Great Expectations: 7 Lies about Marriage

Couples therapist and author John W. Jacobs, M.D., has found a pattern in the people he counsels: Their expectations of marriage are often so unrealistic that even the strongest of relationships doesn't stand a chance. In this excerpt from his book All You Need Is Love and Other Lies about Marriage, he explains what he calls "The Seven Lies of Marriage":

LIE #1: All you need is love.

The reality is that marital bliss is a myth. Unconditional love, necessary for babies and small children, doesn't--and shouldn't--exist between marital partners. We live in a culture that stresses a preoccupation with personal happiness above all. As long as we raise our children, especially girls, to believe that marriage is the solution to life's problems and essential for personal happiness, we will continue to have many couples marrying with little appreciation for the true difficulties and complexities of married life.

Couples come to my office deeply shocked: "We love each other so much. Why are we so unhappy?" Myths that suggest that romantic love is sufficient to create marital bliss leave people unskilled in developing and unprepared to manage sustained intimate relationships. As wonderful as love is, love doesn't conquer all, and alone it certainly won't prevent or solve your marital problems. For that, you need to understand the nature of marriage, learn specific skills and accept that regularly applying these skills requires diligence and hard work.

Lie #2: I talk all the time; my spouse just doesn't listen.

The reality is that most of us talk ourselves to death, but we actually communicate very poorly. We live in an era that encourages us to be open about our feelings but doesn't teach us how to differentiate between helpful and harmful feelings. Very few of us know how to speak or listen effectively. Television talk shows are filled with marital experts who advise us to "tell it like it is" and be "brutally honest" so our partners will know how we really feel and what we really need.

The truth is that brutal honesty too often encourages brutality more than honesty. Spouses use their version of the truth to bludgeon their partners into submission.

Books such as John Gray's Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus and Deborah Tannen's You Just Don't Understand do an excellent job of explaining how men and women's communication styles can differ. However, I have found that problems in communication go far beyond these stylistic differences. Communication problems often hide serious differences in values, interests, goals and desires.

Even when spouses learn how to "communicate" with each other effectively, they are often surprised to find that they have major differences that are difficult to resolve. So, improving communication alone is not the solution to most marital problems. It is only the first step.

Lie #3: People don't really change.

Of course, the couples who come to my office tell me they want to change. (More often, what they really want is for me to change their spouse, whom they see as the one really in the wrong.) However, many people today believe that deep down, people can't change all that much or that nothing in a marriage can change unless both partners change. These incorrect and pessimistic beliefs sabotage efforts to improve the marriage.

The truth is that most people go about trying to change their relationships in unproductive ways, get frustrated by the results and then claim that this outcome proves that people don't change. Also, many of us are so fearful of real change that we run for the escape hatch rather than commit to the hard work involved in getting what we say we want. And even if one partner is adamantly set against change, there's a lot the other partner can do to foster change in the marriage anyway. Change is always possible.

Lie #4: When you marry, you create your own family legacy.

You may live far away from your family of origin, but now that you have your own family, their grip on you is tighter than ever. When we become husbands, wives and parents, the models we saw and leftover conflicts we experienced within our families of origin emerge from our psyches and take over our intimate relationships.

Our grandparents were likely to live close to their parents (if not in the same house), see each other often and stay personally involved in each other's day-to-day lives. Today, in our highly mobile society, we tend to live farther from our parents. Paradoxically, their influence may be greater than ever; because they're not around, we're less likely to be aware of how we unthinkingly act in line or in opposition to the way they raised us.

It's especially shocking to find that your family seriously influences you if you have consciously chosen to behave differently from them. Spouses who don't appreciate the power their original families exert on their values and styles tend to have particularly tenacious problems in their marriages.

Lie #5: Egalitarian marriage is easier than traditional marriage.

In the newer, egalitarian model of marriage, the expectation is that while not every chore will be split fifty/fifty, family responsibilities should be divided fairly, and decision-making power will be shared. The husband in this model respects his wife's work and shares in family life, never insisting on being in control based on financial earnings or gender. Equality in theory is wonderful; in reality, spouses in trouble often are conflicted over gender role expectations and responsibilities.

Men tend to feel unappreciated for what they do well, that is, for working hard away from home and for any chores they agree to do in the house. Likewise, women who work away from the home and then return to care for their households and children often feel equally unappreciated for their extra work.

In The Second Shift, sociologist Arlie Hochschild makes the point that women are caught in a "stalled revolution." Seventy percent of married women work outside the home and then return to huge responsibilities at home with minimal or no help from the average husband or from social institutions. Many working mothers are overworked and exhausted, and some ultimately become bitter about their overburdened lives. Hochschild believes that the stress on marriage caused by the pressures of this "stalled revolution" is central to women's dissatisfaction with modern marriage and will not be resolved until men fully accept their share of household responsibilities.

The confusion over gender-role expectations, the mutual feeling of insufficient appreciation and the unresolved resentment this fosters between spouses are killing many marriages.

Lie #6: Children solidify a marriage.

Let's speak the unspeakable: Children are an enormous threat to your marriage. It's very, very difficult to admit that the children you love so much can drive a wedge into your life as a couple, especially if one of the reasons you got married in the first place was to have a family. However, the reality is that in a world where married partners already work too hard and don't spend enough time with each other, the addition of children to your life usually eats up the remaining physical and emotional energy you had for each other.

Even when you love your children fiercely, even when you thought you were prepared for the tremendous dislocation they would cause (who hasn't heard a million stories about the sleepless nights with newborns, the perils of toddlers, the terrors of teens?), your natural devotion to your children will tear your marriage down to its bedrock. If you have a child with any kind of additional difficulty--a physical or mental disability, a challenging temperament, ADHD--you will have to fight that much harder to save your marriage.

Let's just say it: If you want to preserve your marriage, your children cannot always come first. As counterintuitive as it may sound, in your marriage, your spouse must come first, not only for your sake but also so that your children can grow up within an intact family.

Lie #7: The sexual revolution has made great sex easier than ever.

The veil of secrecy surrounding sex has been ripped away. The best-seller list is plump with books on how to get and give great sexual pleasure. Magazines offer the latest tricks of the trade. Even the toniest literary journals sport ads touting instructional videotapes. Men and women regularly confess their sexual issues on talk shows; there isn't any problem too embarrassing to discuss. Television entertainments put sex front and center; characters discuss their sex lives and add new partners as readily and casually as they change wardrobes. Thanks to the invasion of the media, from the most seemingly innocuous sitcom to the steamiest porn video, your life is saturated with images of beautiful people having great sex all the time.

So if sex is everywhere, and if information about how to have it is more readily available than ever, why aren't you having more fun in your own bed? It's because the two of you are never really alone there; those ubiquitous images of everyone else having great sex have paradoxically made it more difficult for you to relax and have a satisfying sex life. Even if you joke about these unrealistic portrayals of people who are never exhausted by the toll of work and children, whose waistlines are never threatened by the twin specters of Krispy Kreme and advancing age, and whose libido is never dimmed by a partner's bad breath or the mountain of unpaid bills on the dresser--you are still powerfully influenced by them.

They make you feel that you or your partner can never measure up, that there's someone out there who's more attractive to you or will be more attracted by you, and that you are missing out because everyone else is having more fun than you are. They make you believe that the natural evolution of a relationship, from the dazzling fireworks of infatuation and early courtship to the steadier, calmer flame of a mature partnership, represents loss of pleasure and acceptance of the mundane.

Excerpted from All You Need Is Love and Other Lies about Marriage. Copyright © 2004 by John W. Jacobs, M.D. All rights reserved. HarperCollins Publishers. Used by permission.

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