Brief Marital Encounters

An interesting study on the benefits of marriage was carried out on more than one thousand marriages over a twenty year period.  The research was done by Professor Andrew Clark of the Paris School of Economics and he was looking at a life satisfaction score that he got the individual partners to rate at different times over the twenty years.  The results have enabled him to examine whether or not the seven year itch is a reality or whether dissatisfaction occurs earlier or later than that.

Professor Clark reported that ‘the size of the effects seemed more dramatic for women in that their happiness levels climbed more steadily and to a higher level than men, but then declined more sharply and to a lower level than those of men’.

One of the disturbing aspects of the study is that marriage dissatisfaction emerged within only two to four years.  Those of us in the psychotherapy profession will not be surprised by the study’s findings and the speed with which couple conflict can surface in a marriage.

The rising rate of marital separation and divorce provide strong support for Professor Clark’s findings, but what is not being considered is the emotional fallout on the children of unhappy marriages.  Certainly, clinical experience shows that when couples part amicably and are mutually supportive in the parenting of their children, children still suffer, but not in any way close to the extent of those children whose parents remain in conflict following the separation or divorce.

Professor Clark believes that it is not marriage that brings happiness, but that people who are happy tend to get married.  This observation seems somewhat lightweight; I am wondering how Professor Clark measures happiness.  Furthermore, if an individual’s happiness makes it more likely they will marry, how is it that the happiness present before the marriage doesn’t continue to sustain the relationship.  I would be much happier if Professor Clark had used some measure of maturity in his examination of marital life.  Maturity is the degree to which you take responsibility for self and for your own actions.  It means that when you enter a relationship you do not make the other person responsible for your happiness and neither do you take on responsibility for your partner’s happiness.  In a mature relationship, in the words of Kahlil Gibran ‘separateness is the basis for togetherness.’  When a person continues to deepen their own relationship with self so that they bring a fullness to his or her partner and to self, then I do not see marriages losing their glow within two to four years.

The attempt to explain the short-term bliss of marriage by the social and economic pressures of mortgage, children and less time to be with friends is not good enough.  Such explanations serve to excuse the couple rather than facing them with the responsibility of examining closely the ways they are in relationship.  Mostly, there is a necessity for each partner to look closely at the nature of their own relationship with self.  There are but a few who possess a solid interiority and enter a marriage with a clarity of what it means to choose to live with another person.  Surely, the purpose of such a mature relationship is for each to support and encourage the other to come into the fullness of self and to share that fullness with the other.  Too frequently, relationships are formed on the subconscious premise that either ‘my partner should make me happy’ or ‘I should make my partner happy.’  Either of these defensive beliefs makes the other the substitute of what each partner needs to be doing for self.  The partner who feels his partner is responsible for his happiness is asking his partner to do for him what he needs to be doing for himself.  The time when women sacrificed their own lives for others is, thankfully, fast disappearing and, not surprisingly, their male partners are in for an early disappointment of their unrealistic expectations.

Similarly, the partner who believes ‘I should make my partner happy’ is doing for her partner what she needs to be doing for herself.  Whilst her male partner will not be disappointed by her dedication to him, she will quickly begin to realise the one-way street of the relationship and disappointment will set in.

Relationships are about both give and take from a solid place of responsibility for self.  If marriage and live-in-relationships are to be saved it is crucial that adults and young people seek out the opportunities to understand the true nature of relationship before daring to enter a commitment to another.

Dr. Tony Humphreys is a clinical psychologist and author of books on practical psychology including Myself, My Partner.