Marriage does more harm than good.
With New York joining a list of states legalizing it, Republican candidates calling for the Constitution to ban it and a Supreme Court decision likely needed to resolve the confusion, it’s no wonder same-sex marriage is a hot topic. Why are we fighting for marriage when it doesn’t work for many of us?
As my fellow Psychology Today columnist Christopher Ryan and his co-author Cacida Jetha speculate in their best-selling book about the history of sexual relationships, Sex at Dawn, why is a law needed to keep people together if it is such a natural act?
Marriage is no longer a necessary economic contract between men and women that includes such things as childrearing and inheritance. Women are now more economically and socially independent. The divorce rate has doubled since the 1950s and many of those who remain married describe themselves as unhappy. And yet, even in this post-feminist era, we still idealize marriage and encourage our children to strive for it as if it were the holy grail. The difference between now and centuries ago is that, more frequently, romantic motives, encouraged by society’s obsession with “love conquers all,” a fantasy popularized by the media, now accounts for why most of us marry.
As Americans, we are hardly, psychologically speaking, living in the land of the free and brave. In fact, we are a deeply repressed, fear-based society, full of prejudice and terrified of our own and others’ individuality and differences. As such, we create and maintain institutions, such as public schools, churches, and political parties, with seemingly noble missions, but which actually have hidden agendas that enforce conformity. Marriage is one of those systems.
Does marriage do more psychological harm than good?
Marriage creates a bond based on mutual dependency that can be just as suffocating to our individuality and creativity, as it can be comforting. We over-invest in the idea that someone else can help us sustain our happiness and stop relying on ourselves.
Counseling so many married couples over the years, I have discovered that despite common wisdom, the longer a marriage lasts the less dynamic the relationship becomes. Communication and roles become ritualized into a few simple patterns. Think of your own marriage. Over time, conversation has probably lost its subtlety and nuance, with the same arguments repeating themselves, regardless of the issue, without resolution.
Sex has often become rote as have the rules of engagement. Even the anger that gets expressed is a cover-up for the deeper feelings of hurt and disappointment that, if expressed, might force spouses to stop blaming and take personal responsibility for their own unhappiness.
It’s the rare couple who approaches the daily problems of life with freshness and creativity. Most often we are engaged in an emotional tug-of-war over our individual needs. And while, at times, there may be a sense of comfort and security in these patterns, we limit our experiences, short-circuit our feelings and deaden passion. Within the vortex of marriage, we tend to gravitate into a state of psychological laziness and stop challenging ourselves to grow as individuals.
After so many marriage consultations, a glaring truth has emerged for me. Marriage often heightens a sense of self-alienation and fear because spouses grow so dependent on being wedded. The marriage corrupts itself, with, all too typically, one spouse being consumed with addressing the needs of the other, to the detriment of both.
Sex might intensify in long-term marriages when spouses are sexually compatible and choose to make sex a priority. More often, however, the connection between sex and love doesn’t last and becomes ritualized, diminishes and even stops. Couples delude themselves into thinking sex is less important than the social interests, personal values and friendship they share. Sex is a life-affirming, often healing, force. It should be a high priority.
While love, affection and friendship can be wonderful aspects of marriage, if we deny ourselves sex, we stop nurturing a vital part of who we are.
Many children, if not most, are now being raised in marriages that end in divorce. Recent census data shows that more than 40 per cent of children are born outside of marriage. The concept of a nuclear family is, in fact, no longer a reality. Increasingly, children are raised in non-traditional settings–blended, extended and same-sex families–where they benefit from their exposure to the different points of view, attitudes and lifestyles of the adults involved.
When looking at research, a dose of skepticism is helpful. Some studies will show that a stable family is the primary ingredient for the mental health of children. However, how stability is defined is very important. It’s not the stability, but the emotional generosity of parents that builds a child’s self-esteem. And while a stable marriage can foster a sense of safety, children who are raised in non-traditional families can learn flexibility and gain competence in dealing with the reality of life’s changes. Like their parents, these children learn to value their individuality and have many role models to www.www.capsiplex.com draw upon.
Isn’t it just as important to teach our children about how necessary, meaningful and beautiful impermanence can be rather than teaching them to kick and scream when things end? It is a false argument that parents in an unhappy marriage should stay together. The children, in my experience, will not benefit.
I was once married for thirteen years to an extraordinary woman with whom I have a daughter, Alyssa, who is now thirty-six. I also have had a loving seventeen-year domestic partnership with a man whom my daughter looks at as a step-dad.
Both my long-term relationships were deeply loving, sexually rich and and full of growth. Both ended for the right reasons. Despite family and social pressures, one of us knew it was time to move on and forced the issue. My ex-partners are loving friends and we continue to support each other despite the disappearance of the legal bond that once existed between us.
During and since my last relationship, nearly eleven years ago, I have had shorter commitments and a number of casual sexual encounters, some of which have been as intense, loving and generous as the best aspects of my long-term relationships.
These experiences strongly condition my stance on marriage, nearly as much as my four decades as a family therapist, during which many courageous spouses have come for help to salvage their relationships or figure out how to separate.
Psychotherapists are trained to remain neutral and respect patients’ choices and solutions. That objectivity has its value. Yet as I have grown older and wiser, I have, at times, invoked my own life experiences as part of the route to helping a patient heal from trauma or deal with a dilemma. No human can deny their own life story. To try and do so is pointless and inauthentic. In guiding a patient to greater transparency and authenticity, how can I not demand this of myself? It’s something I wrote about in my first book, The Patient Who Cured His Therapist.
As an alternative to marriage, serial relationships and casual encounters constantly create new and unexpected challenges calling on us to reach more deeply in order to navigate the demands of different experiences. Every relationship with its particular intimacies and requisite ending, will enable or force us to develop all the different aspects of our identities. Our capacity to handle the vicissitudes of life is enriched by our openness and we develop a sense of individual strength and power in mastering such challenges. Unfortunately, many people see the world as dangerous and so they hide in marriages and settle because the fear of being alone is so overwhelming.
Nothing in life is permanent. Yet with marriage, we expect ourselves to defy the laws of nature. We stay in marriages longer than we should. Why? Because we fear loss. As humans, we form intense attachments and the loss of an intimate relationship is so profoundly sad and disturbing that we cannot bear to even allow ourselves to consider its endings.
Wouldn’t it be more meaningful if when entering a relationship, we accept the truth that it’s going to end some day. Then we can attach with fewer expectations and value and learn from what is real during our time together rather than holding on to a fantasy of what should happen in the future.
Marriages have a life cycle that is far shorter than “forever after.” After about seven years most relationships have run their course. Most therapists say that is when a couple in trouble should struggle to work it through, as the benefits will be greater than the loss. But are the benefits really that great?
Is the world so treacherous that we must hold on to each other, often with gritted teeth, to face the inevitable pitfalls that life brings? When will we understand that life is deepened and enriched not only by every loving experience, but by every loss. We must open our arms and equally embrace the good with the bad and accept that relationships have a cycle of beginning and ending.
One of the greatest existential crisis of our lives is the struggle between our need for autonomy and individuality and our need for stability and constancy. All life engages this balance. Many argue that marriage matures us because we develop a sense of responsibility to another human being and transcend our own selfishness. But working through problems over time, experiencing loyalty, commitment, intimacy and friendship, even raising children, can all meaningfully and successfully happen outside of marriage. It’s the exceptional couple who can form an ongoing intimate partnership that can withstand the oppressive forces of marriage and not lose their individual identities.
In 1974, I walked down the aisle with the hope and excitement of many young grooms. John Lennon’s song “Imagine,” my generation’s anthem, was the wedding march. With so many professional and other life experiences behind me, I now do my best to “imagine” a world without marriage.
First published on PsychologyToday.com on January 2, 2012.
Brooke Wallace says:
Mar 6, 2012
This is an amazing article. Stanley Siegel has great voice and should be heard.
Rob Boucher says:
Mar 12, 2012
I think there are some rules to live by that work whether in a marriage or not. The issue is that marriage brings the illusion of safety because of the legal handcuffs.
A key for me is to make the quality of the relationship more important than it’s longevity. Same with thinking about 2 people together making 3 (each person and the relationship) vs. 2 making 1. Expecting your mate to be responsible for meeting your needs is one of the surest ways to slowly kill the relationship. It’s best to take a birthday present model where you tell your mate clearly what you want (which assumes you take the time to know yourself), but then go out and get it for yourself if your mate can’t give that to you.
I actually wrote a bunch on this as a guest poster on the Sources of Insight blog recently.
May 1, 2012
Nicely written! Key word is “delude” in this article. I was never married but had a wonderful cohabitation with a wonderful woman who wanted marriage. Before we met, however, I already convinced myself why I should never marry. Marriage is done because “society expects it.” that is what I always was told. But that phrase infuriates me the most. I have no interest in making government third partner in my relationships.
May 10, 2012
I would suggest that you, sir, are having tunnel vision because you never see the population of happily married people who never come in for counseling and never make the headlines.
Jumping to such sweeping and negative conclusions when you only see the broken marriages or unhappy ones is a bad oversight on your part and one which you should rectify.
I once worked at a family counseling center. One day, the marriage couselor came out after a long day and asked his support staff, “Is there ANYONE here who is happily married?” Most of the married people raised our hands. He sighed and said “Oh, ok. I must be having tunnel vision then because all I ever see every day are the unhappily married couples and I was beginning to think no one is happily married.”
I suggest that you are suffering that same tunnel vision.
Ellen Ripley says:
Apr 20, 2013
This is very, very good and I believe I’ve caught a similar work by Siegel in this regard another time. It’s too bad many will immediately take an up-at-arms approach, that it threatens the sanctity of marriage, as opposed to reading its in-depth value. This view speaks to me as I have slowly begun to embrace the dichotomy of my life; not always an easy endeavor. Divorced. In reconciliation with the ex, I have found an interesting difference in my views on marriage, the largest being how there appears to be a sense of ownership over another human being when married. Over and over again this belief another individual is responsible for our happiness. As time progresses I question whether a re-marriage is really necessary in my reconciliation because I want neither of us to feel owned/ownership, or responsible for another in such aspects. I heavily consider if we are perhaps better off simply co-cohabiting until the relationship either runs its course for good … this second go-round … or if we make it until a form of death do us part un-married. Course, my ex may not appreciate this sentiment of my indulgence in never marrying again. But I do not see the necessity of it all given that striking question … why is a law needed to keep people together if it is such a natural act? If we cut marriage down to the bone why indeed do we need a law? Why a declaration before a judge or clergy, friends and family, if this act of a lifetime commitment is as natural as the sun does set and the sun does rise? It’s a conversation I wish I could have with others that would not evoke their immediate attacks because even the seemingly worse of married individuals will protect it from another. Always interesting.
Jun 1, 2013
I’m 31, never been married and trying to figure out if it’s something I want or something i’ve been conditioned by society to want..this article is interesting in that it challenges the norm and asks you to question and then decide what is best for you.. It is after all your life.
Jay Dee - SexWithinMarriage.com says:
Jul 3, 2013
Respectfully, I disagree.
This sounds like another step in the long line of our culture losing it’s work-ethic and preferring disposable objects to finding solutions and fixing things.
In the end, we will have a population that is always looking for the new thing, never satisfied, never content, and in truth, I see that culture in existence already, a culture so fixated on dopamine, that they can’t focus if there isn’t something new and shiny just on the horizon.
Perhaps instead of dealing with the symptom, we should deal with the cause. Perhaps the answer is to work towards better marriages, instead of throwing them out all together.
For myself, I’ve been married 12 years, have 4 children, and I would doubt I could be happier, but history proves me wrong daily. Sex is anything but “rote” and neither are the “rules of engagement” as we are both constantly growing and challenging each other. We have worked at it to get it to this point, as one does in any aspect of their life. And yes, I can say that working at it does produce a marriage of great benefit.
We are not in marriage because we fear what is out there, we are in it because we know what we have, and it’s amazing. Sadly this illusion of “the grass is always greener” still pervades our society.
I believe that challenge is for people to actually work on their marriages. But what is happening is people are seeing them as something that should just produce happiness without work, and then ditching them when it fails to be the “golden egg”.
Jul 14, 2013
In defense of the author, he said that “It’s the exceptional couple who can form an ongoing intimate partnership that can withstand the oppressive forces of marriage and not lose their individual identities”
It’s not like he’s saying it’s impossible to have a happy marriage long-term, just that you’re the exception if you do. And he’s right, because most married people don’t seem to be happy as they age.
Maybe you and your wife are an “exceptional couple”.
There are many couples who work extremely hard to make it work. Sometimes relationships run their course in life and it is best to move on. A couple may even decide on a soul level to part ways for the purposes of growth.
But I do agree that we don’t address the root cause of situations enough in life. We do have a “band-aid” mentality of always looking for the quick fix.
Meanwhile, I wouldn’t always associate a divorce with seeking a quick fix. Most couples do all they can to make it work.
I don’t think marriages shouldn’t be judged based on how long they last, but how productive they were. If they served their purpose, whether it was for 10 years or 50 years, that’s all that truly matters in my opinion.
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