On the mantel is a beautiful picture of mom, dad, the son, the daughter and the family mutt all smiling, looking so happy. The reality is mom and dad sleep in separate rooms, they never kiss, never hold hands. Birthdays and anniversaries go by without any real resemblance of celebration. And on the outside, the marriage looks so perfect with the nice house, perfect car and well dressed kids. But on the inside, two people are simply pulling off one of life’s most common acts. Living in a pretend marriage. While people were shock, judgmental and horrified when Brad Pitt announced in a September 2011 interview that his ‘pretend’ marriage to Jenifer Anniston had him playing the role of his life for real the truth is that millions of other people feel exactly the same way.
There might not be a voice to admit their frustration or lack of satisfaction in life. But dutifully they sit around the dinner table with the perceived perfection of marriage and family, waiting for the other person to finally ask for a divorce, or to get caught cheating, or to die so that they can be free from living the lie. For so many folks, getting out of a marriage is not as cut and dry as deciding that their happiness is worth the risk of financial doom, possible loneliness, lack of income or shelter, humiliation and breaking apart the family unit to save themselves. So they pretend. And they stay. And they wait. While life passes them by.
So life becomes like an episode of Survivor, waiting to see who will get voted off first. And the lies, and personal deceptions are just as deep as those on the hit primetime television show. So why do people do it? Why are so many people living in unhappy marriages and pretending to the rest of the world that all is perfectly well? After all for most of these people, they have been ‘checked out’ of the marriage for some time. So what is up with the facade?
Researchers and family counsellors believe the reasons are broad and many. But perhaps the biggest reason that people become content to live a lie is because of fear. Fear of what might happen next. Fear of losing the children. Fear of losing the security that the marriage brings. It may seem like an oxy moron but the vivid truth is that a marriage can bring security without bringing happiness. Lots of people stay in their marriages and pretend to the world because they are fearful of what others might think or say about them if they divorce. Many others are paralyzed by the truth that their marriage is a big fat lie, and are stymied by a sense of failure that leaving or ending the fairy tale would bring to them.
Of course one of the most widespread reasons people continue to live in a pretend marriage is for the sake of the children. And the second most prevalent reason is financial security. Perhaps the very best word to describe how people are feeling in these pretend marriages is STUCK.
Marriage is an industry of sorts. And a socially resilient one at that. There are so many expectations both cultural and societal that push people towards marriage. And since today, many of the people married are products of the ‘pretend marriages’ that their own parents were in, they find it difficult to lead the path and save themselves. Maybe they just don’t know how. Experts believe that as divorce becomes more socially acceptable among social groups and cultures, more and more people will decide to not get married to begin with, or will be more willing to get out of pretend marriages. Over the past decades more and more couples are choosing to just live together, which seems to come with less of the responsibilities that call for pretending than marital ‘bliss’ defines with its nuptials. Living together, there is no ‘for better or for worse,’ no oath, no standing before God and family and professing eternal commitment. And no risk of failure if it didn’t work out. No fear of people telling you that ‘they knew it wouldn’t work’ or ‘I told you so,’ like there is when a couple gets married.
If you are married, it’s also easy to see how time and commitments, responsibilities and stressors of life can make two people drift away from one another. And lots of people just aren’t sure how to handle the reconnect. Eventually, the emotional separation becomes so distanced that people cannot find their way back no matter how hard they try. Or perhaps they are just or unwilling. And many of these people living in pretend marriages aren’t necessarily unhappy, and are obviously getting some sort of payoff from the situation. While the marriage isn’t story book, it isn’t abusive or miserable either. For those people, what is the point of divorcing into uncharted territories when things are ‘fine’ just the way they are?
Chances are that the perfect couple down the street from you, who seems constantly happy and absolutely perfect isn’t quite as perfect as they may seem on the outside. They may be sleeping in separate beds, barely speaking to one another, overlooking infidelity. Even if they show up at the PTA meeting, or the school awards ceremony or are constantly taking vacations in their mini-van they might not be as happily married as you think. Their efforts may be nothing more than going through the motions of what they believe is expected in a marriage, and putting on a show.
Until you walk in other people’s shoes you really know little about their journey. If you are married, chances are you have ‘pretended’ a time or two at least to be something that you aren’t to save face around others. Maybe you have hid an argument, or hid a problem in the marriage from people that you love because it’s embarrassing or otherwise private. Point is, that each of us has a face for our personal life that doesn’t exactly match the face we show for others. And this extremely insightful when it comes to marriages.