By Vivian Diller, Ph.D.
At age 58, I have now been successfully married to the same man for over 25 years. I write ‘successful,’ rather than ‘happy’ to emphasize that marriage through midlife is not just about blissful sailing, but about the ability to navigate the realities of long-term relationships over many years.
Sure we have our ups and downs — and our differences — but I can say with confidence that my husband and I will never part. Why such assurance when the divorce rate in this country is so high? How do we differ from the couples described in Iris Krasnow’s The Secret Lives of Wives: Women Share What It Really Takes To Stay Married, who “have been married forever but think about divorce if not weekly, at least once a month?” Perhaps, both being psychotherapists, we have a heightened awareness of what it takes to keep marriage alive for all those ‘forever’ years. Perhaps it’s our work helping troubled couples that reminds us to appreciative the relationship we have. Most of all, our optimism is the result of keeping “Marital Myths” from interfering with realistic love.
My husband wrote about these myths in his book, “All You Need is Love and Other Lies About Marriage.” Below I’ve selected four that we debunk regularly in our work with couples and in our own relationship. Believe these myths and you may see even the strongest relationships head toward failure by age fifty. Face the truths behind them and your relationship has a greater chance to make it through midlife and beyond.
Myth #1: All you need is love.
These words may have made beautiful music for the Beatles, but when it comes to long-term marriage “all you need is love” is not just wishful thinking, but dangerous dissonance. It’s why so many couples come to therapy asking, “if we love each other, why are we so unhappy?” We are bombarded by this mythical message from early childhood onward; in fairy tales, then romance novels, films and in reality shows. Doesn’t every little girl and boy grow up believing that love conquers all? The Bachelor and Bachelorette, most popular with young adults of marriageable age, confirm the fantasy; find the right guy or gal, fall in love and happiness will be achieved. And as long as our culture continues to perpetuate this message, couples will struggle maintaining their relationships.
The truth is, given how long we live and how complicated married life is, this belief is just not realistic. Unconditional love may be appropriate for parent — child relationships, but not for husband and wife. In fact, the opposite is true. The expectation that ‘love is all you need’ undermines the importance of developing the real skills needed to keep marriage alive and well through midlife. Debunk this myth and begin applying relationship skills that go hand and hand with love and your marriage may just work.
Myth #2: Talking is the key to success.
“Keep the lines of communication open” and our relationships will be okay, right? Marital experts imply this when they tell us to talk through our difficulties. Openness is good. Avoidance is bad. We have even learned from Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus that males and females have their own communication styles, and as long as we understand these differences, we can solve our marital problems? Wrong.
We may be the generation that was encouraged to ask, “What do you think? How do you feel?” and expected to be understood, but few of us have been taught how to differentiate between effective versus ineffective communication. We were told to be brutally honest so our partners would know how we really feel. But the truth is, people are often more brutal than honest. Spouses sometimes use their version of the truth to bludgeon their partners. Couples may do a lot of talking and think that should be enough, but they behave badly. Communicating alone is not the key to solving marital problems. Rather, it’s in how we talk, how we listen and most importantly, how we behave that leads to the success of long-term marriage. How often do we treat strangers — the woman who waits tables or the guy behind the deli counter — better than our mates? Too often. As my husband and I often say, “there’s no excuse for bad behavior” in any relationship, but especially with the person you love.
Myth #3: Change my mate and everything will be fine
Couples who seek marital help most often come in saying they want to work on improving their relationship. Yet, frequently what they really mean is this: “If you can change my mate, everything will be fine.” On some level, both men and women actually fear that their problems are so intractable that they are wasting their time trying to change the way they feel toward one another. People are convinced that their marital problems lie in their partner and that fixing them will fix their marriage. Not only is this is an incorrect belief, but it can sabotage the real work that can improve salvageable marriages.
The truth is that most couples spend a lot of time trying to improve their relationships in unproductive ways. They remain fixed in destructive cycles and as a result, get frustrated by their unsuccessful efforts and pessimistic that they, as a couple, can feel better. Many fear that shifting marital patterns is too complicated, so they bail out of the demands required for productive marital work. In reality, there is tough work involved in couples getting what they say they want from their marriages. And while we may not be able to change our partner, there’s a lot we can do to foster change in our relationships.
Myth #4: Children solidify relationships.
One of the most important myths that interferes with successful long-term marriage is the belief that children help keep people together. Even if creating families may have been the motive behind why some couples marry, the truth is that placing your focus on children over your marital relationship invites major problems over the long term.
That is not to say that children don’t need our attention. No doubt we love and devote ourselves to their welfare. But in a culture where couples already work long hours and spend little time together, we need to be aware that family life can wear down marriage life. The sleepless nights during infancy right through the terrors of teenage years have a greater tendency to unglue a marriage, rather than solidify it. Children’s needs are ever present and unpredictable. They have unexpected difficulties — emotional and physical — and when they do, it grows increasingly difficult to keep their needs from interfering with our marriages. It may be counter-intuitive, but a couple’s relationship must be made a priority, not only for the sake of preserving our marriages, but so that our children grow up within intact families.
Which is all to say that recognizing and acknowledging these four marital myths can make it more likely that you can maintain your relationship through midlife. My husband and I continue to feel romantic love, in spite of — and perhaps because of — our continued awareness of these myths about marriage. And, while love alone is not enough to keep couples together, relationships rooted in firm realities can deepen the love that does exist between them.
Do you know any other myths that make it hard to maintain marriage through midlife?
Vivian Diller, Ph.D., is a psychologist in private practice in New York City. A professional dancer before becoming a Wilhelmina model, Dr. Diller co-authored FACE IT: What Women Really Feel As Their Looks Change (2010), a psychological guide to help women deal with the emotions brought on by their changing appearances. For more information, please visit www.VivianDiller.com