by Claire Maisonneuve
|photo © Waldemar Dabrowski | Dreamstime.com
Myth #1: Resolving your conflicts is the key to a happy marriage.
Unfortunately not, since most marital arguments can never be resolved! After 30 years of research on what makes marriage work, psychologist John Gottman reveals that, in all marriages, happy or unhappy, 67 percent of all problems are never resolved.
All marital conflicts fall into two categories: either they are ‘solvable’ and can be resolved or they are ‘perpetual,’ which means they will be part of your relationship in some way or another forever.
The reason for this is that most perpetual conflicts are rooted in fundamental differences of lifestyle, personality or values. Rather than trying to change each other on these issues, happy couples learn to understand what those differences mean to each other and learn to live with them. In happy marriages, partners keep acknowledging the problems and are willing to continue dialoguing about them in ways that are respectful and honouring.
Perpetual conflicts can include issues related to differences in religious convictions, the frequency of sexual desire, the need to have the house tidy and the desire to have kids or not.
In unhappy marriages, spouses get entrenched in their position on the matter, become unwilling to budge and don’t care to try and understand each other’s point of view. It’s as if their position on the matter becomes more important than their partner’s feelings and wellbeing. Couples become gridlocked and this can lead to emotional disengagement.
Effective conflict resolution skills won’t do much if you feel contempt and resentment towards each other. Gottman’s research reveals that what’s most important is not simply how you handle your disagreements, but how you are with each other when you’re not fighting.
The key is that partners need to feel like they are accepted for who they are and have a fundamental sense of fondness and admiration for each other.
Myth #2: Problems of sexual desire or other sexual difficulties means there is something wrong with your marriage or that you’re falling out of love.
According to David Schnarch, expert sex therapist, every couple will have some sexual problem at some point in their marriage. Sexual problems are normal and so is their impact. The problem is that most couples don’t understand what’s happening to them. They may find it hard to talk about their sexual difficulties or not even know what to say about them, let alone admit they are having problems with sex.
Resolving sexual difficulties is more than just new positions and techniques. It requires looking at the ways you and your partner operate in your emotional relationship. As Schnarch describes it, our genitals are connected to who we are and so healing sexual difficulties requires a personal look into our anxieties, insecurities, disappointments, resentments and needs for autonomy and dependency.
Our sexuality is directly related to a complex set of beliefs and feelings about ourselves and the other. In his book Resurrecting Sex, Schnarch quotes three simple truths about sexual problems:
There are often no simple answers or solutions.
You don’t need easy or simple solutions; you just need solutions that really work.
A solution that’s an emotional stretch for you and your partner is often the best solution to your problem.
Unfortunately, sexual difficulties can lead to divorce or emotional alienation. On the other hand, the commitment to resolving these issues can open a doorway to a better way of being and greater self-respect and also take your relationship to new heights of maturity and partnership.
Myth #3: Affairs are the major cause of divorce.
A large survey of divorced men and women, conducted by Gigy and Kelly in a study entitled the “California Divorce Mediation Project,” reported that the major cause of divorce (80 percent of the time) is that partners became emotionally distant, lost a sense of closeness and drifted apart. Only 20 to 27 percent of couples said an extramarital affair was even partially to blame for their divorce.
When a marriage is in trouble or en route to divorce, it makes people vulnerable and causes them to look for intimate connections outside of the marriage. People look to others for what they feel they are not getting in their own marriage, including understanding, attention, caring and support. Hence, an affair is generally a symptom of a troubled marriage. In hindsight, divorced people often recognize that they took their spouse and their relationship for granted. They didn’t recognize its value until it was too late.
Myth #4: Children will solidify your marriage.
Studies have shown that one of the major causes of marital dissatisfaction and eventual divorce is the birth of the first baby. A longitudinal survey of 130 newlywed couples, followed over eight years by John Gottman, revealed 67 percent of couples underwent a precipitous drop in marital satisfaction the first time they became parents.
However, Gottman’s survey also revealed the other 33 percent did not experience this drop; in fact, half of them even reported that their marriage had never been better. What is the secret to this transition? According to Gottman, what separates these couples has little to do with lack of sleep, feeling overwhelmed, juggling motherhood with a career, lack of time for oneself or a colicky baby. Rather, it has to do with whether or not the husband experiences and participates in this transformation to parenthood along with his wife – or he gets left behind.
Indeed, a husband may find it difficult to keep up with the changes that his wife goes through during this period. He may feel abandoned by his wife and deprived by the baby’s overwhelming and seemingly endless need for mother and he may begin to withdraw. On the other hand, mother may sometimes find it difficult to include father in the care of the baby (casting herself as the only expert) or in acknowledging the loss felt by her husband.
The quality of a couple’s friendship before the birth, the husband’s ability to enter into and participate in this new dynamic and mother’s invitation and understanding will all determine if the marriage thrives or suffers.
While the happily-ever-after scenario presented in fairy tales and movies may seem attractive, buying into myths about marriage can create unrealistic expectations and lead to disappointment, confusion and alienation. If you can learn to separate the truth from the Hollywood fiction, you can recognize a positive relationship when you have one and avoid sabotaging an otherwise good partnership.
Claire Maisonneuve is a registered clinical counsellor with a Master’s degree in counselling psychology and the director of the Alpine Anxiety & Stress Relief Clinic in Vancouver. For the last 19 years, she has specialized in working with individuals and couples. 3126 W. Broadway, 604-732-3930,