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Archive for August, 2012

So let’s leave it alone,’cause we can’t see eye to eye.

There ain’t no good guy, there ain’t no bad guy,
There’s only you and me and we just disagree

—We Just Disagree, Song by Dave Mason

Lyrics by Rockwell

 

 

Marital Relationships in the 21st Century:

A Few Modern Day Insights

 

Part I

 

It’s been a long time since the summer of 1968 when my wife and I got married on an unseasonably hot day in June. There we were (sweating) in our finest clothes, surrounded by friends and family, taking our vows and pledging to love, honor, and cherish for the rest of our lives. Collectively our ideas about marriage and family were formed very early in life as we were growing up. Since then American society has gone through quite a metamorphosis in terms of what a marriage means to different people in different social settings and our marriage has changed as well.

While there are many different types of relationships in society, marriage, it is predicted, will still be with us 40 years from now. It remains a popular way to form a relationship among young and old alike. But while the character of relationships will likely change in the future, the psychology of how marriage partners interact with one another will likely not change as we journey further into the 21st Century. I am not an expert on marital relationships and I’m no Ann Landers; however, I do feel that because of living a long life, my education, and my experience being married for four plus decades, I do possess a few nuggets of wisdom to share with a cyberspace audience.

Therefore, I am initiating a two-part series on marital relationships in the 21st Century in terms of relationships between men and women in the United States, the institution of marriage, the selection process, divorce, infidelity statistics, complaints each partner has of one another and a few underlying psychological insights into what I think are the primary causes of marital difficulties today. I will also provide a few tips on how to improve your marriage.

In Part I of the series I present an introduction on marital relationships, the concept of the institution of marriage, discuss divorce statistics and attendant problems of interpretation, infidelity statistics, and list many of the irritations and marital conflicts married couples sometimes have to deal with. Irritations, of course, occur in every marriage and are inevitable; unfortunately, beyond irritations serious marital conflicts are also too common in American society.

In Part II I will take a stab at what I think is at the root cause of much conflict in a marriage—differing psychological characteristics that can predispose one to set oneself up for trouble, or even work to undermine one’s marriage altogether. These psychological characteristics are a matter of degree but, in the extreme, will undermine marriage. What am I talking about? I’m talking about selfishness and a desire to control your spouse’s entire life. These two psychological characteristics are common and can ultimately destroy a marriage.

I will also present in Part II a few tips to help men and women improve their marriage.

 

Introduction

We are all social animals; you don’t want to go through life alone; however, being alone is a good solution when relationships really do fall apart provided one remains a social being outside a failed marriage or relationship. Or, as someone once said, “Life’s a bitch, than you die.” Socially speaking, we can all do much better than that. After all, life’s not a bitch unless you’re married to one. Those are fighting words my friend, so now you have your first insight into the war of the sexes and why many people in a marital relationship just can’t seem to get along—emotion and irrationality.

“There are only two things women do wrong—everything they say and everything they do.” “Don’t get me wrong, I like women. I think every man should own one.” “Hey! It’s okay to be a woman. After all—nobody’s perfect.” “Women, of course, are very logical. Problem is scientists and logicians have never been able to quite determine what form of logic that is.” “Some people put letters after their name such as MA, Ph.D. or J.D. All women are entitled to put the letter N after their name, which stands for Neurotic.” “Most women I know are very modest. Then again, they usually have a lot to be modest about.” Or so these jokes go when men tell them. I’ve also heard many of these same jokes told by women with men as the target of their humor. So, what is the war of the sexes?

The expression “war of the sexes” is a somewhat outdated expression to suggest that men and women continually have difficulty getting along with one another. And, this difficulty seems to continue throughout ones marital relationship. In the United States one can view the relationships between men and women as quite good (relatively speaking).  Why? It’s because men and women are finally on an equal legal footing. Then, there is Afghanistan where women are treated like dirt, devoid of all rights, and viewed as some sort of chattel, or property. My attention in this Blog is oriented toward relationships between men and women in the United States.

 

Relationships in the United States

Despite the equal legal footing between men and women in the United States, it is amazing to me that men and women in relationships get along as well as they do. Why? Because men and women, despite coming from the same culture and protected by law, are so different psychologically. Scientists now have data (besides the obvious physical differences) to suggest that the brain of men and women is wired differently. And, it seems our internal hormonal differences often indicate quite different patterns of behavior, emotions, and thought processes in each gender.

It is no surprise to me that after the honeymoon, when life settles back to normal, the real nature of the relationship begins to take form. And, none of us can know or predict the changes ones marriage partner or oneself will go through between ages 25 and 100.

It is also no surprise, that with stress factors continually impacting each other in a relationship, both genders can, at times, be rather antagonistic to one another, grow apart in different directions, or worse yet—find someone else one thinks is a better choice. Sometimes in second or third marriages, the spouse changes but the old behavior patterns remain the same, often making the new marriage no more successful than the very first one. This applies to either men or women.

On the positive side, what men and women want most in a relationship is love, the desire to have sex (yes, this Blog is written by a man), raise a family, succeed in one’s career for purposes of self-esteem, have meaningful relationships with family and friends, attain financial security, and enjoy the mutual value placed by both men and women on our greatest social need—companionship.

Unfortunately, many factors can derail this picture-perfect scenario including extreme selfishness, ego, unexpected events (e.g., death, surprise pregnancies, loss of a job, mental or physical illness, the “empty nest syndrome,” car accidents and injury), and a host of other stressful negatives.

In addition, often times the “Institution of Marriage” takes precedence over individual selection. Said another way, being married itself is the coveted prize, not the individual one who is yearned for, or the desired prize. Often women use this criterion for marriage more than men do. And, consequently who is selected as one’s marriage partner is sometimes very secondary to the value placed on simply “just being married.” This leads to the next section, The Institution of Marriage.

The Institution of Marriage

The “Institution of Marriage” purpose for getting married today is a very outdated way of thinking about marriage. As a criterion for getting married, it was much more common fifty to sixty years ago. Culture was responsible for this mode of thinking, not women per se. The importance of marriage long ago was inculcated into girls as young as 7 that they might one day meet their “Knight in Shining Armor.” Hollywood and books also contributed to the fiction of this unrealistic scenario. Young boys were also taught, directly or indirectly, they would be the sole providers in the household (the hunters versus gatherers paradigm) and the sole captain of their ship (Equality wasn’t part of the nation’s lexicon yet in the 40s and 50s). In the 1960s the world began to change and in the 1970s the Women’s Movement had a profound influence on American society and the world.

The Institution of Marriage as a nonsensical view and unrealistic fantasy has all but disappeared from American culture when American society turned the corner into the 21st Century. Women today have many more choices to ponder, and that freedom means it is perhaps a lot more difficult to set priorities, or once set, to juggle those priorities. With today’s freedom to choose any career, the idea of postponing marriage is gaining acceptance among both men and women. Data are also now showing in 2012 there are more women attending college than men, something that would have been unheard of 50 to 60 years ago. Data also indicate the average age at marriage is older than it was three decades ago. Like Bob Dillon sang in the 1960s, “the times they are a-changing.”

The Selection Process

Having lived during the 1940s and 50s I know of these things I’m telling my younger cyberspace readership. Sorry guys. It’s not always about love, sexiness, or good looks! Women think more contextually than do men, and take extraneous factors beyond good looks or personality into account. Potential of a spouse to be a good provider and a good father does enter into their mental calculations.

Men, particularly in the past, tended to see potential spouses in terms of good looks, sexiness, personality, (Let’s get to it honestly—how hot the woman was) in their calculations. Much of the selection process by women probably takes place at a subconscious level of calculation. There is nothing subconscious in how men select a future spouse. However, these types of generic assessments for a future spouse differ by educational level of the person. Highly educated men and women use a more sophisticated set of criteria including intelligence, conversational ability, and the ability to feel things deeply, yet remain reality-oriented. Immaturity as a factor is viewed negatively by both genders.

Unfortunately, even the shrewdest deliberations by the ladies can sometimes backfire as time goes by in a marriage. Women probably do a better job of sizing up her future spouse than do men evaluating a future spouse. It is, after all, a selection process, but the criteria of desirability, in a future spouse, does vary between men and women.

Divorce in America

Often one or both spouses may feel the need to extricate his or herself from a marital relationship when stresses get too great, or one’s spouse becomes unbearable to live with. When that happens, divorce can and often does occur.

In the next section I describe the complaints of men and women in marital relationships. Some men and women find real contentment in a relationship. Also, some men and women are good at sensing trouble and immediately work to improve the relationship. Others often choose not to discuss their feelings particularly when discontent builds up to the boiling point. Finding fault all the time in your partner is always in the eye of the beholder, yet obviously can generate a lot of conflict.

One could argue that finding fault in the first place is psychologically “more about you” than it is about your spouse. Unfortunately, sometimes irritation between partners can explode in a number of ways. When that happens one of the options men and women consider is divorce. Sometimes you can accept inadequacies or faults in your partner; at other times—you can’t.

Relationships can be fragile things if they aren’t nurtured or worked on. The perfect marriage does not exist and the perfect individual doesn’t either (unless we’re talking about my wife who is the ultimate in perfection. Women don’t get any better or prettier than her). [Yeah, I know—she’ll probably read my Blog so I better be extra nice].

However, humor aside for one moment, sometimes the best course of action in a marriage may be separation and/or divorce. Briefly, divorce statistics you read about are very misleading. It’s often bandied about in the media that the divorce rate in this country is 50%. This media statement isn’t just misleading, it’s totally incorrect.

It all depends upon the question asked and the methods used to answer the question. When one looks at methods for computing a divorce rate this is what one finds. There is a crude divorce rate defined as the number of divorces per 1,000 people in the population. The problem there is the denominator. That is, singles and children are also part of that 1,000 number. It is an invalid measure of divorce. A better measure, although not perfect, is the divorce rate in any one year of all marriages. Problem is conclusions are difficult to assess since some in that divorce rate may have married last week and is compared to those divorcing in the same year who may have been married for 30 years. This raises an important question. What is the proper time at risk to evaluate divorce statistics in that regard?

A much better approach to looking at divorce statistics is the cohort approach. That is, marriages are followed for a much longer period of time say 20, 30, or 40 years from date of marriage. You still need to ask a very specific question because the answers may still be imperfect since conflict may not always be the cause of why some couples are no longer married to each other. For example, some in the cohort may simply become widows or widowers.

This is what I mean about asking the right questions up front, and knowing the precise way data should accurately be measured. Or, the question may be right, but the instrument of measurement may be wrong. A more specific question built on the cohort approach might go like this: How many in the cohort filed for divorce and were approved by the courts later with a documented divorce decree? Even here data can be misleading. Some people in miserable relationships separate but never divorce. Then there are those I would characterize as a “relationship” divorce i.e., people who remain married, but hate each others guts. Motivations for staying together in that situation often relate to financial needs and/or having children. Said another way, complications arise from data when people separate but do not divorce. That is, the divorce rate is one thing; the actual relationship is quite another.

Data a few years ago indicated that 21% of all couples in America are getting much too physical with one another. I’m talking about men and women who commit assault and battery on one another. This is one of the telltale signs that people in such relationships should pack their bags, and terminate their relationships. There is no such thing as a margin of acceptability where domestic violence is concerned. Men and women both need to adopt a zero tolerance policy where violence (physical or psychological) is concerned. Zero Tolerance Policy means not even once. If a spouse hurts you or your children (this goes for both men and women) it’s time to “Shit-Can” he or she out of your life.

Now that you are cautioned that the divorce rate must be tied to very specific questions and methods (crude divorce rate, number of divorces filed each year, or a longitudinal research effort to count the number of divorces from a certain cohort of married individuals) what can I really tell you about divorce statistics?

Not to over complicate this discussion, but I need to point out that generational factors are also involved. Expectations of what a marriage is, and what a spousal relationship should be, have changed over time. Today women are equals in any partnership with men. But that wasn’t always the case. With this understanding in mind, what do we know about a divorce rate?

First, a young couple marrying today for the first time has a lifetime divorce risk of 40 percent unless current trends change drastically.

Second, despite the imperfection in the crude divorce rate, the rate of divorce since 1980 has been declining.

Third, people who have been married many years (say, 35-plus) and have never been divorced have almost no chance of the marriage ending in divorce.

In terms of different generations the divorce rate shot up after World War II, then declined, only to rise again in the 1960s and 1970s, and then leveled off during the 1980s, but in trying to give meaning to these statistics great care must be taken.

According to the National Marriage Project, the “overall divorce rate” peaked at 22.6 divorces per 1,000 marriages in 1980, 20.9 in 1990, and 18.8 in 2000. Yet it should be remembered the sheer size of the much studied Baby Boom Generation (75 million Americans born between 1946 and 1964) did influence aggregate marriage and divorce statistics.

Complaints of Married Men and Women

People in relationships like marriage tend to complain about their spouses.  Whether in good times or bad, there appears to be a core or litany of complaints marriage partners often have of each other. The nature of these complaints coming from men and women reflect the reality that men and women really are quite different regardless of living in the same culture. Expectations and priorities are also different between men and women, and they can change over time.

Even the most successful long lasting marriages can have bumps in the road (loss of job, lack of financial security, infidelity (this isn’t a bump in the road it’s more like a derailed train wreck), health, problems with children or adults, an unexpected death in the family, other interpersonal stressors, etc.). All of these factors conspire at times to put even the strongest, most compassionate and caring of individuals off their “A” game during life and marriage.

Categorizing Marriage Problems

In reviewing the literature on complaints men and women have, they tend to involve two general areas of concern: (1) Irritations, and (2) Serious Marital Conflicts.

 

Irritations

When asked to rate their top relationship irritants, men and women give strikingly different answers, reports University of Louisville psychologist Michael Cunningham. Here’s what grates on us most:

Men’s complaints about women:

  • the silent treatment
  • bringing up things he’s done in the distant past
  • being too hot or too cold
  • being critical
  • being  stubborn and refusing to give in

Women’s complaints about men:

  • forgetting important dates, like birthdays or anniversaries
  • not working hard at his job
  • noisily burping or passing gas
  • staring at other women
  • being stubborn and refusing to give in

In addition to Dr. Cunningham’s list above I would also include: maintaining a double standard (I can do this but not you), fairness issues [One of the toughest aspects of a relationship is negotiating the competing interests that inevitably arise. Who does the household chores? How do you split holiday time with two sets of parents? Who decides where you go on vacation?] Such issues often manifest themselves in complaints about lack of fairness. One partner feels the other isn’t holding up the other end of the bargain. But as with all irritants, it’s a matter of perspective.

One irony is that couples that try to slice all responsibilities down the middle wind up the least happy. Research indicates that’s because in trying to be scrupulously fair, they spend all their time measuring, comparing, and arguing over where the dividing line falls.

In addition, I would also add these complaints: treating your partner as a project to always be improved upon (you’re very guilty of this one ladies), not respecting differences in hobbies or interests with your partner, your spouse ordering your food at a restaurant as if you were 6 years old. The purpose of that behavior is to denigrate you in front of others, usually family members.

I would also include failure to put down the toilet seat (let’s stop being inconsiderate guys), failure to explore your partner’s sexual needs and make sex anything but routine, differing expectations regarding getting choirs done, deliberately seeking to piss your partner off, embarrassing your partner in public places, being a psychological killjoy to destroy your partner’s enthusiasm and good feeling, using pronouns in language to clearly deny your partner’s contributions, like saying I did this, I made the decision, I thought this idea up rather than we did this, my partner and I succeeded together in doing this (It’s all about the “I “in the relationship, not the “We”). This is a clear telltale sign that a spouse sees his or herself exclusively as an individual and not as a marriage partner.

You will find in the next section serious marital conflicts like infidelity, abandonment, drug or alcohol addictions, mental illness, and verbal and/or physical violence. But irritations can build up to the point to where the relationship begins to suffer and one or both partners begin to look for a way out of the relationship. So, petty problems can be important. When minor irritations are ignored day in and day out it affects how people feel about the choices they made and their level of contentment in a relationship. Before you know it a spouse will feel unloved, unappreciated, and feel that their spouse views your needs as not mattering at all.

Yet, irritations are inevitable in relationships. It’s just not possible to find another human being whom every quirk, habit, and preference aligns perfectly with yours. The fundamental challenge in a relationship according to New York psychiatrist John Jacobs, is “figuring out how to negotiate and live with your partner’s irritants in a way that doesn’t alienate them and keeps the two of you connected.” When marriages don’t work, he adds, often the partners are fighting, not over big issues, but over petty differences in style.

We each have differing values and ways of looking at the world, and we want different things from each other. Such differences derive from our genetically influenced temperaments, our belief systems and values, and experiences growing up in our family of origin.

Every annoyance in a relationship is really a two-way street. Partners focus on what they’re getting, not on what they’re giving. But no matter how frustrating a partner’s behavior, your interpretation is the greater part of it. What matters is the meaning you attach to it. Some marriage partners choose to ignore their spouse’s flaws or imperfections; others add them up as if they were keeping score in some sporting event.

Often times you think your spouse may be self-absorbed. She or he always wants to talk about their day, not yours. Your successes and personal triumphs meet with much less interest or enthusiasm than your spouse’s. You begin looking for evidence that your partner is self-absorbed—and of course you find it. Your perceptions shift over time: The idealized partner you started out with becomes, well, less ideal. But if you want to stay in a relationship, something needs to change. In all likelihood, it’s you. The ability to eliminate relationship irritants lies within each of us. They may sabotage good relationships or not. It all depends on how you interpret the problem.

Let’s say a picture emerges of your partner as totally selfish and self-absorbed, always putting his or her own needs first. Also, his or her ideas are always more important than yours. How do you know this? You are told this by your spouse time and time again. You begin to feel like you’re a victim. This is the point at which you soon discover something has gone terribly wrong. When you’re constantly put down by your partner, no matter how long you’ve been married, you need to evaluate the wisdom of staying in that relationship.

What kind of relationship am I talking about? It’s when your spouse feels he or she can control your every thought or behavior. Soon every decision, no matter how small or insignificant, can only be trusted to your spouse. You realize that you’re living with a “Control Freak.” When that happens your life becomes miserable, you feel (if you are a guy) emasculated, and if you are a women—you suffer from an inferiority complex. You soon begin to wonder—where is my escape hatch?  Why was I stupid enough to marry this person in the first place? Unfortunately, this combination of living with a control freak with selfish attitudes is all too common in marital relationships today.

Our nation prides itself on legal equality; yet, once two people get married the idea that marriages are instruments of equality disappears once personalities of the participants take over. Our social values or beliefs often do not match a person’s actual behavior. This is an example of cognitive dissonance for all you psychologists.

Serious Marital Conflicts

I would define the following as sources of serious marital conflicts (this is not an exhaustive list) as:

Alcohol and Drug Abuse

Infidelity

Domestic Violence

Abandonment

Mental Illness

These types of conflicts can cripple a marriage, especially infidelity and domestic violence. Discussing all these conflicts in any detail is beyond the scope of this Blog other than to say that sometimes, many of these problems can be dealt with in marriage counseling or psychotherapy. However, Domestic Violence is probably not conducive to successful psychotherapy or counseling very often, except in the rarest of circumstances. However, I will present in the next section some data on one of marriage’s biggest problems—Infidelity.

 

Spousal Interaction in Marriage

It’s often said that men cheat and women are control freaks in a marriage. Since these are serious problems that can cripple a marriage by making a spouse a victim in his own house I thought I would describe the statistics on infidelity and describe why it is some people in marriage feel the need to be a control freak. That is, what is the psychology of the control freak?

While close to 100% of men in the 19th century ran the family and made most of the decisions, and often treated their spouses as if they were property or a chattel, modern day relationships are legally equal. However, being legally equal is not the same thing as being equal in a marital relationship. Why? It’s due to the psychology of underlying personality differences.

Besides extreme selfishness, evidence of psychological inequality is the tendency of both men and women to cheat in marriage. Another source of inequality in a marriage is the tendency or psychological need of one spouse to control the other.

Infidelity Statistics

In researching this topic my hypothesis would be that infidelity isn’t common and that loving and caring people don’t engage in that kind of behavior. And, I would be completely wrong. Much to my surprise I looked into this topic closely and found quite the opposite. Here are my findings:

Percentage of marriages where one or both spouses admit to infidelity, either physical or emotional: 41%

Percentage of men who admit to committing infidelity in any relationship they’ve had: 57%

Percentage of women who admit to committing infidelity in any relationship they’ve had: 54%

Percentage of men and women who admit to having an affair with a co-worker: 36%

Percentage of men and women who admit to infidelity on business trips: 36%

Percentage of men and women who admit to infidelity (emotional or physical) with a brother-in-law or sister-in-law: 17%

Average length of an affair: 2 years

Percentage of marriages that last after an affair has been admitted to or discovered: 31%

Percentage of men who say they would have an affair if they knew they would never get caught: 74%

Percentage of women who say they would have an affair if they knew they would never get caught: 68%

These statistics paint a terrible picture of marriage. It casts serious doubt about the degree of commitment both men and women have after saying their vows. Nevertheless, marriage does work very well for many people in American society. I’ve said earlier that in order to be successful in marriage you have to work on it every day. I can think of one very big reason for not engaging in infidelity. And, it’s a very selfish motive.

Let’s suppose for the sake of argument that you’ve really done a lot of fine things in your marriage with and for your spouse. Let’s also say you’ve been married a lot of years. If you are discovered by your spouse to have committed adultery, then in a flash all of the good things you did, the kindness, special moments, love, sex, and companionship would all be forgotten in a Heartbeat. Are you willing to lose all that for one night in bed with someone other than your spouse? You do if you’re a damn fool, I suppose!

In Part II I will take a stab at what I think is at the root cause of much conflict in a marriage—differing psychological characteristics that can predispose one to marital trouble, or even work to undermine one’s marriage altogether. These psychological characteristics are a matter of degree but, in the extreme, will undermine your marriage. What am I talking about? I’m talking about selfishness and a desire to control your spouse’s entire life. These two psychological characteristics are common and can destroy a marriage.

I will also present a few modern day insights to help both men and women have a better marriage. Why is this important? Because, your ultimate happiness and contentment in marriage depends upon your ability to assess your own marriage in very realistic terms, be proactive, not passive, and work on it every day.

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