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Tag Archives: Marriage

You Won’t Marry the Wrong Person

Interracial couple holding hands at weddingToday’s blog comes from Family Institute adjunct faculty member, Sam R. Hamburg. As the author of Will Our Love Last? and The Newlyweds Book, he shares his reaction to a recent New York Times column, “Why You Will Marry the Wrong Person.”

Several weeks ago Alain de Botton, a novelist, published an op-ed in the New York Times with the authoritative title, “Why You Will Marry the Wrong Person.” It was widely read, and its message seemed to strike a responsive, comforting chord with many who rue their own marriages: You are not to blame for your disappointing marriage because you could not have avoided it. But de Botton’s argument — a mélange of personal impressions, factually unfounded but presented as facts, and assorted well-worn items of psychobabble — is flimsy. And the conclusion he serves up is false. Some may have found his message revelatory, but it is simply a restatement of the old, stultifying, conventional ideology of marriage.

I am a scientifically-minded psychologist who has been struggling to help couples with their marriages since the time de Botton was struggling with his addition and subtraction. For me, love, marriage, and compatibility have been not a sideline but a central concern. I am impelled to set the facts straight.

de Botton’s argument runs approximately as follows: You are doomed to marry the wrong person because: (1) we are all emotionally flawed, and (2) have little insight into our own flaws or those of the people we fall in love with;(3) we are desperately lonely;(4) “the more imprudent a marriage appears … the safer it can feel”;(5) our childhood experiences cause us to confuse love with “more destructive dynamics” so that as adults we “find ourselves rejecting certain candidates for marriage not because they are wrong but because they are too right”;(6) “we don’t associate being loved with feeling happy”; and (7) the perfect mate “who shares our every taste … and who can meet all our needs and satisfy our every yearning” does not exist.

Let’s agree, in humility, that proposition 1 is true. As for propositions 2 and 3, de Botton may know they apply to him, but he has no way of knowing if they apply to the rest of us. And while there is some evidence that high neuroticism makes for poorer marriage partners, there’s not enough of it to go around to account for all the unhappy marriages: most of us are reasonably mentally healthy and well-functioning. Propositions 4, 5, and 6 are pop-psych clichés with origins in theories that go back almost a hundred years. In all that time, no credible empirical evidence has been put forward to support them. He may believe these things but there is no reason for us to. Proposition 7 is a straw-man argument that deliberately confuses being similar with being identical. A partner need not be our clone to be suitable for us. For example, my wife is not much interested in music, but music is of the greatest importance to me. That seemingly large difference has not stopped us from being happy with each other over many years.

So much for de Botton’s argument. His concluding assertion is this: “Compatibility is an achievement of love; it must not be its precondition.” This is the exact opposite of the truth. It is contradicted by a substantial body of social science research demonstrating that compatibility is an abiding, stable, and measurable attribute that couples possess, in greater or lesser degree, before marriage; and that premarital compatibility predicts marital longevity and happiness. For example, PREPARE is a short, simple, paper-and-pencil test of compatibility, developed by David H. Olson and colleagues at the University of Minnesota. Premarital couples who score high on PREPARE have longer, happier marriages than couples who score low on it.

So, contrary to de Botton, compatibility exists prior to, and is a prerequisite for, happy marriage. Most of us have some sense of the central importance of compatibility — the internet dating sites tout their ability to spot it for us. But why, exactly, is it crucial to lasting love?

You will notice that de Botton, like other writers who seek to mystify love, makes no attempt to account for what it is and how it comes about. Here is my own, compatibility-based, account: All adult love (that is, love having a sexual component) is the emotional result of an overt, observable process — mutual approval (or to use a fancier term, affirmation). In the early, romantic phase what is being affirmed first and foremost is each other’s physical-sexual self. That physical-sexual affirmation is so important to us and so powerful that it makes affirming many other aspects of each other virtually automatic. We want to believe that we are well suited, overall, to someone we are so powerfully attracted to. I think of romantic love as a mutual affirmation steamroller, powered by the superabundant sexual energy of a new relationship. Once that energy runs down a bit, as it always does sooner or later, every couple, whether they know it or not is faced with the question, ‘what, really, do we have to affirm about each other?’ And this is where compatibility (which I will define simply as similarity) comes in. You can affirm an aspect of somebody else only if you can empathically understand it — and you can understand it only if you two are similar in that aspect. An example unrelated to love will make this clear: You’re discussing some important issue, say gun control, with someone whose opinion is opposed to yours. You understand what the other person is saying — you don’t have a communication problem — what you don’t understand is how that other person could possibly think and feel the way they do. And, of course, you can’t affirm them in that aspect. Indeed, you may disapprove of them or dislike them on account of it.

People who were wise or just lucky (as I happened to be) in their mate choice married somebody similar to themselves in many aspects. Such couples can continue to give each other plenty of affirmation beyond the romantic phase, and their love lasts. Couples who are incompatible — different from each other in many aspects — bump up against that failure of understanding everywhere they turn. They can’t communicate their way around it. Once the romantic phase ends, they run out of fuel for mutual affirmation, their love drains away, and they wonder why.

A high level of mutual understanding is the defining feature of lasting love but also of best friendship. If lasting love is essentially best friendship plus sex, we can immediately see why it is hard, though not impossible, to marry the right person: None of us can be best friends with just anybody. Because of our multifaceted, individual uniqueness it is hard for any of us to find many people with whom we coincide enough for a high level of mutual understanding. On the other hand, people we can be sexually attracted to are relatively plentiful. It is easy to believe that, having found somebody of good character who is physically attractive and who meets our demographic requirements for a mate (right age, educational level, occupational attainment, etc.), we have hit the jackpot.

The strong social pressure to get married makes it even easier to believe this. Marriages are no longer arranged but marriage remains a central social institution, performing many of the social functions it did back when marriages were arranged: organizing kinship and property relations, defining responsibility for and rights to children, controlling sexuality. Love is private, but marriage is public. Society at large, and our families in particular, have an intense interest in our getting married. We experience the social, public nature of marriage as the pressure to get married. Everybody else seems to be doing it — we should, too. The erroneous idea that marriage is hard work is part of that pressure, encouraging people to override their doubts and hesitations about marrying a partner who doesn’t feel quite right. (Hard work contributes as little to happy marriage as it does to best friendship.)

In short, the relatively easy availability of sexually attractive but not necessarily compatible partners, and the social pressure to get married conspire to lead people to marry the wrong person. It happens frequently, as we all know, but that does not mean we are fated to it.

de Botton’s “good news” is oddly in keeping with the retrograde advice of conservative, religiously oriented boosters of marriage (people with whom, I suspect, he would not want to be associated): adopt a “philosophy of pessimism,” understand that we cannot avoid suffering, cultivate a sense of humor and toleration — in brief, suck it up and be a better person.

My good news is different: There is plenty of accurate information out there on the true nature of compatibility. People can avail themselves of it and equip themselves to make a clear-eyed assessment of their compatibility with a romantic partner. They can arrive at a realistic set of expectations about what they can and cannot expect from that partner. And with patience and persistence they can find someone who is both their passionate lover and their best friend.

 

Sam R. Hamburg is the author of Will Our Love Last? and The Newlyweds Book. He is on the adjunct faculty of the Master of Science in Marriage and Family Therapy program at The Family Institute at Northwestern University.

 

Embracing Pluralism: The Future of Relationships

Flying hearts from cupped hands of young woman, Valentine's Day, Happy Valentines day, love concept, isolated on white backgroundWith marriage rates on the decline in the U.S. and abroad, what does the future of romantic relationship look like? Rather than predicting the death of marriage, Jacob Goldsmith, PhD, at a recent TEDxRushU event, explains the rise of pluralism, the idea that there is more than one right way of doing relationships. Considering the history of relationships as well as present trends, pluralism is a way to reduce stigma and increasing personal responsibility in defining the kind of relationship that works best for each person.

Learn more by watching “Embracing Pluralism: The Future of Relationships.”

Dr. Jacob Goldsmith is a staff therapist and the associate clinical director of the Epstein Center for the Study of Psychotherapy Change at The Family Institute. He provides individual, couple, and family therapy to adults and adolescents. He has particular passion for working with young adults with a broad range of issues including transition to adulthood, identity development, sexual identity, relationships, and recovery from trauma. He also works with families with adolescent and adult children, specializing in issues of transition to college, transition to adulthood, and substance abuse. In addition, he has an interest in therapy with couples, including working with young couples to develop the foundations of a strong relationship.

The Family Institute offers affordable, effective mental health counseling for families, couples and individuals in Evanston, Chicago, Northbrook and Westchester. Learn more about our services on our website.

Marriage and the Heart

Red puzzle heart with stethoscope on grey wooden backgroundThis Family Institute Couples Tip discusses the correlation between heart health and marital strain.

From this month’s tip:

“Marriage has earned a reputation for offering health advantages: longer and happier lives, fewer medical challenges. But ‘it’s not the case that any marriage is better than none.’ Some studies have found better health among divorced or single people as compared to spouses in high conflict/high stress marriages. In fact, unhappy marriages have been associated with high blood pressure, suppressed immune response, obesity, and the leading killer of Americans: heart disease.”

Read the entire Tip of the Month and learn more about how cardiac disease and marital strain go hand-in-hand.

For additional Tips and to sign up for our Tip of the month, visit our Tips webpage.

The Family Institute offers affordable counseling for families, couples and individuals. Learn more about our services on our website.

To get support at The Family Institute, visit our Find a Therapist page.

Thank You

heart_breakfast_foodsThis Family Institute Couple Tip of the Month discusses how small gestures can deliver big results.

From this tip:

“Some researchers have speculated about ‘a cycle of generosity’ that enables relationships to thrive: spouses who report feeling more appreciated by their partners — hearing thank you on a regular basis — report being more appreciative of those partners, and in turn more inclined to be sensitive and responsive to those partners’ needs.

Read the entire Tip and learn how small gestures can deliver big results.

For additional Tips and to sign up for our Tip of the month, visit our Tips webpage.

The Family Institute offers affordable counseling for families, couples and individuals. Learn more about our services on our website.

To get support at The Family Institute, visit our Find a Therapist page.

Stop the Fighting! 3 Red Flags to Save Your Marriage: Part III

Couple Having ArgumentIn the final installment of “Stop the Fighting,” Staff Clinician Alexandra H. Solomon, PhD, discusses a third “red flag” fight that couples have — feeling as if they have dramatically different points of view.

Red Flag #3: “We don’t live in the same reality.”

When a couple recounts a fight in a therapy session, the therapist sometimes wonders whether the partners were even in the same room when the fight happened because their stories are so different. This can be a reflection of a deeper problem which is a lack of willingness or ability to work collaboratively to create a story of the relationship that honors multiple realities and differences in perspective. If this continues, it can feel demoralizing and lonely. When there is untreated addiction, untreated mental health problems like anxiety or depression, or relational abuse of any kind (emotional, physical, and/or sexual), spouses are particularly at risk of feeling like they live in two different realities.

TIPS:

  • Commit to living and loving with humility. Your reality is ALWAYS shaped by your perspective and is ALWAYS limited.
  • Lean in to your spouse’s view of the problem and actively look for pieces of his/her story that you can buy into and empathize with. In other words, work with your spouse to create a shared couple story of the problem.
  • Try to look at the fight from the perspective of a neutral third party. This is why couples therapy can be so helpful. The couples therapist has the advantage of being able to look at the dance between partners rather than being stuck in one partner’s story or the other and he or she can help the spouses begin to hold this “third story” view as well.

Each of these “red flag” fights — “You don’t have my back”; “I don’t believe in us”; and “We don’t live in the same reality” — can be worked out. If you see these red flags in your relationship, be sure to talk to your partner and work on the tips. Do not be afraid to reach out to a couples therapist to work through a bump in your relationship road.

 

Dr. Alexandra H. Solomon is a licensed clinical psychologist at The Family Institute at Northwestern University and an assistant clinical professor in the Department of Psychology at Northwestern University. Read more about Dr. Solomon on our website.

The Family Institute offers affordable, effective mental health counseling for families, couples and individuals in Evanston, Chicago, Northbrook and Westchester. We have a team of clinicians dedicated to helping couples strengthen their relationship. To learn more about our therapy and mental health services, please visit our website.

Stop the Fighting! 3 Red Flags to Save Your Marriage: Part II

couples_feet_facing_opposite_way_in_bedIn our last blog, Staff Clinician Alexandra Solomon, PhD, discussed the first “red flag” fight that many couples have — not being there as a support for their spouse. Today she explains the second — when one partner separates themselves from the relationship.

Red Flag #2: “I don’t believe in us.”

The first step to a whole host of marital problems is disengagement. When spouses become emotionally and physically disengaged, they can start to question their love for each other, wondering, “What are we all about?” In a happy marriage, couples create and work toward individual and relational goals, dreams, aspirations and hopes. Here are some tips for preventing disengagement or for finding your way back to a place of closeness and collaboration.

TIPS:

  • Create a couple manifesto or mission statement. Update it regularly.
  • Create short, medium and long-term goals for each individual and for the marriage.
  • Create couple rituals (daily affirmations, weekly movie night, monthly dance class, annual vacation)

It’s important to notice that you and your partner are arguing about disengagement, and talk to each other about it. Remember that help is available. Couples therapy can bring you back together, and help to work through the things that may be separating you.

The next installment of “Stop the Fighting” will cover another “red flag” fight couples have — not living in the same reality.

 

Dr. Alexandra H. Solomon is a licensed clinical psychologist at The Family Institute at Northwestern University and an assistant clinical professor in the Department of Psychology at Northwestern University. Read more about Dr. Solomon on our website.

 

The Family Institute offers affordable, effective mental health counseling for families, couples and individuals in Evanston, Chicago, Northbrook and Westchester. We have a team of clinicians dedicated to helping couples strengthen their relationship. To learn more about our therapy and mental health services, please visit our website

Stop the Fighting! 3 Red Flags to Save Your Marriage: Part I

Couple holding handsAll couples fight. You probably know that, but did you know that there are three “red flag” topics that tend to frequently be the focus of those fights?

With the start of the New Year, it’s a great time to look at your relationship and make it a priority.

In today’s blog, part one of three, Staff Clinician Alexandra H. Solomon, PhD, discusses what can happen when a spouse doesn’t seem to have their partner’s back.

Red Flag #1: “You don’t have my back.”

Trust is a key ingredient in a healthy marriage. It allows you to believe that your spouse has your best interests at heart. Trust acts as an emotional and energetic shortcut. It is the difference between:

  • “I take you at your word.”

AND

  • “I listen to your words, seek data that confirms or denies that, run it through my own internal sensors etc. …,” which is exhausting.

Untrustworthy behavior (including around money and sexual fidelity) creates a sense of “you don’t have my back.” It is very difficult to stay in a marriage when there has been a breakdown in trust. But trust can be rebuilt, usually with the help of couples therapy.

TIPS:

  • Maintain trust by valuing direct communication (say what you mean and mean what you say), practicing emotion regulation (“It’s hard to be honest with you because you freak out when I am”), and asking the question “What does the marriage need?” (Which may be different from “What do I need?” or “What do you need?”).
  • Two ingredients are key for rebuilding trust:
    • Time. Trust builds slowly with time and with repeated opportunities to behave in a trustworthy fashion.
    • Accountability. The one who has behaved in an untrustworthy fashion must be willing to apologize and make different choices going forward.

If you find that trust is lacking in your relationship, talk to your partner. A couples therapist can help guide you on a path back to trust and work with you to get through the hurdles blocking that trust.

The next installment of “Stop the Fighting” will discuss disengagement, where one spouse separates him/herself from the relationship either emotionally or physically.

 

Dr. Alexandra H. Solomon is a licensed clinical psychologist at The Family Institute at Northwestern University and an assistant clinical professor in the Department of Psychology at Northwestern University. Read more about Dr. Solomon on our website.

The Family Institute offers affordable, effective mental health counseling for families, couples and individuals in Evanston, Chicago, Northbrook and Westchester. We have a team of clinicians dedicated to helping couples strengthen their relationship. To learn more about our therapy and mental health services, please visit our website.

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