A lot of people go into marriage with expectations, aspirations, and delusions. And we know many marriages don’t last very long—probably for those reasons. Some make it to two years, others to the cliché seven, and I’ve been told that even the healthiest relationships only last some 18 years. As of August this year I will have been married for nine years. And I’m very happy to say it’s all played out just like the textbooks say it does, and we still haven’t killed each other. But we, like all couples, fight, and we soon found ourselves in a cycle of anger and confusion. I’m going to write about what happens when marriage goes wrong, things that cause it, and what you can do to change it.
Fighting isn’t unhealthy. Fighting means you both have autonomy and you feel safe expressing your boundary, or your wants and needs. But, the main reason fighting is because one or the other is simply angry. Anger is an unavoidable emotion, and it’s okay to be angry, but not to stay that way. The best thing you can do to diffuse a fight is to learn to manage conflict. Professor John Gottman has done substantial studies on how couples do this, and has found three main styles of conflict management: “…Avoidant, Validating, and Volatile,” (BUSBY, D. M.). I fall in between Validating—characterized by confirming my partners feelings in the midst of an argument—to Volatile, wherein there’s lots of conflict and dispute. Other couples are Avoidant, and don’t bother confronting each other. And, oddly enough, each conflict style makes for a long-lasting marriage.
Gottman discovered much more than just how to argue though, he uncovered an almost magic ratio. Five to one. That’s the ratio of good to terrible thing you need to do to stay together (Gottman). Even if you something pretty shitty, five good things against it, and compromise, will keep a couple (maybe more) together. But if it’s that easy, then there’s a catch—right? Knowing these things and doing them are totally different.
When we get mad we lose all reason, which is why the first thing you need to do after you get angry is ask yourself why you’re angry, and ask your partner why they are upset. As soon as we start thinking on something else other than that we are mad, we start to feel a little better—analyze your way out of anger.
Don’t dwell. If, while you’re at work, recreation, whatever you’re doing—and instead of enjoying yourself, you find that you’re constantly reliving a fight, or some injustice in your head–that’s an early warning. After too much dwelling and time spent in conflict, we come to perceive our partners differently. We have a harder time discerning communication—particularly men—and start to believe our partners have negative intentions toward us. We come to believe that the ones who love us the most, do not, and that they seek to harm us instead of uplift us. This happens to everyone.
After enough time a number of given things can happen which all result in divorce, or what’s called “living together loneliness” or LTL, which, as it was described to me, sounds worse than a divorce.
I finally had an afternoon to spend with a longtime work friend, Thomas. Great artist, all around good guy—and funny. He’s had an ongoing love affair since November. He’s almost fifty, he’s been with his partner for about seven years, and for the past two, they’ve just been roommates. One night Thomas found himself drunkenly chatting with a young red-head he works with, at a bar, who was in the same situation—you can guess the rest.
Just two years ago I was on the verge of a divorce, and it taught me a lot of things. First, marriage is the most wonderful thing in the world, and it can also be pure torment. I’m not against divorce. I’m for people having the proper emotional tool to keep up a good relationship, part of that skill-set is knowing when to say good-bye. Most divorces happen because people don’t really know what they’re doing, but if you do know what you’re doing and you’re still both unhappy—don’t stay miserable for too, too long, it’s a waste of time.
Communication is everything. If you can’t talk to each other, you’re not going to make it. And you have to be able to talk about anything—including the state of your relationship. The odds are really good that if you’re having any kind of relationship problem, it has something to do with communication. And it’s not just the words used, it’s how you carry yourself while you’re communicating. Are you facing your partner? Are you engaged in what they’re saying? What facial expressions are you making? These are all things to consider while communicating.
Marriage is largely luck—to “keep it a hundred,” as late-night comedy host Larry Wilmore says: I got married just after I was old enough to buy alcohol. I was a young, ignorant, Christian missionary, who preferred marriage, because of my Christian upbringing. The man upstairs isn’t too fond of sex outside of wedlock. And a lot of my being married today is sheer luck—my spouse and I changed substantially in our taste, and intelligence, but we changed together. Still, it’s honestly the most difficult commitment I’ve even made in my life.
It’s easy to care for the loving, horny, spouse who’s ignorant or unaware of personal bullshit. But sometimes life falls apart. I was a butcher a few years ago, cutting steaks, when my dad called me and told me my mother had cancer—a rare sarcoma.
At the time I worked for an evil psychopathic boss—literally—and the stress was too much. I took most of it out on my wife, and she did the natural thing, she retaliated. We spent two unhappy years together, fighting, making each other miserable, but we needed each other. In our case, saying, “I’m going to divorce you” is just a hollow threat. I have nowhere to go. Neither of us want to start our lives over from scratch, at age thirty.
If you can make it through these stages of marriage, then something special happens. If you can communicate well, compromise, and continue to do good though the toughest parts of marriage—with a little luck—the bond grows stronger, and you learn what to look for in the future, so the downward cycle isn’t repeated.
Marriage is a lot of hard work. It’s not something anyone should just jump into. It’s a huge commitment, and though you can just get a divorce—it’s more complicated than that. But, if you manage anger, and have the proper knowledge and tools for maintaining a long-term relationship, the benefits outweigh the challenges.
BUSBY, D. M. and HOLMAN, T. B. (2009), Perceived Match or Mismatch on the Gottman Conflict Styles: Associations with Relationship Outcome Variables. Family Process, 48:531–545. doi:10.1111/j.1545-5300.2009.01300.x
Gottman, John, and Nan Silver. “What Makes Marriage Work?” Psychology Today. Psychology Today, n.d. Web. 01 May 2015.