Enduring Marriage

According to figures from the British Office of National Statistics eleven years is the average staying time for couples who get divorced. According to a new book on couple relationships, marriage should be seen as an economic arrangement which couples should leave when the emotional and economic benefits begin to decline. The book is called Changing Relationships and is based on five years of research into family life by the British Economic and Social Research Council. The major belief expressed in the book is that ‘people come together and stay together only when it is to their advantage! What is astounding is that the author takes no account of the stark fact that the economic reductionism model being proposed has shown itself to be a complete failure even within the very narrow sphere of economics and it does seem particularly crazy that this approach be suggested for marriage. Furthermore, this mercenary approach seriously militates against family and social stability, particularly, when research consistently shows that there is nothing to compare with the two-parent stable family! What is equally alarming is that the co-authors of the book do not recommend that if you enter marriage with the idea that ‘if I’m lucky, this relationship may only be to my advantage for eleven years’! Then, in the words of the poet Philip Larkin ‘please don’t have any kids…’ Children suffer greatly when parents part – more often than not – conflictually.  There is no suggestion here that couples who are deeply unhappy stay together for the children’s sakes but there is a recommendation that at least their irreconcilable differences do not darken the lives of their children. Parents who wish to part from each other need to seek either individual or joint help to separate in ways that are supportive of each other and non-threatening to children. Very often, fathers need to join parenting classes in order to develop the necessary skills to best parent their children, with whom, ironically, they may then be spending a lot more time.

The statistics and the book’s reciprocity take on marriage do pose an important question: does marriage have a natural duration? The answer to this is dependent on what is your belief on marriage. Certainly, if you see marriage like an accountant totting up the debits and credits of what you don’t get and what you get, then I’m surprised that such a marriage would endure for even eleven years. Such an arrangement begs the question: why get married at all? It is the case that more couples are living together and if this is a means of testing the long-term viability of the relationship – great. However, I do feel that the deeper and more meaningful nature of marriage is being missed when it is viewed in mercenary terms. For me, marriage is primarily the privilege of accompanying another on her quest for self-realisation and self-fulfilment. I do not see my wife as being responsible for my happiness – nor, indeed, my being responsible for her happiness.

The pursuit of happiness is the responsibility of each adult and not one to be passed onto one’s partner. Such a lean-to relationship will definitely lead to conflict, but the deeper source of the conflict between the troubled couple is the nature of the relationship within each person. This lean-to relationship is not a real marriage but a co-dependence and co-dependence is the source of most marital breakdown. A mature marriage is where each takes responsibility for self and for one’s own actions, enjoys one’s aloneness and supports the other in the inner relationship with self. Independence marks the couple relationship and each brings to the other a fullness (a maturity) that is enhancing in nature and deepens what happens within each individual and between the couple. The focus is not on what we can get from one another but on what we give each other in terms of the support and resources required for that longest and most difficult but, ultimately, rewarding, inward journey. Everybody gains from a person’s self-realisation, self-confidence and self-reliance – not least one’s partner and one’s children. Society benefits hugely from mature individuals. John O’Donohue, author of Anam Chara, puts it so well when he says ‘it is the responsibility of each adult to inhabit his or her own individuality’. He goes on to say that it is the hardest task of all and it is my belief that marriage provides the most potent support for that life purpose. Inhabiting one’s individuality is not akin to individualism which is al about ‘me, me, me.’ Individualism demands and commands others to take responsibility for one, whereas individuality takes responsibility for self and appreciates the support offered by one’s marital partner and others. The German poet Rilke also puts it well when he says ‘Love consists in this, that two solitudes protect and touch and greet each other.’

Finally, a person who stays in a marriage purely for economic reasons is, indeed, being mercenary but hardly fulfilled. There is a lot more to marriage than a bank balance; even more important, there is infinitely more to each person than economic prosperity.

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