Success and Failure in Marriage


Carl H. Shubs, Ph.D.  ©2006

Someone once asked me whether marriage is still desirable in spite of such high failure rates. I think this is an interesting question and one that deserves some examination.

First, I want to clarify what we’re talking about when we think of “failure” in marriage. Many people might think that failure equals divorce, but for others that is not so.  There are many people who stay in marriages for decades, living unhappy lives and being miserable in their relationships. I wouldn’t think of this as a “successful” marriage. We might call it a marriage of convenience, a union born of and sustained in fear of living separate and independent lives, or an alliance rooted in and perpetuated by certain patterns of being and relating that are deeply ingrained and that the participants are afraid to challenge much less break.

Some people get married in order to break free from their parents, and at that point in their lives it may be the only way they are able to do so. Certain cultures place more emphasis than others on having to be married in order to leave home, and in those cultures the burden is often greatest for the woman who wants to live independently.  Similarly, some cultures place great pressure on a man to get married and have children in order to demonstrate that he is “a man.” At a later time, maybe five, ten, or twenty years down the road, staying together holds different meanings. Are the two people able to continue to grow as people, or have they fulfilled their purpose in finding each other and in being together now that they are out of their parents’ home and living on their own?

As I work with individuals and couples in my practice, I usually find that they all have somehow, almost magically, found a partner who enables them or forces them to confront certain unfinished issues stemming from their childhood and their relationships with their parents.  It may be dealing with issues of addiction, dependence, co-dependence, conditional relationship rules about being or attaching, some form of physical, sexual, or emotional abuse, or feelings such as abandonment, intrusiveness, smothering, absence, over-responsibility, irresponsibility, anger, or craziness.  None of us had perfect parents or perfect childhoods, we are born with a drive towards growth, and we seem to find partners with whom we can feel familiar/safe enough to try to work out those issues.

Some people are able to engage in that process well together and to weather those growing pains, whereas other people are not.  If we look at the couple as a unit, as an organism, we might say that the couple either “succeeds” or “fails” in being able to grow, as a couple, allowing for the growth and development of each partner in the couple.  Are they able to tolerate free and open expression of thoughts and feelings with each other?  Are they able to be respectful of each other and to treat each other with kindness and consideration?  Are they able to tolerate differences with each other?  Are they able to express a full range of feelings with each other, including affection, tenderness, passion, lust, anger, sadness, hurt, and vulnerability, or are they limited to expressing only certain feelings without straining the relationship?  Are the individuals able to exercise the various roles that life and circumstances requires of them, are they able to tolerate a range of different roles between the partners, or are they stuck in certain roles or so resistant to accepting alternative roles that the fabric of the relationship is broken?  Is the relationship able to stretch to meet the needs of the partners or are the boundaries of the relationship so restricted that stretch becomes strain and the unifying bond breaks?

To the extent that the individuals in the relationship are able to meet these challenges, we may say that the relationship itself, the marriage, “succeeds” or “fails.”  Alternatively, if the relationship is not able to tolerate such challenges, leaving it may be a significant success for one of the partners. It may mean that they are sufficiently independent, autonomous, and empowered to reflect on their needs, to value themselves enough to examine the pros and cons of that relationship, to have a mind of their own about what is and is not important to them, and to come to their own conclusions about the cost-benefit ratio of being in or out of that marriage.  With such a perspective, they may be able to see that they would be staying in the marriage only because of a fear of independence, fear of physical, psychological, or emotional abuse, or a lack of self-esteem. They may be able to take ownership of their self-worth and their life rather then having it rest in the hands of their partner, their family, or their social network. They may also be able to fully embrace the protective role of parent, looking after the needs and safety of their children, rather than abdicate those roles in fear of abandonment or retribution to their partner who may be acting in ways that are hurtful to the children.  Accordingly, someone’s getting a divorce may reflect as much of a success for them as an individual as it is a failure for the marriage.

When we ask why marriage is ”still desirable,” we must remember that people get married for many reasons, and most people don’t focus on statistics about divorce when they decide to get married.  Some people get married for religious reasons. For them, their faith may require that they be married if they are to be righteous individuals and if they are to be living together and having sex together. Their religious convictions may dictate that they must be married and have children, and this may be the force that leads them to be married.

Some people see marriage as “just a meaningless piece of paper,” while for others it may reflect a statement of separateness and differentiation from parents whose marriage did not survive. Alternatively, some people may see marriage as a fulfillment of their parents’ or peers’ wishes and expectations rather than an expression of their own heartfelt desire. For them the balance of desirability rests with how important it is for them to fulfill their parent’s wishes rather than to be in charge of their own lives, make their own decisions, and realize their own desires.

Some people want to get married because for them it indicates a deeper level of commitment in a relationship. It may signify a promise of intimacy, safety, security, attachment, and fidelity that they may not be able to attain otherwise in their relationship.

So, when we ask whether or not a marriage is “still desirable,” the question is what makes it desirable? Desirable for whom? And, who gets to decide whether or not it is desirable?


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