Important Information to Know When You Think Your Marriage is in Trouble

Marriage Moments has focused on seeing marriage as more than a feeling; it’s sharing a vision of the good life, building a partnership to achieve important life goals, and working to develop the personal virtues that will sustain that partnership and enrich your marriage. For the most part, a sincere effort by you and your partner to live by these virtues will help you avoid many of the problems that arise for couples during their marriage. When spouses build their relationship on a foundation of true friendship, sincere forgiveness, a willingness to look past each other’s weaknesses, a commitment to fairness, and a deep loyalty to each other, they are often able to prevent troubles from becoming a threat to their marriage.

However, there are times when even the best of marriages may go off track. Marriage and family life can be hard. The demands of becoming parents can challenge a couple’s unity and feelings of fairness and friendship. More often than not, the struggles of marriage help us grow and mature as individuals and push us to make personal improvements in areas that we already know need improvement. Every couple who stays married for life has experiences with overcoming troubles. However, there are times when problems push relationships to the edge. As most of us sadly know, research shows that more than 40% of first marriages in the United States end in divorce, with about one in three marriages breaking up within the first ten years of marriage.

These statistics present us with an important question: Why are some couples able to stay together, even when times get tough, while others choose to end their relationship? Is it that some couples are destined to make it, while others are doomed to fail, or is there something more to it than that? Years of research have shown that there are certain things that spouses can do, both individually and together, to increase their chances of making it successfully through the tough times that may come in marriage. Three of the things that make a difference are:

1) The type of commitment spouses have in their marriage.
2) The beliefs spouses have about marital problems and divorce.
3) Spouses’ willingness to seek outside help for marital problems.

Marital Commitment: The Heart of the Matter

Throughout the Marriage Moments lessons, we have discussed how certain personal virtues, such as fairness, generosity, and loyalty, are core features of strong, lasting marriages. For most of us, we grow in our ability to live according to these virtues as we confront the day-to-day ups and downs of real life. However, it is in times of serious challenges or troubles that we truly learn how deep our convictions to these virtues really are. Indeed, the strength of one’s commitment and dedication can only truly be determined when the relationship is troubled. In times of marital trouble, we find out what kind of commitment we have to our spouse, our children, and our marriage.

Professor William H. Doherty, a highly respected marriage therapist and scholar, notes that there are two kinds of marital commitment. The first, more tentative type of commitment has become increasingly popular in our culture that stresses personal happiness and self-fulfillment. Doherty calls this “commitment-as-long-as.” This type of commitment usually involves couples who are committed as long as they make each other happy, as long as they get along, as long as their individual life goals line up, as long as they don’t fight too much, as long as the sex is good, as long as the relationship meets their needs and helps them grow as people. The bottom line is: we are committed to staying together, not as long as we both shall live, but as long as things are working out for me. Clearly, this type of commitment is based in the myth of marital happiness (see Lesson 1: MORE THAN A FEELING).

The other kind of commitment that spouses can have in their marriage is not tentative or conditional. It can be referred to as “commitment-no-matter-what.” Doherty emphasizes that this kind of commitment is “the long view of marriage in which you don’t balance ledgers every month to see if you are getting an adequate return on your investment.” This type of commitment is a critical part of working through the rough patches that confront every marriage. When both partners are committed to making things better and in finding ways to improve the situation, there is real hope that relationships will help them survive the marital troubles. Moreover, many couples get past these troubles and come to know each other in new, more meaningful ways and achieve a deeper level of love and friendship.

Beliefs About Marital Problems and Divorce

Researchers have found that the beliefs spouses have about marital problems and divorce play a key role in their willingness to consider divorce when their relationship is having troubles. In addition, recent research shows that if people have fairly lenient attitudes towards divorce, in general, they are more likely to experience a divorce later on, even if they are currently very happy in their marriage. Researchers have also noted that many people have beliefs that are often inaccurate about divorce. These beliefs can be labeled myths because they are not true for most couples. Three common myths about divorce are discussed here.

Myth 1 – Couples who stay married throughout their lives typically have less problems and difficulties than couples who divorce.

Some people fall into the trap of believing that staying together is largely about having found the perfect spouse or not having difficulties. Because of these beliefs, many couples are dismayed when they are confronted by the evitable conflict and troubles that arise in their marriage. They conclude that they must be different than other couples whom they assume don’t have these types of problems and they begin to consider that their problems are an indication that they are poorly-fit to be married. Research on real-life marriages does not support this thinking. In fact, research shows that couples who stay together for life have the same number of unresolved problems that couples who split-up have. The truth of the matter is not that couples who stay together have fewer problems; it is that they realize that every relationship will have its areas of incompatibility and disagreements. The key is that spouses in life-long marriages recognize that their relationship is more important than any problems they may have and both spouses work at getting themselves on the same side in finding solutions to their troubles or finding ways so that the troubles don’t matter as much.

Myth 2 – Troubled marriages almost never get better.

When people are experiencing the hurt and frustration of marital difficulties, it is easy to believe that they have only two options with their marriage – get out and be happy or stay with it and be miserable. However, careful consideration reveals that these are only two of the potential paths a person can take with their marriage. And, in fact, they are often the least likely options that occur. Research has shown that people experiencing marital troubles more often than not proceed down two other life paths: get out and be miserable or stay with it and be happy. Upon experiencing single life and new relationships after a divorce, many ex-spouses admit that they wish they had worked harder to save their marriage. Those who find new relationships often realize that they have traded one set of marital difficulties for another set of difficulties with a new partner. This helps explain why second marriage have a higher rate of divorce than first marriages. Of course, some people rightly leave terrible marriages that should be terminated. And many do find better marriages.

Research has also shown that most couples experiencing serious troubles are able to work through their problems. In fact, a recent study that followed-up on couples who were “very unsatisfied” with their marriages found that within a couple of years 60% of couples reported that they were now “quite happy” or “very happy” with their marriages. Another 25% reported significant improvement in their relationships. For many couples who work through their marital difficulties, the times of difficulty in their past help them more fully appreciate the times of goodness in the present and future.

Myth 3 – When parents don’t get along, children generally are better off if there parents divorce than if they stay together.

Determining how divorce affects children is a complex issue that is influenced by a number of factors. However, researchers have determined that the type of marriage spouses have prior to a divorce plays an important role in how divorce affects children. It is true that children are generally better off if their parents end a high-conflict or abusive relationship. This finding supports the fact there are situations where divorce may not only be necessary but best. However, research also suggests that if parents are in a low-conflict, non-abusive marriage, then children do better if their parents stay together. Research also indicates that about two-thirds of all divorces in the United States can be labeled as low-conflict. Findings from several studies also indicate that some problems children experience as a result of marital breakdown do improve over time. But other problems often don’t appear until later, especially in young adulthood when children of divorce are trying to establish intimate relationships. In summary, it seems that most divorces are not caused by problems so serious that they can’t be fixed, and divorce often is not in the best interests of children. Children are truly stakeholders in their parents’ marriage and their well-being should be a primary consideration when parents are making decisions about ending their marriage. In the vast majority of cases, what is best for both children and adults is that they work to keep their marriage strong, solve their problems as they come along, and learn to accept the inevitable imperfections that come with being human.

Seeking Trained Help

Frequently, a central part of being committed to your relationship “no matter what” involves seeking help for lingering problems that seem to resist your best efforts to get past or resolve. Seeking out marital counseling or other types of help from therapists, religious leaders, and other qualified professionals is one of the best ways to demonstrate your commitment to your marriage. Seeking marriage counseling is not a sign of weakness; it is a sign of great strength. There are numerous couples who have found counseling to be extremely helpful in getting their marriages back on track.

If you decide to seek out a marital counselor, you should look for three primary things.

1. Find a therapist that supports marriage and is pro-commitment.
Unfortunately, while many marital therapists are very helpful of couples who are struggling, not every therapist or counselor is truly supportive of spouses’ commitment to each other and to their marriage. If you decide to seek counseling about your marital troubles, either alone or with your spouse, you should make sure to find a counselor that will work to support, rather than undermine, your commitment to each other. Therapist and others can, and often are, caught up in the myth of marital happiness. Some therapists support the myth by judging marriages solely in terms of people’s feelings and personal needs. These types of therapists sometimes encourage spouses to get out of marriages before truly working things through.

2. Find a therapist that has a history of working successfully with couples. Only a small percentage of therapists have been trained to work with couples and to deal specifically with marital problems. Just because a therapist says he or she is a “marriage therapist” doesn’t mean that he or she has been trained to work with couples. You should ask questions up front about a therapist’s history in working with couples and their approach to working with both spouses together.

3. Find a therapist that will challenge each of you about your contributions to the problems and push each of you to make individual changes to resolve the problem. Marriage problems are rarely one-sided. Typically there are areas where each spouse can make improvements. Herein lies one of the true paradoxes of marital therapy. While the larger goals and focus of the counseling are on couple issues, the resolution of the problem usually involves each spouse individually making changes to improve the situation. Therefore, if counseling is going to work, each spouse needs to enter therapy with their heart in the right place and a commitment to practice the relationship virtues of friendship, generosity, fairness, and loyalty in an effort to regain a sense of partnership in their marriage.

Married life is not always easy and it certainly isn’t carefree. The reality in life is that life-long marriages almost always experience times of difficulty. Marriage is about working through problems, holding on to hope, letting go of negative feelings, looking past a partner’s faults, seeking help when needed, remembering our promises to each other, and caring for each other even when we feel disappointed or hurt. We learn in life through comparing the contrasting elements of life experiences. We learn to treasure companionship when we feel alone and we appreciated all the good things in our marriages when we experience some of the tough times. Nothing meaningful in this life comes without effort and sacrifice, but in the end it is our sacrifices for things that make them meaningful to us.

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