My wife Marilyn and I are approaching our 50th anniversary. Recently over a bottle of wine and a romantic lunch, we reminisced about our marriage’s rougher times. There were several instances when we were within a hair’s breadth of divorcing. We laugh now, but they were not joking matters back then. We persevered because we both knew that all marriages have ups and downs.
There are good reasons for divorcing. We often marry an illusion. Blinded by love, passion and status and to avoid loneliness we marry young. After the romantic bubble bursts we may find we’re basically incompatible with our spouse. It’s actually amazing that so many marriages do work out.
Joan, an attractive, 42-year-old book editor was deeply dissatisfied with her marriage to Richard. When they were married 19 years earlier, he was beginning a career as a surgeon, was attractive and emotionally stable—a good catch. But Joan later discovered that was not what she wanted. A successful relationship is like a key needing a specific lock and Richard was just not that for Joan. She tried to make it work, but became increasingly irritated at how conventional he was. She dreaded the boring sex and wanted to explore intellectual issues while he was unable to relate to her emotions and was more interested in acquiring nice things. The marriage ended in an amicable divorce and both have found better fits with new spouses.
When we are hurt and/or angry, we look at our partner through a critical lens and small differences amplify into major sins. During these times, it’s important to have someone to talk to—a friend, family member or a therapist.
But the choice of an “ear” is important. Lydia’s husband confessed to having a one-night stand. She asked a friend who was going through a divorce for advice. Not surprisingly, the friend advised divorcing and what was basically a good marriage ended with poor results for Lydia, her husband and their two children. On the other hand, we often gain perspective when talking to a perceptive person. Marilyn and I were fortunate to have such friends during our hard times who gave us excellent advice.
When seeing clients with marital problems, I make it clear that the first priority should be preserving the marriage. But some simply do not work. Marriage has enormous potential for conflict—over money, kids, chores and activities. Partners need to understand their spouses’ points of view. Handling conflicts, even with fights, can be healthy if not followed by grudges. Partners also have to understand they too have faults. Each has a responsibility to make things better. Often after the romantic illusion bursts and we realize we married an imperfect person, we magnify their faults. At the same time, it is critical to analyze how our actions may add to the dissatisfaction.
During the bad times, when everything your spouse does seems wrong, it is vital to maintain perspective and not rush to judgment. When newly married and expecting romantic bliss, we may become blindsided by the downs of marriage. Disappointments are predictable and should be anticipated. To keep perspective, know that downs are part of the relationship and be able to find a good ear who can help. The “ups” can be around the corner.
Dr. Levine, previously a researcher at Harvard Medical School, has been invited to lecture on psychotherapy on three continents. He has a private practice in Port Jefferson. His website is drfredlevine.com.