It’s okay to ask. We don’t blame you if there are any persisting doubts in your mind. Besides, it’s not a question that elicits one correct answer. What you’ll probably get is a response that echoes the proverb, “life is what you make it.”
So a marriage is what you make it. Its success depends on several factors. That this question is repeatedly tossed about should be no cause for alarm. It enables us to put on our thinking caps so we can look at the issue in a more profound way – the way we used to analyze whether x=y back in high school.
Speaking of x=y, there’s another question that should trigger genuine alarm. Can a marriage work these days is a mild, harmless query that awakens the philosopher in us at best. Nothing else. The more dangerous question of course is Maureen Dowd’s investigation into whether or not men are necessary. In her book that bears the same title, she supposedly raised the matter with a few thinkers including British geneticist Steve Jones.
Dowd says, “Some guys I know have been fretting for years that they may be rendered obsolete if women get biological and financial independence, learning how to reproduce and refinance without them…The Y chromosome has been shedding genes willy-nilly for millions of years and is now a fraction of the size of its partner, the X chromosome. Size matters and experts are suggesting that in the next one hundred thousand to ten million years, men could disappear, taking Maxim magazine, March Madness and cold pizza in the morning with them.” (Are Men Necessary by M. Dowd, 2005)
We digressed a little from the main topic. And yet, we can’t help but think that this new philosophy – as reflected in the recent trend of women having children on their own without husbands and fathers – has an ounce of relevance to the question, “can a marriage work these days”?
Despite the Odds, Yes… Some Marriages do Work
The odds are those atrocious statistics that present a discouraging picture of marriage as an institution. This explains why we’re witnessing an increasing number of marriage counselors and therapists who appear to be in raking it in. The more people there are on the brink of divorce, the more income they make.
Well, as long as they’re saving a marriage worth saving and keeping two people together, that’s all that matters. They’re doing a great job in damage control. The money they make is well-earned.
Anyway, let’s look at those statistics (courtesy of Divorce Magazine who compiled the numbers from the US Census Bureau, National Center for Health Statistics, Americans for Divorce Reform and other agencies).
1997 Figures (reported in 2002):
- % of the US population that was married 59% (this is down from 62% in 1990 and 72% in 1970)
- % of the US population that never married 24%
- Median age of males at first marriage 26.9
- Median age of females at first marriage 25.3
- Median age of males at first divorce 30.5
- Median age of females at first divorce 29
- Median age of males at second marriage 34
- Median age of females at second marriage 32
- Median age of males at second divorce 39.3
- Median age of females at second divorce 37
- Likelihood of new marriages ending in divorce 43%
- % of first marriages that end in divorce 50%
- % of remarriages that end in divorce 60%
- Number of married couples in 2000 56.4 million
- Number of people who are divorced in 2000 8.5 million (males) 11.3 million (females)
- Number of people who were separated in 2000 1.8 million (males) 2.6 million (females)
These statistics are cold and indifferent. They paint a rough canvas of the “state of the union.” Judging from that rough canvas, it makes people regard marriage with suspicion. Why risk the loss of freedom when the institution appears to be crumbling? If we were to rely on these figures alone, the ghastly revelation is that 50% of first marriages end in divorce. That does not bode well for healthy relationships. Divorce brings along a baggage of shattered emotions, dashed hopes, and a vicious circle of anger, bitterness and despair. That’s just for the divorcing couple.
And what about the children?
Yet, the fact is that the other 50% of marriages DON’T end in divorce. That makes for a sound and valid argument that marriages can work these days. As positive thinkers like to teach us, focus on the glass being half full, not the glass being half empty.
That’s a tall order, especially for the marriage department. But marriage counselors and therapists – bless them – are able to salvage the remnants of a union that was once robust and flowing with energy.
How to Make a Marriage Work These Days
Psychologists and marriage advisers will argue that when a couple is neck-deep in their negative emotions, they don’t see the light at the end of the tunnel as clearly as someone whose vision has not been clouded by anger and deception.
Couples in therapy, once they are calm and have had time to recoup from a grueling round of arguments, are encouraged to develop a vision of the kind of future they want to have together. That’s one.
Two, they are asked to do a self-examination and to identify aspects of their personality that they believe will hinder them from achieving their future goals. At the same time, they are asked to describe the kind of person they want to be so they could take baby steps towards self-improvement.
Three, the therapist discusses with each spouse what skills and knowledge are required to arrive at a more promising future and become a more cooperative and receptive partner.
Dr. Peter Peterson of The Couples Institute says it’s going to be an uphill struggle characterized by trade-offs and difficult choices. He says that couples need to pursue their own interests and hobbies for them to develop their maximum potential because they “were not joined in the hip.” Each is a unique personality; that personality must develop independently of the other to attain its own strengths and abilities. Marriages are supposed to be true partnerships, perfectly balanced and harmonized. There will be pitfalls that will threaten that balance and harmony, but because it is a true partnership, the sides just re-adjust and assume a new dynamic. This is how marriages work these days – when the partnership has withstood the test of time and couples learn to deal intelligently with the trivia of daily life .
What are these tradeoffs that Dr. Peterson refers to?
The first tradeoff to making marriages work is time. Simply stated, it’s the quality time that couples spend together - time for other family members, time to plan and coordinate family activities, and time to relax. Time in and time out. Time is a huge investment and as we get busier with our lives, we get more selfish about our personal time.
But if we want our marriages to work, we’ll have to allot time for our significant other and devote some of that precious time to more enriching activities outside of our work. We often fall into the trap of defining ourselves by our work – “my work IS my life” and while that’s good for the national work ethic, it can harm relationships.
The second tradeoff is comfort. This means leaving our comfort level to experiment with new things and be willing to try alternative ways of doing things especially if the happiness of our marriages depends on it. The problem with clinging to our comfort zone, according to Dr. Peterson, is that it blinds us to different worlds - to another universe - that may hold the key to making a marriage work. It’s like taking our boat but not venturing too far for fear of losing sight of the shoreline. By harboring that fear, we deprive ourselves of knowing what lies at the other end of the ocean.
The third tradeoff is energy – truckloads of it. This is probably the hardest tradeoff for most married couples. It takes energy to achieve the most difficult of goals. But real effort means listening more instead of interrupting when our partner is speaking, giving constructive criticism, and controlling our negative reactions to problems. It’s amazing how a “can-do” attitude can save a marriage from falling apart.
Just as our superiors at work commend us when we take on responsibilities and say “we can do that”, our spouse will appreciate us more if we show our willingness to listen instead of being reticent or hesitant.
Can A Marriage Work These Days? How About this One Last Thought?
We had hundreds of marriage quotes to choose from, but these two stood out. From Paul Tillich: “The first duty of love is to listen.” The second one is from an unknown author: “The goal is to have a conversation in a way so that you can have another conversation tomorrow.”
Sure, marriages can work. It’s a question of using both ears, not one!