I have told almost a dozen couples over the past month the same thing: There is no such thing as a wonderful marriage.
I don’t tell them this because I am a marital skeptic. I have been married for 38 years. I have a good marriage. But it is not a wonderful marriage.
I believe that the idea of a wonderful marriage is a myth. It is theoretically possible, and I have had many people seek to prove to me that it exists. But the many ways a marriage can be scuttled and disassembled are greater than the ways it can be wonderful. Do the math.
In light of that, I can’t decide how to start this article.
Do I tell you, the reader, about the pastor’s wife who smokes weed every week to cope with the mania of dealing with her husband who constantly changes his vision for ministry and for their family?
Do I tell you about the woman who admits to me her husband’s violent behavior, and his use of prostitutes, and then goes on Facebook to tell the world how wonderful their marriage is?
Do I tell you about the man who came home to find his wife using cocaine minutes before his arrival, a woman who the very next day was leaving on a 20-day tour to speak to Christian Women about their prayer life?
Or do I tell you about the missionary who, after losing a child to a mysterious fever, decided he and his wife should have an Open Marriage to deal with their pain?
I have permission to share their stories, as long as I leave out the kind of details which would identify them to others. They all know they are broken people. They all know if they told anyone about how broken they are–other than a counselor–the world would reject them and look for another shining example of marital bliss.
They are debris from the explosion of the Myth of the Wonderful Marriage. Though good marriages do exist, and I will explain how they get that way, the wonderful marriage does not exist often or for very long. And I don’t say that to discourage you. I don’t believe the goal is to have a wonderful marriage.
I believe the goal is to have a marriage of mutual respect and appreciation of one another. If a couple also develops feelings of affection, behavior of love, and exhibits habits of caring for each other’s needs, then it is a complete package.
Very few will find this however. It is just not that easy.
Marriages rarely involve two compatible people who are made for each other. More often, a marriage is a battle to survive and a melting pot of love, romance, discouragement, conflict, pain, grief, with some contentment and satisfaction thrown in. I don’t know if it has to be that way, but it just is.
Marital compatibility is more than just taking an Enneagram or Myers-Briggs test to see if you approach life the same way. Indeed, there are many types of compatibility, and thus many ways a couple can be incompatible at the start of their lives together.
A meta-analysis of studies related to married couples confirms what counselors have long suspected: the majority of married couples are sexually incompatible with each other. There are many ways to measure this, and I am not saying married couples don’t enjoy sex. Surprisingly, even with this incompatibility, married people have a ton more sex than singles. If we are going to face up to the multi-faceted challenges of marital incompatibility, we have to be honest about the sexual element.
Here are just a few of the ways married people may not jibe together in bed.
1. Differing libidos: The intensity of sexual drive differs from person to person greatly. This is not primarily a male-female thing at all. Women report their male partners do not match their libido almost as much as men report this.
2. Differing Tastes: Not only do couples report a difference in their libidos, they also are not very compatible regarding the kinds of sex they enjoy when they first get married.
3. Differing Experience: Couples who have a widely divergent level of experience with sex are going to struggle to have respect for each other sexually during the first few years of marriage.
4. Difficulties Caused by Sexual Abuse/Assault: If one spouse is affected by sexual abuse as a child or assault as a teen or adult, (approximately one out of four women and one out of ten men), this is going to shape their views and practices of sex for a long time.
5. Differing Beliefs: As we’ll see in a later article in this series, personal beliefs can shape how a person views sex. Since very few of us marry someone with a matched set of beliefs, this can feel impossible to overcome. I’m not referring to beliefs about sex per se. Some beliefs such as shame, fear, lack of love, abandonment, etc., can completely shape how a person views marital sex.
Differing Practices of External Control Behavior
Most people practice External Control Behavior in their marriages. This means most of us want to direct the actions and beliefs of the person we are married to. This is counter-productive behavior and results in the opposite of what we desire: External Control Behavior often causes resentment and anger, leading to marriage difficulties.
There are two types of this behavior: Active and Passive. This is what they look like:
Active Control Behavior:
- Blaming: Controlling by shifting blame to others
- Threatening: Using the threat of some kind of coersion to control.
- Complaining: A constant re-hashing of grievances with the purpose of controlling another person’s behavior.
- Punishing: Getting even and thus gaining the upper hand
- Nagging: A lesser form of complaining where a person gains control by constant reminders and updates.
Passive Control Behavior:
- Withdrawing: Controlling the relationship dynamic by choosing to punish through withdrawal of affection, conversation or presence.
- Bribing: Giving a person what they want to get them to behave a particular way.
- Deceiving: Giving false information in order to achieve an outcome from another person.
- Manipulating: using combinations of the first three to achieve a control goal.
- Enabling: Fixing another person’s mistakes without their permission or involvement.
Differing False Beliefs
All of us carry out of childhood at least a few false beliefs regarding our self-identity and how we see other people in relation to our lives. These false beliefs trigger emotional reactions and cause relationship failures, addictive behavior, emotional confusion, and poor life decisions. All of these will affect a person’s marriage.
In addition, no one triggers us as much as our spouse. Dr. Ed Smith teaches we often choose a person tailor-made to trigger us often. Why we do this is uncertain, but few people disagree. Marriage partners consistently poke and prod away at false beliefs until we act out accordingly.
I entered marriage with a belief everyone would eventually abandon me. My wife entered marriage believing that she would be put to shame. Numerous times both these beliefs surfaced in the same conflict resulting in confusion and pain.
Different Spiritual Depths
The Bible tells us not to be yoked unequally. Many Christians assume this is a warning against marrying outside of the faith. But you can marry a person within your faith system and still be worlds apart in experience of that faith.
Anna loved to sing worship songs around the house. She invited people from the church over for their hosted Bible studies. She went to most church services and volunteered in many church programs. Jay liked to attend church occasionally and knew a couple of people by their first names. Anna wanted to pray together and Jay was not interested. Anna left books around for Jay to read, and Jay left them around unread.
When they encountered marital problems–who doesn’t?–their spiritual differences showed. Anna wanted to apply principles she had learned in the Bible to their problems. Jay liked the advice he heard on Dr. Phil. Both of them perceived the other as having the bigger problem.
Different Approaches to Conflict
Dana had parents who worked issues through and resolved conflict well. Yet, even with that wonderful example, Dana handled conflict by running away from it. Why? Who knows. Her husband Jeff liked to attack the goal when in a conflict. He would badger, threaten, bargain, challenge, and chase Dana until she got physically ill. Then she would retreat further.
When we entered counseling, she admitted her escapist views on conflict had always been there. Jeff said the same about his approach.
Couples enter marriage with vastly different approaches to conflict management. They utilize defensiveness, blaming, accusing, compromising, ignoring, dissembling, revenge, manipulation, and a host of other mechanisms to get their way. Some couples can be married for 70 years and never resolve a single issue. You wouldn’t think it was possible, but I have met them. They are miserable for 70 years, but for several reasons never divorce.
I could go on to mention differing life goals, differing views on raising children, differing approaches to money, different hygiene, differing levels of health and approaches to fitness, differing views on telling the truth.
Do you see what I’m saying? It is a mystery how any marriages stay together.
In this series of teachings, I address the basic principles of how to overcome any difference and see growth from a poorly compatible marriage to a good, respectful, and loving partnership that will last. I want the reader to know that almost any marriage can be a good marriage if they start from the understanding they are probably not very compatible.
Over the course of the next four articles, we will address the following approaches and understandings which will help guide a young couple toward a more successful good marriage:
1. Grounded in Reality
2. Comparing Ideal World Views
3. Negotiating and Compromise
4. Embracing Brokenness