Marriage is hard work."
When was the last time you went on vacation to do hard work -- to the Gulag, perhaps -- instead of going to the seashore, or to the mountains, or on a cruise? Hard work is not something that makes people happy. It is something that people avoid if they have the chance. And so a marriage that is hard work is, by definition, not a happy marriage.
Now, maybe all that these writers mean is that marriage takes persistent effort. I can't argue with that because any long-term project takes persistent effort. But if the project makes you happy, you don't experience the effort as hard work. You experience it as fun. For instance, you might spend hours trying to perfect your golf swing or your tennis serve. You might even say, "I work hard at it." But what you mean by that is that you devote persistent effort to it. You experience that effort as fun. Otherwise, you wouldn't do it. If people in unhappy marriages had experienced their courtships as being hard work, as their marriages are, they wouldn't have gotten married.
Happy marriages are not hard work, and happily married people will tell you so. A friend and colleague of mine, Victoria, is in her seventies, is a marital therapist herself, and has been happily married for almost fifty years. When I told her I was writing this book, her first question was "What do you think of the notion that marriage is hard work?" I told her I thought it was baloney and she replied, "I'm so glad you said that."
In a happy marriage, things go relatively smoothly. Most decisions are made with very little conflict. In fact, much of the time there is spontaneous agreement and so there is no need for "communication" or "negotiation":
"I don't feel like cooking tonight. Let's eat out."
"You know, I was thinking the same thing myself."
"Dear, I think it's time we had another baby."
"Are you serious?"
"Yes, I'm not kidding. I really mean it."
"OK. Let's go for it."
This may seem too good to be true, especially the second example. As a matter of fact, that is exactly how much "negotiation" it took for a happy couple I know to decide to have their second and third children.
There is disagreement in happy marriages, naturally. And there is conflict, sometimes heated conflict. But conflict is the exception rather than the rule. When it happens, it generally doesn't last long. And while it may sometimes be heated, it is never venomous.
Happy marriage feels easy. It doesn't feel like hard work. Unhappy marriage does feel like hard work because it is. Trying to improve an unhappy marriage is certainly hard work. And as any marital therapist will attest, and as the research on the effectiveness of marital therapy confirms, that hard work often turns out to be fruitless.2
But don't despair. Here comes the good news.
Copyright © 2000 by Samuel R. Hamburg