Six myths of marriage

Happiness in marriage can be either enduring or elusive. Some are married for 40 years or more, but their love and romance are as fresh and buoyant as though they were married a month ago. Others have hardly opened all their wedding gifts when they feel a sourness set in in their relationship, and they think of a divorce court rather than a permanent home. What makes the difference between enduring happiness and short-lived romance in marriage?

Modern research gives us some clues. John Gottman, professor of psychology at the University of Washington, has done some pioneering research in the current North American context. Gottman has studied thousands of couples, taking into consideration numerous variables that affect marital stability. His research has helped clarify factors that lead to marital happiness, and those that point to an uphill battle leading to possible divorce.

The research also suggests some of the great myths that surround love and marriage. These myths do not originate from ancient tribal legends and rituals, but from common assumptions that most people take for granted. It is worth exploring some of these myths and look at the implications for building a good marital relationship.

Myth 1: High expectations may ruin marriage. Marriage is often thought of as a good business proposition—to raise children, manage property, and build alliances between families. In addition, we expect marriages to be endlessly romantic, passionately sexual, intimately friendly, while still covering all the traditional bases of parenting, family connections, and business management in life.

Such high expectations are sometimes thought of as being unrealistic and harmful to a happy marriage. But recent research indicates that while it is necessary to be realistic in our expectations, high expectations can lead to more investment in marriage and to a better outcome. People with low expectations apparently don’t invest as much in a good marriage and are willing to settle for an average marriage instead of a really good one. Gottman says: “People who have higher standards and higher expectations for their marriage have the best marriages, not the worst.”1

Myth 2: Men are from Mars and women are from Venus. This saying, derived from a well-known book by that title, suggests that men and women have deep differences and want fundamentally different things from marriage. A spate of popular books attempts to help couples deal with their differences from the premise that a vast gap exists between what men and women want.

Are men and women different in ways that affect marriage? While the answer, as we shall note, is “yes,” the popular books often overlook the important common ground between what men and women want in marriage and their shared longings and needs. And, even more important, they overlook the fact that highly pronounced gender differences have been linked in research with unhappy marriages while “there are very few sex differences in happy marriages.”2 And “male traditionalism” (reflected in a domineering and controlling approach to marriage) is statistically correlated with lower levels of relationship quality in marriage.3

Yes, there some common differences that emerge from the research. Men for example, are more likely to withdraw in the face of marital conflict and women to get more actively verbal. This probably happens because men tend to “flood” more easily with negative emotions, and it takes them longer to physiologically recover after an argument. Men may also be more likely to try to “fix” problems, while women frequently prefer a man to listen. Men tend to be more visual in their sexual attraction patterns and less likely to be influenced by the relational context. Women are often more adept at attuning to the emotional states of other people, and men tend to be more competitive in conversation.

But, the fact is, research also shows that men and women want remarkably similar things in marriage, and both men and women report that deep friendship is the most satisfying thing in a good marriage. Lists of other factors that actually predict good marriages show that there are only slight differences in how the sexes rank what really satisfies them in an intimate relationship.4 One of the best-kept secrets in the relational world is that men, on average, suffer more negative emotional and physical health-related complications when they are without an intimate relationship than do women.

Couples who form solid relationships are attuned to the specific personalities of their partners and look at solid friendship as the foundation for a good relationship. They respect gender differences when they exist and look for ways to meet each other’s needs. While the Bible uses somewhat different language to describe the role of man and woman in marriage, the common element is a mutually unselfish attitude in which both are open and responsive to the needs of the other (see Ephesians 5:21-33). This is not a description of wildly divergent gender roles or male domination of the female, but of a loving and mutual partnership where both partners are willing to go the extra mile for the good of the other.

Myth 3. Active listening and the avoidance of anger are the keys to managing conflict in a good relationship. Over the past several decades a variety of books and articles have appeared suggesting that couples engage in a process known as “active listening” in the midst of marital conflict. Active listening involves clearly identifying one’s own feelings using a feeling word and attempting to restate the concerns stated by the partner in the form of a paraphrase. It’s quite similar to what therapists do when listening to clients. Researchers who carefully studied marital fights expected to find that successful couples regularly used this skill to resolve disagreements and settle conflicts in marriage.

But that’s not what researches discovered. First, they noted that almost nobody actually talks like that in the heat of a disagreement. People simply don’t use those prescribed “I statements” when tensions run high. Even in the rare instances when they do, there was no direct influence on the resolution of the conflict. In Gottman’s words, “it predicted nothing.”5 It may be that partners who bought into that model ended up expecting a kind of perfection in the heat of conflict that simply wasn’t realistic.

The research, however, did indicate that active, attentive listening was valuable in several ways. For example, it can help when one partner listens in this way while the other partner is complaining about somebody else (such as the boss at work). It is also very valuable in a “recovery conversation” as couples work to repair a relationship after a fight. And it can definitely help couples strengthen intimacy and get to know each other better when they aren’t in the middle of a conflict. But, marital research shows that, in the heat of battle, few people are able to follow the “rules” of good communication. Most people find it difficult to hear really what their partner is saying, and even the best communicators get caught up in defending their own positions during an argument. Some patience is in order during marital conflict!

The research on anger in marriage is also interesting. Anger by itself was not found to correlate statistically with divorce, but contempt and defensiveness did so reliably.6 Couples that bicker a lot aren’t necessarily less happy than couples who don’t. Many couples that tend to bicker also know how to kiss and make up, and a certain amount of conflict and bickering was actually found to correlate with lasting passion in marriage.7

It isn’t anger itself that undermines marriage. But the failure to resolve anger can. Research indicates that “ventilating” anger is a problem. Several different researchers have discovered that trying to “get it all out” by unloading it on the spouse actually increases the level of anger and stress for the person expressing it. And the overall ratio between positive and negative statements to the spouse can definitely help predict the likelihood of divorce. Happy couples were found to give at least five positive comments for every one that was negative. A conflictual, bickering style is also a problem when only one spouse is comfortable with that style—when one partner likes to bicker and the other is emotionally devastated and finds that the stress lingers for hours or even days.

The Bible affirms that anger is not a sin (Ephesians 4:26, NIV), but it also says that we should not “let the sun go down while you are still angry.” Active listening can be part of the relationship repair after a conflict, but we may need to forgive both ourselves and our partners for imperfections in the way we handle disagrements.

Myth 4: Marriages inevitably go downhill over time. Most people believe that passion inevitably dies and marriages become mundane as time goes on. While many couples do report a decline in marital satisfaction over time, there are several interesting findings in recent research that shows that this is not inevitable. In fact, marriage is like many other things—it really is possible for it to get better with practice. Marital therapist David Schnarch says that it is only later in life with a monogamous partner that people can begin to discover their passionate and sexual potential.8 Similarly, Gottman’s research showed that many couples discover more tolerance, more appreciation, and much greater desire to be with each other over time. The greatest happiness in marriage doesn’t seem to be found in the early euphoria, but in the long-term satisfaction found in a marriage of many years.

Passion was not an age-dependent thing. We now know much about both the biochemistry and neurology of love and passion. The “chemistry” of a relationship does change over time. There is an initial euphoria in new love that generally lasts for about two years, and the specific type of chemistry that characterizes a long-term relationship isn’t the same as the intoxicating chemical brew of new love. But many people give up on a relationship after the initial chemistry begins to shift. They get into a series of relationships that don’t seem to last more than two years, not realizing that the emotional satisfaction of a long-term love may be more fulfilling than the rush of new love.

Myth 5: A person who seldom feels spontaneous sexual passion is probably sexually dead and a poor marriage partner. When images of superheated sex constantly bombard us in the media, most married people feel that they should be continually ablaze with passion for their spouse. If they get caught up with bills and laundry, seldom think about sex, and aren’t just drooling at the thought of leaping into bed whenever the opportunity arises, they may feel guilty.

Until quite recently, sex experts assumed that everybody experiences sexual desire in a similar way. Something you experience triggers a subjective feeling of arousal. The arousal generates the desire to be sexual. But, as Michelle Weiner Davis notes, “for some people, sexual desire—the urge to become sexual—doesn’t precede feelings of arousal, it actually follows it.”9 In other words, there are people who seldom experience passionate fantasies. But if they become sexual with their spouse, they may discover that they enjoy the experience deeply and feel much more bonded to their partner.

People who have felt a nagging sense of failure, guilt, and alienation from their spouses may discover that putting this myth to rest helps them feel a lot better about themselves and more responsive to their partner. It’s also a reminder that the context of a stable, committed marriage in which people don’t neglect each other’s intimacy needs can actually be the setting to generate marital passion. The choice to invest in marital intimacy is good for both husbands and wives.

Myth 6: Opposites attract. The elaboration on this is a belief that we are attracted to somebody a lot different from us because we feel more complete in the face of his or her difference. Once again, there is some truth to this, but it isn’t entirely so. People do seem to find some differences are a positive thing and a point of attraction. But research shows that the best matches include more similarity than difference and that being similar in a variety of ways (such as age, education, religious preference, basic life values, etc.) is linked with greater levels of marital satisfaction.10 Research on temperament types (such as the Meyer’s Briggs inventory) shows that couples may enjoy some differences, but that couples who are opposite on all the four scales are less happy than couples who are more similar.11

The best way to approach the issue of difference is to realize that most of us enjoy a few key differences in ways that give balance to our lives. It’s good to embrace those differences and not go into a massive “reform project” mode once we have tied the knot. But, if you are searching for a partner, don’t just assume that lots of differences are going to be easy to overcome. Differences you may overlook early in the relationship may become more challenging over time. It is far better to look for somebody who really does share your basic values and lifestyle.

Some conclusions

Marriage is a great adventure. It is also one of life’s most challenging arenas. In a world swirling with false images of love and romance, the more we know, the more effective we can be in both the search for a partner and in building a great marriage once we’ve found that special person.

What principles stand out? First, make sure you are building strong friendship with somebody you are thinking of marrying or the person you actually married. Work on building strong communication but don’t expect perfection, especially in the heat of an argument. Don’t get deceived by an initial rush of euphoric chemistry or panic when it wears off. The ingredients of lasting passion and commitment are quite different from what you see in the movies and on TV.

Build on the points you have in common—especially in the area of basic life values and the way you actually live your lives. If you aren’t yet married, just remember that those commonalities may be more important than you realize.

Calvin Thomsen is pastor for family ministries at the Loma Linda University Seventh-day Adventist Church in California. He is completing a Ph.D. in marital and family therapy and teaches courses on family therapy, marital therapy, and sex therapy at Loma Linda University and pastoral counseling at La Sierra University. Email: cthomsen@lluc.org.

REFERENCES

  1. John Gottman, The Marriage Clinic: A Scientifically Based Marital Therapy (New York, Norton, 1999), p. 18.
  2. Ibid., p. 83.
  3. Robert Sternberg, Cupid’s Arrow: The Course of Love Through Time (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), p. 123.
  4. Ibid., 150-152.
  5. Gottman, p. 11.
  6. Ibid., p. 12.
  7. Ibid., p. 14.
  8. See David Schnarch, Passionate Marriage (New York: Holt, 1997).
  9. Michelle Weiner Davis, The Sex-Starved Marriage (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2003), p. 12.
  10. Ayala Pines, Falling in Love: Why We Choose the Lovers We Choose (New York: Routlidge, 1999), p. 53.
  11. David Keirsey, Please Understand Me II (Del Mar, California: Prometheus Nemesis Book Company, 1998), p. 212.