10 Reasons Marriage Doesn’t Work
Yes, I’m a marriage counselor who knows about all the problems in marriages since I have seen it all in my 30 plus years of practice. And no, I’m not married. I was married young at 21 and divorced at 23. Presently I am in a long-term relationship, living with my boyfriend of 28 years (who was also married before) We are happy, have wills made out to each other, and have few things to fight about. We both choose not to be married. We both agree that, “Marriage changes everything.” That doesn’t mean you can’t have a healthy marriage. But if you follow the rules of the institution of marriage, you’ll probably end up divorced or at least one of you will wish you were.
Sam and Mary have been married only 7 years, but Mary wants out because she believes Sam doesn’t love her anymore, although she still loves him. He doesn’t spend quality time with her, he’s critical and controlling, they never talk, she feels like his maid, neither have many friends or go out and have fun, they take each other for granted, she believes he is the cause of her unhappiness, and she feels like she can’t leave because of financial reasons. They seemed happy together before they got married.
Once married, they did what most married couples do. They pooled their money, bought a big house, she took early retirement, took on the “wife” role, moved her sister in because she needed help, and stopped speaking up. He started taking her for granted, isolating in his man cave, drinking more, and never discussing any problems (which is what he had done with his ex). He doesn’t take her seriously when she talks about leaving because she’s talked about it for at least 3 years now. He’s lost respect for her since all she does is blame him for her unhappiness but never does anything about it. They’re both unhappy, but he just checks out and she seethes with resentment. How did they get here? The same way many married people do — by doing what they think they’re supposed to do because they are married, and hoping their mate will do the same. But that seldom happens.
10 Reasons Marriage Doesn’t Work
1) People treat their mates like they treat their family.
In fact, people often choose to marry someone that is similar to their mom, or dad, and/or ex. They also usually behave just like one of their parents in the relationship. My clients Harriet and Dave are like that. Harriet acts just like her mother and Dave acts just like his dad. Harriet learned to harp on Dave when she wants something done, just like her mom did with her dad. She continuously reminds Dave of what he is not doing right (according to her standards), whether it’s how he loads the dishwasher or how he doesn’t defend her enough. And Dave does what his dad always did — let’s it go in one ear and out the other, pretending he’s not bothered by it. Even when we don’t like the way our parents act, we have no other role model on how a relationship is supposed to work. We end up adapting by acting like our mother or our father to try and get what we want, especially once we’re married and feel we have no other power. We are also often attracted to someone like our parents because there is a feeling of familiarity. Your marriage will probably look very similar to your parents’ relationships, because you don’t know how to do it differently.
What to do:
Be aware of the tendency to behave like your parents and give your mate permission to call you on it when you behave that way. And ask yourself, “Did I marry someone like mom or dad?” If so, you may have unfinished business with that parent that therapy can help you deal with.
2) Married couples seldom truly communicate.
I always hear, “He/she should know.” They expect their mate to know what they’re thinking and how they feel. And if they don’t know, then it is interpreted that they don’t care. Often couples are afraid to communicate. “What if I tell him it scares me that he might quit his job, I’m afraid he’ll be upset or hurt, so I just won’t say anything and I’ll hope for the best. I’m sure he knows how I feel anyway.” Then when he quits the job, she is filled with anger and can’t believe he would be so stupid and put their family in jeopardy like that. If she confronts him at that point, he might say, “You never said anything so I thought you were fine with it.” Married couples also tell little white lies to each other. Think how it feels when a friend does that — you stop trusting the friend and pull away from them. Examples: “No, I’m not mad,” when clearly you are. “I promise I’ll do that tomorrow,” when you know you won’t. You tell your mate what he or she wants to hear instead of the truth because you don’t want to rock the boat. Then your mate stops trusting your word.
What to do:
Don’t keep any secrets about anything, especially your feelings. Using the 4 Steps of Healthy Communication, open up to your mate about how you feel and what you want. Also, don’t talk behind your mate’s back with friends, family or anyone without having shared the information with your mate first, so he/she has the opportunity to fix it.
3) Married couples usually join their money together and then argue about how it is spent.
This was a key issue for Sam and Mary. Sam wanted Mary to retire early and she did. She also took out her 401K and put it into the joint account. Mary didn’t think about the fact that Sam loved to buy old cars and fix them up, invest in the stock market, and buy rental properties. The next thing she knew, most of her money was gone, and she was livid. This was the beginning of the end. She never forgave him. He thought her idea to get back into her artwork and try to sell it was just as ridiculous. She spent tons of money on supplies, etc. and never sold a piece. Sometimes married couples fight over the motorcycle he wants to buy or the expensive shoes she wants, neither understanding the others’ point of view. Also, once married couples join their money together, they usually begin to live beyond their means so the bills become so great that neither gets to buy what they want anymore and can’t afford to live on their own again.
What to Do:
Make deals about how money is to be spent ahead of time. Make a fair deal as to who is putting in what money and why. If you have a joint account, make it simply a “bills” account and keep separate accounts for spending money for yourselves. This will help keep resentment over money at a minimum.
4) Married couples merge their identities, giving up their exciting personalities that made their mate fall in love with them.
That crazy guy you were so attracted to becomes a boring couch potato that you don’t really want to have sex with. That hot, independent, vibrant woman you thought was so strong has become a dependent sweats-wearing, mother who has no time for you. In the institution of marriage, it is agreed that you are supposed to behave a certain way as soon as you become a husband, wife, and/or parent. Ben Affleck is a great example. His marriage is falling apart with Jennifer Garner because he’s still gambling and hanging out with his buddies, just like he did before they got married. And she’s still trying to make rules and restrictions about how he’s supposed to behave. Supposedly Brad Pitt and George Clooney are having the same problem. Many men come into my office and say, “Now that we’re married, we’re supposed to buy matching China, decorate a certain way, and basically stop drinking beer and having fun. My female clients lose their identities often saying, “I don’t know who I am anymore, I just know that I’m unhappy. I have no time to myself and resent that he doesn’t get that.” Married couples often stifle each other with marriage becoming more about what husbands and wives cannot any longer do, rather than what they can do. Giving up friends and hobbies and sometimes other things you love (which is a big part of who you are) is expected. The expectations of marriage are that you should settle down and behave instead of being the happy, fun-loving full of zest person that attracted the two of you.
What to do:
Don’t get into the permanent roles of wife, husband and parent. Don’t let the “we” become your whole identity. Make a pact not to let the children come between the two of you, promising to work together as a team with them. Keep you own friends and hobbies (separate from the joint ones). Make sure you keep as much fun in your life as you do work and other responsibilities.
5) Once married, couples often feel locked in.
Marriage often feels like living at home with parents with someone telling you what you can and can’t do. Of course this builds animosity that often creates passive/aggressive behavior in us like when we were a child, including the desire to cheat. Also, just like business contracts, once the deal is done and signed, each person is less likely to try and work on the issues in their relationships. In fact, any unresolved issues you have before marriage will almost never get resolved after marriage because the deal is done. People say to me, “That’s just the way he/she is. Do I regret marrying him/her? Of course, but it’s too late, there’s nothing I can do now.”
What to do:
Discuss, negotiate, and make deals about issues in the relationship before you get married, adding what the consequences are that each of you have agreed to if your mate doesn’t keep the deal. Write them down and sign them. Add to the list when needed. If you begin to feel locked in, bring it up and try to change the deal in a way that works for both of you.
6) Marriage often turns into controller/victim relationships.
The only person content in this kind of relationship is the controller. Healthy relationships are those where there is equality and mutual respect. Marriages (& other relationships) often evolve to where one person takes most of the control and the other person becomes a passive victim to it. All couples have differences, but once someone begins to criticize you and you allow it, the balance of equality goes away and one mate takes control.
When not married, the victim can easily say, “I’m not going to let you treat me this way,” but once married, they may say it, but they usually stay and put up with it.
What to do:
If you allow your mate to take advantage of and/or criticize you because you love him/her, you’re playing victim. That’s not love. You’re really doing it because you feel rejected and you think that by being nice to him/her, your mate will eventually give back. But it’s not true. All your “nice” behavior will do is make him/her lose respect for you, allowing them to control you and use you and you will end up feeling less loved. Stop giving and set boundaries instead. Bring up the issue and let them know that it will not go that way anymore. Then make a deal that works for both of you. If you’re the controller, learn to accept and celebrate your differences. Don’t fight to be right. We all have different values and behaviors. Instead of criticizing, allow your mate his or her beliefs. For instance, Mary should have separated her money from Sam’s the first time he bought an old car to fix up with their “joint” money (or before). She didn’t need to criticize him for what he wanted and tell him how stupid it was (according to her values), just tell him he couldn’t use her money to do it. Stop fighting dirty (mean and/or passive/aggressive) and instead treat your mate similar to how you treat your best friend.
7) Married couples often stop spending quality time together and take each other for granted.
Before we’re married and are dating, we usually spend a lot of quality time together, whether we go out or just watch a movie together. Once we are married and feel secure in a relationship, we feel less need to make that special effort, show that extra consideration, or include some gesture of affection in our jam-packed day. When we take our mate for granted, we often deny him the simple courtesy and consideration we extend to our friends and coworkers. When we find ourselves only half-listening to our mate, when we spend every free moment attending to chores, and when we let the daily grind drain all the spontaneity, joy, and kindness from our interactions, we are not only allowing our relationship to lose it’s sparkle, but we are creating permanent damage.
What to do:
The first recommendation from most marriage counselors (including me) is to set up a weekly date night just for the two of you. No kids or sisters or friends. Spend those date nights having fun together and sharing the things that bonded you from the beginning, like, “It’s amazing that we both like that.” “I can’t believe you feel that way too.” If you feel resentful because of chores, etc, set aside a time (different than date night) to work the issues through and make the relationship fairer so that you can enjoy date night. Be affectionate and loving on a daily basis. If he/she doesn’t respond, pull back and ask why. Be the one to reach out first, but also pull back immediately if he/she doesn’t respond.
8) Married couples are also married to each other’s families.
His/her family becomes “yours” too, and comes with a lot of expectations that create resentments. When Alan’s mother became ill, I realized that if I was a daughter-in-law I would be expected to take her to doctor’s appointments, etc. (which I would have resented). Instead, as Alan’s girlfriend, I helped her in ways that I wanted to, like taking her to the park and luncheons and pedicures. Also, even if your mate doesn’t like his or her own family, they will, when necessary, defend them to the end. And if your mate is too attached to his or her family, they will expect you to do the same. My clients Yvonne and Rob (real clients who were interviewed along with me by First Magazine in the July 2010 issue) had this as a main issue. Rob is Italian and is used to spending inordinate amounts of time with his parents and brother, and once married, expected his new wife, Yvonne, to do the same. Yvonne says, “I love my in-laws to death, but if it were up to my husband, we would spend every waking minute with them. Don’t get me wrong, I’m close with my parents too, but in my family, we respect one another’s space.” Rob says, “My wife doesn’t understand the Italian way. We’re spontaneous. Everybody has a key to everybody’s house. We just show up and walk through the door …it’s a free-for-all. I know my marriage comes first, but I don’t see why it has to drive a wedge between my parents and me.” Rob didn’t understand how his pressure on her was breaking the bond between the two of them. When they were dating, he didn’t bring his parents along, did he? This isn’t the deal Yvonne signed up for.
What to do:
8) Communicate your feelings in a vulnerable way instead of angry. I taught Yvonne to let Rob know how unloved she felt when Rob chose his family over her. I also taught her how to negotiate deals with him, i.e. “I’ll have dinner with your parents on Wednesday without any complaints if you promise that Friday and Saturday nights are just ours with no other people around. Also, why don’t you go see them by yourself on another night during the week so you feel like you get enough time with them.” I also helped Rob understand that being Italian didn’t mean he would not have to negotiate deals with his wife. I also helped him confront his parents about backing off from the pressure they put on him about spending so much time together.
9) People stay married for the wrong reasons.
Single people are usually supporting themselves just fine. Then they get married and join their money together and live beyond their means. Then they want a divorce and say they have to stay because of money. I have a client who has been cheating for years, but is older and says, “I’m not divorcing him and getting half of this money when he’ll probably die before me and I can have it all.” Another reason married couples tell me they stay is because, “I can’t do that to our son Johnny. Also, my husband will never spend time with our son if I leave.” Believe me that growing up in an unhappy home doesn’t help Johnny in any way, and it’s very bad for the two of you. My mother stayed “because of us children” for 20 years, but I asked her why she stayed the other 19 years. Also, I’ve found that often the most negligent parent spends more time with the kids after they are divorced because the courts have set it up that way. Also, some married couples stay because they feel sorry for their mate, “What would he do without me?” Embarrassment is also an issue — pressure from families and friends to stay married and not wanting to be the “bad person” who broke up the marriage. Many of my clients also stay because they’re afraid of loneliness and even more afraid of getting out into the dating world.
What to do:
Excuses are just that — excuses. Try to work things out in your relationship, but if you can’t, go to therapy to deal with your excuses so you can get that much needed divorce. Alan and I live together because we made a deal 28 years ago that neither of us wants the other to stay with us for the wrong reasons. The only reason to stay is by choice — because you want to be there because the two of you are still in love.
10) Married couples believe it’s their mate’s job to make them happy.
They play the blame game. My mother claimed that it was my dad’s fault (because he didn’t make her happy by being a good husband) that caused her to be depressed much of her life. I believe that she still doesn’t see that her choosing to put up with his bad behavior and staying with him too long had something to do with her unhappiness. Training has taught men and women to try and be what her mate wants them to be, and expect their mate to do the same. If I give to him, he should give to me, and vice versa.
What to do:
You can’t make someone else happy. People usually have a ton of reasons they aren’t happy, many of them stemming from their childhood–which you can’t fix. And if you focus on your mate’s happiness instead of yours, you will be resentful which will make you very unhappy. Each of you must deal with your own happiness. You need to get clear what you yourself need to be happy, like more time with friends, time alone, help with the kids, etc. If what will make you happy requires help from your mate, communicate, asking for what you want and then negotiate by giving something back so you both can be happy.
Traditional (institutional) marriage very seldom works. The high divorce rate proves it. Many couples who come into my office are trying one last ditch effort before filing for divorce. And usually so many things have gone wrong by then that the resentment is too great to put the marriage back together. Each person usually feels cheated and like they’re getting the raw end of the deal. Their resentments have built up for years. Take a look at how the institution of marriage has affected your relationship and try to talk to your mate and change it. You can be happily married if you don’t follow the expectations created by the institution of marriage.
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