Marriage Foundation founder Paul Friedman puts marriage under the microscope to stop three deadly killers from causing divorce.
I’ve always thought a marriage needed three obvious things to survive: mutual respect, functional communication, and physical intimacy (aka good sex). A great marriage may have more than these, but without any one of them, things fall apart quickly. If you use a triangle to symbolize marriage, with each of these qualities as one of its corners, geometry makes it clear that you need a minimum of three points to create an enclosure—a safe space of trust inside which two people can relate—and that if one point fails, the triangle collapses, leaving the couple vulnerable to divorce.
But marriages don’t fail because one partner or the other suddenly decides to stop respecting, stop communicating, or stop having sex. These stoppages occur as actions often without any conscious decision beforehand, and they are preceded by silent killers that settle into the relationship dynamic of which neither partner may be aware. These silent killers of marriage are like viruses, silently infecting partners, displaying no symptoms, lurking in dormancy for months or years, until an outbreak seems to come from nowhere. And these viruses are deadly, as evidenced by our national marriage mortality rate of roughly 50%. So how can we become aware and either inoculate ourselves against the viruses that attack and destroy marriage, or recognize when they first enter our system and seek prompt, effective treatment? I asked my friend marriage expert, Paul Friedman, founder of The Marriage Foundation, to put marriage under the microscope and use his extensive research and long experience counseling couples considering divorce to pinpoint what he considers the three silent destroyers of marriage. Below, in Paul’s words, are his findings.
But wait? Isn’t it a good thing to know your spouse like the back of your hand? Isn’t it great to know his favorite color shirt or tie what wine she will order with which food? Yes, because familiarity is an asset, but over-familiarity is a liability. So how much familiarity is too much? Over-familiarity is when you think you are close enough to your spouse to excuse your doing things that are obnoxious, while not allowing those things to be done to you. You might call over-familiarity a kind of entitlement—when one partner believes he or she has earned a free pass and has the right to do certain things because he or she knows what’s best for the other. Examples include: yelling, criticizing, ignoring, teasing (even in play), being openly grumpy, being crude, nagging, complaining … the list goes on. Unhappy partners often complain, “I wish my husband or wife would act the way he/she did while we were dating.” It’s not so much the cards and gifts and trinkets of courtship that are missed as the presence of respect, a respect that diminishes with increased familiarity and erodes when over-familiarity sets in. Leaving the bathroom door open, not cleaning up after yourself, not saying thank you because you think your gratitude should be a given, these acts of over-familiarity disappoint and draw ire because for one partner they symbolize a lack of respect, while for the other, they merely represent the comfort and perceived lack of need to stand on ceremony that they believe should characterize an intimate relationship. I would bet that over-familiarity is the killer of over 80% of all marriages that end in divorce. Nobody wants to feel disrespected. Everyone wants to feel honored.
Killer #2—Poor Communication Skills
If you see the purpose of communicating with your marriage partner purely as negotiating how to get your needs met, you don’t understand relationship communication. Many people in troubled marriages think, “My spouse and I have trouble communicating,” while what they really mean is, “I can’t get my spouse to listen to me and do things my way!” Well, that’s not a communication problem. That’s an attitude problem. That’s a function of placing your needs ahead of your spouse’s and dismissing his or hers as insignificant. It may also be childish resentment over not getting your way. The real problem with marital communication is twofold. First there is the age-old issue of men being different from women (i.e., Mars and Venus), and of both partners not realizing and learning that men and women see, hear, and speak differently. The color fuchsia is a great example of gender specific communication. Most men (unless they’re graphic artists or fashion designers) hear that word and go blank. Most women hear that word and imagine the clothes that go with the shoes. But that isn’t the real problem. The real problem with marital communication is that marital communication is different from any other kind of communication. It is special, because its purpose is to enable two people to open their hearts to each other, not just facilitate working out the details of whose turn it is to empty the dishwasher, take out the garbage, or walk the dog. Until a couple understands the purpose and value of marital communication, they will miss out on what marriage is all about—intimate connection.
Killer #3—A Transactional Attitude
This may seem odd coming from me, as a self-professed entrepreneur and businessman. But the application of business principles within a marriage reduces marriage to nothing more than a give and take relationship—or ultimately, a take and take relationship as both partners become increasingly dissatisfied and feel cheated when they get less than they believe is their due. Our wedding vows run something along the lines of “I promise to love, cherish, and be in service to you, for better or for worse.” The courts may consider marriage a contract, but on the altar or under the chuppah, we are binding ourselves to one another before God in a sacred union and each committing to honor and cherish the other. In business, we abide by contracts and honor them because that’s the ethical thing to do. But in marriage, honor means something entirely different. It means honoring our imperfections and mistakes, too. And the rewards of a successful marriage based on honoring your partner are many thousand-fold greater than any one might achieve in business. But you have to know how to reap the rewards. Making your marriage dynamic transactional and assuming you will receive something in return for each something given is destructive to the fabric of a flexible relationship, and it blocks your giving heart from experiencing the natural flow of love that comes from selfless unconditional giving. If you don’t always get exactly what you expected, try to be understanding and forgiving. When you each said “I do,” you promised each other to do your best, not to be perfect.
If I could reduce this whole thing to a sound bite, or offer a shot of advice to vaccinate against these silent marriage killers, I would give it to you in a heartbeat. But the truth is the only way to avoid the killers is full-scale education. Until we learn how to control our minds, and the reasons our thinking brains so often work against our emotional best interests, we will remain susceptible. But if I had to sum it up in one sentence, it would be this: Learn to love your spouse.
Many say “I do love my spouse; BUT.” Until we learn to kick our own “butts” and focus on the tasks that bring love and harmony into our lives, we’ll continue to miss the point—and the joy—of life, love, and marriage.