One hundred years ago, even though the divorce rate was very low, there were a lot of unmarried adults. At that time, it is estimated that 65% of adult women were unmarried due to never marrying and early death of the spouse. In contrast, today, only 20% of adult women are unmarried. Marriage is still popular but the number of unmarried adults doubled between 1970 and 1993. Women are better off financially and there is less pressure to marry and stay married; we are freer to choose to be married or single.
You hear a lot of criticism and jokes about the "trap" of marriage. Yet, many are attracted to the "bait" at least; 96% of us live with a partner sometime in our lives. Most of us are eager to do so--and for good reasons. Loving someone brings so many joys and thrills and so much comfort... it can be fantastic. An unhappy marriage, however, can be terrible. Marriage is very different for different people. We don't know a lot, yet, about making marriage be what we want it to be. Facts are confused with myths.
No human relation gives one possession in another...every two souls are absolutely different. In friendship and in love, the two side by side raise hands together to find what one cannot reach alone.
Myths about marriage
Earlier we mentioned some common beliefs about love. There are similar beliefs about marriage, some true and some false. Learning how to cope involves unlearning popular misconceptions as well as learning the truth. We certainly have many misconceptions about marriage to unlearn (Lazarus, 1985; Glick & Kessler, 1974; Lederer & Jackson, 1968). We, unfortunately, make important decisions on the basis of these misleading beliefs. Examples: People marry because they are passionately "in love." Married people "love" (again, meaning wild ecstatic passion) each other. Maintaining romantic love is the key to marital happiness. Marriages should be totally happy and most of life's satisfactions should come from the partner. Men and women are very different emotionally. Opposites always attract. Marriage will cure loneliness. Family "togetherness" is crucial. Partners must be totally honest and tell all. Marriage requires total trust. Good marriage partners agree on every issue and never fight. Incompatible couples can't have a successful marriage. Volatile marriages never last, quiet unions last.
More myths: good sex means a good marriage. An affair means there are problems in the marriage. An affair will destroy a marriage. A good partner never thinks of him/herself. The husband's work is more important than the wife's career. Husbands are happier when their wives are homemakers. Competition between spouses adds zest. In an argument someone has to be wrong and it is important to know who. Most marriages can't survive a period of hate. In a good marriage, sex will take care of itself. Married people understand each other without talking. Good marriages simply happen ("are made in heaven") and don't require attention or work. A lover can be made over to your liking after the marriage. In a secure, devoted marriage, things do not change. Everyone knows what makes for a good wife and a good husband. Having children will improve and stabilize a marriage. Today's "normal" family is happy and doesn't have any real problems. Even a poor marriage should be held together for the children's sake. After the "high" of the first few months, marriage is all work and disagreements. Once gone, love can't be rekindled. You must feel positive towards your spouse before you can change your behavior towards him/her. If a marriage is not working out, an affair will help. Getting a divorce and finding another partner will solve most of the problems.
All of these "beliefs" are wrong to some extent; yet, there may be some truth in them. We misunderstand so much about love and marriage, it's not surprising that we aren't very good at loving, yet. But even though our ignorance leads to upsetting disagreements with our partner, the love is so thrilling and the companionship so satisfying that romantic relationships are a vital part of our lives. We should learn all we can about loving and insist that research tell us more of what we need to know to have a good love life.
It is not the lack of love, but a lack of friendship that makes unhappy marriages.
Some facts about marriage
The percent of married people who say they are "very happy" has gone down during the last 20 years, especially among women. Maybe we are expecting more of marriage. In fact, when asked what their chance of divorce is, over 75% of couples refused to admit there was even a remote possibility. Happily married couples have rosy illusions about their marriage and they idealize their spouse. The more illusions, the happier the couple (Azar, 1995). Many of these once happy marriages fall apart. We certainly need earlier and more realistic efforts to prevent divorce.
While most people marry sometime in their lives, they are waiting longer to do it. In the early part of this century, many people left school after the 8th grade and got married by the time they were 14 to 16 years old. Another hundred years before that, about the time this country was founded, the age of consent was 9 or 10 in some places. However, by 1993, the median age of the first marriage was 24.5 for women and 26.5 for men. Between 1970 and 1985, there was a remarkable increase in the number of young people who remained single until 25 or 30. In 1985, 57% of women ages 20-24 were single, 26% of 25-29-year-olds were single. For men, the percentages were 75% and 38%. The overall percentage of single people is increasing; for every 1000 married people, there are about 100 single males and 150 single females. Remember that about 25% of all children live with a single parent, partly because the threat of divorce is highest in the first 10 years of marriage.
Sociologists Blumstein and Schwartz (1983) studied 6000 American couples. About 60% of the wives had jobs but only 30% of husbands thought both spouses should work. In fact, only 39% of wives thought so; 49% of the wives (in the early 1980's) thought their husbands should take care of them economically. Few young women today expect to be taken care of. Husbands sometimes hate housework but women do not ordinarily consider it demeaning; therefore, working wives still do much more than their share of the housework (see discussion of gender roles in chapter 9). Some couples have signed "prenuptial agreements" but Blumstein and Schwartz think this suggests a lack of trust which is harmful to the marriage.
Sex is, of course, important throughout marriage; the majority have sex at least once a week, even after 10 years (see later section). Within making love, women enjoyed intercourse the most, but men enjoyed a variety of sexual activity. Women link love with sex more than men do. For this reason, reportedly, being unfaithful doesn't mean as much to men (if they do it) as to women (if they do it). Men have been unfaithful more often than women (it's becoming fairly equal) but it did not mean they were unhappy with their wives. When women have an affair, however, usually it isn't a one night stand; they are more likely to get emotionally involved. See the later discussion of infidelity and sexual problems.
What is most important in preserving a marriage? Skills: knowing how to manage conflict. Having the communication skills so you can respectfully negotiate, resolve disagreements fairly, and avoid the bitterness that drives spouses apart. Later we will discuss ways of avoiding the withdrawal, escalating anger, and vile insults that destroy love relationships.
Stages within a marriage
Naturally, during 50-60 years of marriage, we go through several stages. Sarnoff and Sarnoff (1989) believe humans are born with powerful needs to love and propagate, and, at the same time, they instinctively fear losing their freedom and personal identity if they totally merge with another person (connect like a new born with its mother). These threats of overwhelming love cause fears which result in withdrawal, arguments, and undermining of the love. They describe six stages of marriage, common fears and resistance at each stage, and ways of handling the barriers to love:
Stages Fears Facilitating Love Consummation--talking, touching, "making love" Intimacy threatens freedom & arouses fear of rejection Promise to put each other first Having children--deciding, awe and work of children Envy of her reproduction and of his freedom Continue careers, share birth experience Raising children--loving, providing, guiding Fear of losing male & female roles=become traditional Avoid sexist beh. don't fight over children Focusing on self--avoid closeness (middle-aged) Fear of being absorbed by other=go own way alone Discuss their fears, stay close & warm Children gone--increased time for relationship Regret losing children, fear of aging=depression Find new activities, remain best friends Facing death--physical prob.--time running out Fear losses and separation, hate "making arrangements" Vow to love deeply during rest of life
Sarnoff and Sarnoff believe we need to be constantly aware of the fear of love in order to counter its destructive effects on love. They do not see marital problems resulting from childhood experiences, bad parenting, abuse, or early conditioning. They suggest we are able to control our love lives if we work hard at understanding and countering our fears (and resentment) of intimacy. They recommend many ways of countering these fears at each stage.
Types of marriages
There are many classifications of marriages; I'll summarize a few. David Olson (1981) observed 1000 young couples married only one or two years as they discussed short stories about typical marital conflicts. He found nine types of marriages, five were husband dominated and three wife dominated and one equal:
- Husband-led disengaged --the most common type. Even this early in the marriage, their love was not very strong; yet, they rarely fight. The male is the boss. Remember, this is 1980; we are changing.
- Husband-led cooperative --the second most common. Emotional involvement is only average. They argue moderately often but they cooperate (with the husband's preferences given priority). Wife works, no children. They don't socialize much but get along with in-laws.
- Shared-leadership cooperative --third most common and probably increasingly common. Average amount of love and conflict, but the decision-making is truly shared. Both work and like their jobs.
- Wife-lead disengaged --fourth most common. Little conflict but little love too. Wife's views and preferences tend to dominate. Husband is financially insecure. This couple socializes to a moderate degree; husband gets along well with his mother and his mother-in-law.
- Husband-lead engaged --few marital problems and lots of emotional involvement. They are sociable and satisfied with their income.
- Wife-lead congenial --they get along well, financial situation is OK, average emotional involvement with each other and low-key about everything. Husband shares some of wife's leadership.
- Wife-lead confrontive --the wife tends to be a homemaker, a mother and quite sociable; she leads. There is considerable marital conflict, emotional involvement is only average. Both get along well with in-laws.
- Husband-lead confrontive --lots of conflict (second only to 9), husband is dominate, doesn't like his wife working, and has conflicts with his mother-in-law. Wife doesn't like his job or hers, if she works. Relatively uncommon type.
- Husband-lead conflicted --lots of marital conflicts but emotionally involved with each other. Wife dissatisfied with family income; if she works, she doesn't like it. Both are very sociable and have trouble with in-laws. Least common type.
Very recently, in another study, Olson interviewed over 5000 engaged couples. He found that almost 25% had such serious relationship problems and such poor relationship skills that he wondered "why would they want to marry each other?" So, some "marriage problems" start well before the marriage and are easily detectable.
If you observe upper middle-class marriages of 10 years or longer, as did Cuber and Harroff several years ago (1965), you will probably still find five kinds of marriages: (1) Conflict-habituated which is a constant battle over almost everything. (2) Devitalized in which the partners have lost their love and "drifted apart," i.e. they take care of the children but they don't fight a lot. (3) Passive-congenial where the partners have been apathetic all along, e.g. marriage was a convenience--or economic necessity--or they are more interested in careers or friends than spouses. (4) Vital marriage in which being together and sharing are the major joys in life. (5) Total marriage is like the vital marriage, except almost everything is done happily together. Obviously, marriage ranges from wonderful happiness every day--only 15-20% are vital or total marriages--to miserable on-going fights (or divorce). This should offer some hope of happiness to those who are unhappy...but a warning to young people in an already rocky relationship.
Shostrom and Kavanaugh (1971) described six relationships between men and women based mostly on experience with couples in therapy. (1) A "Mother and Son" nurturing relationship is made up of a male who marries to be taken care of and a woman who not only mothers her children but her husband as well. She may feel inadequate but she runs the household. (2) A "Daddy and Doll" supporting relationship is one in which a serious, able, materialistic male acquires an attractive mate and enjoys her as a show thing. She may flirt and get a lot of attention from other men but, in general, she isn't interested in them. (3) A "Bitch and Nice Guy" challenging relationship is an ongoing conflict with one partner complaining and the other refusing to get involved (and, thus, appearing to be a nice guy while he subtly puts down his nagging wife). (4) A "Master and Slave" controlling relationship is the traditional dominating male and a female dedicated to serving the male. (5) A confronting relationship between two competitive "Hawks" is going to be stressful. Both are trying to prove their supremacy. Both are afraid of not being loved or of being hurt. The anger hides the pain. (6) An overly-accommodating relationship is between two "Doves" who pretend to be lovey-dovey instead of expressing the hurt and anger they really feel.
The six relationships above are based on ratings on just two dimensions: love vs. anger and strong vs. weak. In most marriages each person changes from day to day, sometimes being very loving but irritated at other times, sometimes being the leader but the follower at other times. However, some couples become frozen into one role. When we get stuck on one emotion (and deny the other feelings), our role often becomes a destructive, manipulative game. Many of us marry to meet pressing needs--often childhood needs--but marriage can't meet all our needs. When problems occur in our marriage, we blame the partner. Better adjusted couples remain able to express all their feelings--the full range of love, anger, strength, and weakness--with a balance among these emotions. This is Shostrom and Kavanaugh's key to helping failing marriages. They teach couples to experience all their emotions, to develop all parts of their personality, to avoid destructive games, and to meet their own needs rather than depending on or blaming the partner.
Givers and Takers
Evatt and Feld (1983) suggest that most marriages are made up of one "giver" and one "taker." Givers feel loved when they are giving and have trouble taking. Takers feel loved when they are receiving; they love being adored. Unfortunately, givers eventually become resentful of doing so much for the taker and getting so little in return. The taker becomes bored (and a little guilty) with the ever faithful servant. Which do you think you are--a giver or a taker? Answering these kind of questions will give you a hint:
Giver Taker 1. I am more jealous than my lover. Yes No 2. I am quieter than my lover. No Yes 3. My partners have done mean things to me. Yes No 4. My partner is the clingy type. No Yes 5. My partner likes to give me gifts. No Yes 6. I am more easygoing and cheerful than my partner. Yes No 7. I run hot and cold; my partner is steady. No Yes 8. I'm trusting; I'm more trustworthy than my partner. Yes No 9. I am adored in most of my relationships. No Yes Total = ___ ___
The highest total should indicate if you are a giver or a taker. Even though there is no research to support this simple classification system, it rings true to many people (especially to givers who have been taken?). Givers need someone to give to, preferably someone attractive they can adore. Takers are happy to take. What if you answer about half the questions as a giver and half as a taker? That's a good place to be. Evatt and Feld recommend only one basic solution--givers should learn to take and takers should learn to give more.