An article in the papers caught my eye some weeks ago. It was interesting because it seemed to say something different about marriage – something that, intuitively, I agreed with.
Much of what is written about marriage these days is geared towards helping readers improve it and make it “great”. The notion seems to be that if yours is not a fulfilling and exciting marriage, something is wrong. The expectation is that after spending so much on a near-perfect wedding, an all-but-perfect marriage should follow. The fairy-tale ending of “living happily ever after” is a dream many have bought into.
So when our marriage does not live up to expectations, we feel disappointed and become disillusioned. We may even harbour the idea that if it is not perfect, something must be wrong with us and we are somehow at fault. Some may wonder if they made a mistake in getting married or in choosing their partners. When attempts to fix it come to naught, couples increasingly turn to divorce as a way to end their unhappiness and perhaps get a second chance to find their “perfect ending”.
Enter Megan McArdle, the author of the book The Up Side of Down: Why Failing Well is the Key to Success. Offering some fresh perspectives, her newspaper article made three points.
First, many who choose divorce to solve their marital troubles may end up unhappier instead. This happens when they find that after divorce, living costs increase while access to children decreases, since they now have to live in and support two separate households.
Second, McArdle pointed to research showing that some couples who had previously resisted the option of divorce reported that they were glad they stayed in the marriage. In fact, 64 per cent even said they were happily married.
The third point, and one with an important nugget of truth in it, is that most of us find some way to make the most of our situation, however imperfect it may be. This highlights how resilient people are in the face of tough choices and adversity.
I want to add that McArdle did not say that her three points applied to all troubled marriages. She was referring to couples in low-conflict situations where there was no violence or abuse and some degree of functionality as a couple and as a family. For such couples, if they chose to stay the course, it was through grit and determination that they could perhaps stumble and find a way forward.
Interestingly, persevering to find a way through is nothing new – it is often the first line of advice from family and friends. I find this true even of parents who may not initially have approved of their children’s choice of partners. Their perspective seems to shift from protecting family honour to concern about their children.
On the other hand, counsellors and social workers tend to focus on helping individuals to have more choices in their lives, choices with greater freedom from the encumbrances of duty and obligations to others. This emphasis is perhaps influenced by the more Western value of Individualism (as opposed to Collectivism) which is embedded in much of psychology and counselling. Moreover, by the time couples go to see counsellors, the conflicts have usually become more entrenched and damaging.
In short, a couple’s response to marital troubles should not be an either-or approach but one that may include both. The first line of response in finding a way forward could be trying to understand the other person’s needs and wants, and attempting to communicate and negotiate more calmly and clearly. Should this fail, seeking others’ perspectives, both of supportive family and friends and of objective helpers, may prove beneficial. When both of these responses lead to a dead end, more drastic measures could then be called for.
Benny Bong –
has been a family and marital therapist for more than 30 years, and is a certified work-life consultant. He was the first recipient of the AWARE Hero Award in 2011 and is a member of Kampong Kapor Methodist Church.
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