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Marriage -- A Many-Splendored, Sometimes Splintered, Thing

Vol. 1, No. 4, Fall 1996

Daniel Wayne Matthews, Ph.D.

Marriage is still the prominent partnered relationship in the American culture as evidenced by the 2.3 million marriages recorded in 1992. This holds true despite the high number of divorces, 1.2 million in 1992, and the negative stereotypes of marriage portrayed in movies and on television. Although one of every two new marriages end in divorce, many couples feel the ideal situation is one man and one woman committed to a life-long marital relationship. And many such couples sincerely vow to remain in their marriage "til death do us part."

A number of stumbling blocks inevitably arise to challenge the couple's best intentions. For example, young couples often fail to see things realistically. Caught up in the romance and in the excitement of wedding plans, many couples are unable to envision what their relationship will be like on a routine, day-to-day basis. For those anticipating a Cinderella-like happily-ever-after storybook marriage year after year, disappointment is likely to come sooner or later. Conflict, crises, and daily hassles are part of virtually every marriage relationship.

Discussing important issues like money, children, role expectations, sex, and in-laws before marriage will help set the stage for a smoother relationship. The single most accurate word to describe what happens in a new marriage is "change." Anything which can be done to help prepare for the inevitable changes of marriage is a good investment in the relationship.

Adapting to Change

Change produces stress. When confronted with change of any kind we are required to adapt to that change in some way. Although a lot of changes involved in getting married are seen as positive changes, they still produce stress. To build an effective relationship we must learn how to adapt to change and cope with stress.

Judith Wallerstein, in her book entitled The Good Marriage: How and Why Love Lasts, says that the common thread characterizing good marriages is flexibility. Couples who have the ability to adapt to unexpected change plus a "marvelous facility for looking down the road" and anticipating the potholes and detours of life are more likely to have a strong and lasting relationship.

Some of the more obvious changes and differences which most couples will have to face include:

Realistic Expectations

Many, if not most, expectations for marriage are based on idealized myths. If realities within a relationship do not match the myth, one or both partners may think they have made a terrible mistake. A few of the myths about marriage are:

MYTH: A good marriage will always be romantic.

REALITY: Virtually all relationships experience peaks and valleys. Sometimes, the realities of married life will often cloud over romantic feelings. Scott Peck, in his book The Road Less Traveled, stated -- "Every couple falls in love; every couple falls out of love." Just because the feelings of love are not always present doesn't necessarily mean a lack of love; love is more of a choice than a feeling.

MYTH: Marriage will make me happy.

REALITY: A marriage partner does not have the power or ability to make another person happy. A person's sense of happiness must come from deep inside himself. Relationship in marriage has the potential of complementing individual happiness and well-being, but it cannot be the primary source.

MYTH: If we really love each other, everything else will fall into place.

REALITY: Marriage needs constant nurturing. Because of individual, societal, and environmental changes, marriage is always in a state of flux; it is a dynamic relationship rather than a static one. Constant sensitivity to one another's needs and continual adaptation to relational changes are necessary to keep love alive.

MYTH: My partner should intuitively know my needs.

REALITY: Regardless of a spouse's intelligence or personal strengths, she does not have the ability to read her partner's mind. Needs for security, affection, emotional support, encouragement, or physical assistance often must be verbalized in clear language, sometimes repeatedly. If the need is something the spouse can realistically provide, she must first know the need exists.

MYTH: Conflict means a lack of love.

REALITY: Conflict is inevitable, but it doesn't have to be damaging to the marriage relationship. Partners have different viewpoints and different feelings based on their background and previous experiences. Those differences do not mean that one partner is right and the other wrong; it just means they are not alike in their thoughts or feelings. Conflict, when dealt with appropriately, can be healthy for a relationship in that new ideas and new ways of looking at things are introduced to each partner and to the relationship.

Finances

Few couples, especially in the early years of marriage, are independently wealthy. That means a lot of decisions must be made in relationship to money. Some potentially volatile questions pertaining to a couple's finances include:

  1. Who earns the money, one or both?
  2. How will the money be spent?
  3. Who will manage the checkbook?
  4. What is each person's attitude about credit spending?
  5. How much should be saved?
  6. Should the couple buy a house, or rent?
  7. What is communal property and what belongs to each?

These questions are only examples of the kinds of financial issues with which married couples have to struggle. According to marriage counselors, conflict over money is one of the primary reasons given by couples for seeking professional help. Serious conflict may be avoided, however, if attitudes and philosophies about finances are clearly communicated prior to marriage, and continually during the marriage.

Sexual Adjustment

Sexual attraction plays a major part in bringing two people together and leading to marriage. A major component of continued satisfaction in marriage is a quality sexual relationship. A mutually satisfying sexual relationship, however, does not just happen automatically. As with other aspects of personality, a partner's sexuality is individual. Each person should approach the sexual relationship with respect and understanding for the other. Some general observations and considerations about the sexual relationship might include the following:

As with other issues in the marriage partnership, a satisfying sex life depends a great deal on open channels of communication. Try to deal with conflict situations as they arise, so they won't have an adverse effect on your sexual relationship. It is difficult to be romantic or sexually responsive when other conflictual issues are pending. Don't be afraid to discuss your sex life with your partner. Share with him or her your likes, dislikes, feelings, desires, fantasies, etc. Share and learn together.

Marrying the Whole Family -- In-laws

Like it or not, marrying someone usually involves the formation of several relationships other than the husband-wife union. A person entering marriage automatically gains a father-in-law, a mother-in-law, sisters- or brothers-in-law, plus a variety of extended family members related to your new spouse. Although you don't technically marry the whole family, your relationship to your spouse may be largely affected by how well you get along with his/her family. Realistically, it is important to remember that your spouse will likely reflect the values, attitudes, personality, and behaviors which you observe in his/her parent and grandparent generations.

Helpful hints for a positive relationship with your new family might include:

Conclusion

The ideas explored and the suggestions made above set the stage for opening couple communication related to a variety of potential conflict areas in marriage. Couples who take the time and effort to educate themselves about quality relationships and who practice effective communication skills in their interactions with each other have a greater likelihood of experiencing a satisfying, fulfilling relationship together for many years.

References

Kramer, Patricia (1995). Making love last. Family Information Services, 32.

Wallerstein, Judith & Sandra Blakeslee (1995), The good marriage: How and why love lasts. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company.

Peck, Scott (1978). The road less traveled : a new psychology of love, traditional values, and spiritual growth. New York : Simon and Schuster

Author

Daniel Wayne Matthews, Ph.D., Human Development Specialist, Family and Consumer Sciences, North Carolina Cooperative Extension Service, North Carolina State University.

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