I’ve been married twice. Eight years the first time and I am nearing 25 years in the second marriage. I look back at my marriage experiences and I consider young adults and the decisions they have to make in relationships. The question is whether or not marriage worth it? I believe that like most important life decisions, there is no perfect answer.
[Author’s NOTE: For the purpose of this discussion, marriage is defined as a lifelong, intimate, and exclusive commitment to another person regardless of the genders of the couple (female/male, male/male, or female/female) involved in the relationship. It includes couples who have not officially married but have mutually agreed to have an exclusive, cohabitating relationship. This discussion assumes a monogamous relationship and does NOT include other types of multiple spousal relationships such as polygamy, polygyny, polyandry, or polyamory.]
A Case For Marriage
Despite all the challenges to maintaining a relationship over time, marriage usually has a positive effect on both partners that cannot be achieved as a single individual. Maybe it is sharing the burden of life with someone else that makes our existence more rewarding. Maybe it is the stability of the relationship that smooths out the manic aspects of life.
Regardless, there is almost always a reward in having a significant, loving relationship that is difficult, if not impossible, to achieve by living alone. Marriage typically makes us more focused, more rational, and more emotionally stable.
For some couples, marriage becomes the center of their lives. Decisions are made jointly and other people see the couple as a single entity. All things are shared, even an email address.
For other couples, marriage is a symbiotic relationship that enriches each other’s experiences. Each person maintains a separate identity but time spent together is the oasis of their lives.
It is interesting to note that research indicates that married men live longer than men who remain single, divorced, or are widowed, although there are disputing studies that suggest single men that stay single also live longer. Men who lose their spouse have an increased risk of dying within a short period afterward. Note that this data is on heterosexual couples. Same-gender marriages are relatively new and there has not been enough time to study longevity issues associated with single-sex marriages.
A Case Against Marriage
Any relationship is complicated because it involves the hopes, desires, and preconceptions of two people. The idea that two people will have attitudes about marriage that perfectly coincide is absurd. People who decide to get married typically are willing to compromise on their preconceptions of marriage in exchange for the hope that over time a compromise will be reached and their relationship will become perfect.
While compromises in a relationship are usually made, eventually one or both reach a point where they realize that they compromised on things that are important to them. It is at this point the Dissatisfaction Syndrome begins.
Many years ago I realized that decisions are driven by dissatisfaction. A person becomes dissatisfied with something and ultimately decides to make a change. This usually happens over time and consists of multiple ‘dissatisfiers.’
An example would be a person’s employment. Initially, a person may be excited about a new job, but over time the employee will experience dissatisfiers (reaching top of the pay scale, unreasonable demands, poor management decisions, disagreeable co-workers, etc.) and that person will begin considering looking for a new job. Eventually, a final event (dissatisfier) will motivate an employee to take action.
This happens in marriages. Dissatisfiers can operate in the background of any relationship and build over time. A tipping point is reached when the person realizes that the marriage is no longer sufficiently satisfying and a change must be made.
The Growth Problem
Another problem in any relationship is the Growth Problem. Human development occurs over a lifespan. A healthy, well-adjusted person needs to engage in a continuous process of learning and adapting. The problem is that humans learn and adopt new attitudes and priorities at different rates and usually in different directions.
A person at 25 is completely different than they are at 40, so what happens when the person you’ve been with for 15 years is now a stranger?
The Worst Marriage: Codependency
There is a worst-case scenario in marriage. It is when one or both partners are codependent on each other. In this situation, all the normal things that breakdown a relationship occur but one or both partners stay in the relationship because the can’t imagine living independently.
This results in the marriage becoming a black hole of despair, anger, and mistrust that destroys the mental and emotional health of both partners.
Children and Marriage
I believe that children substantially impact a marriage, but that children tend to magnify the state of the relationship. In the case of a healthy relationship, the net impact is to enhance and deepen the relationship. In an unhealthy relationship, the net impact increases the existing problems and issues.
“Till Death Do You Part?”
The concept of marriage has radically changed over the last two centuries, along with the human lifespan. Most advanced countries accept that the ‘wife’ is no longer the property of the male. Additionally, divorce has become more accepted.
The idea that marriage is for life is not practical for most people despite that many religions still cling to 18th-century concepts of marriage. There are some couples that defy the odds and maintain a loving relationship until death but in many cases, a relationship can become destructive to the emotional and mental health of one or both partners after a period of time.
The Need For a Different Marriage Model
I don’t believe that anyone can predict or accurately assess a couple’s relationship and know whether or not it will last. There are too many variables.
Still, there are benefits to monogamous relationships and marriage creates a framework for a couple to be committed to each other. The problem is that in many relationships, a point of no return is reached that signals the end. What is needed is a new model of marriage that requires couples to have an ongoing assessment of their relationship (e.g.; counseling,) a measure of the quality of the relationship (e.g.; is it working or not) and, if needed, an acceptable transition out of the relationship that keeps both people whole.
What isn’t accounted for in this model are the children. A child should be a planned event, as much as possible, with the understanding that a child creates a third, and equal party in the relationship. Sadly, too many people have children who do not have the appropriate skills to be a parent, let alone a parent in an unhealthy marriage.