Wisdom says: “Don’t you get it? Relationships don’t work.”
The quotes around this marriage wisdom may disturb many, but that insight was blasted at me over the phone by my psychiatrist of many years. After much talk-therapy, I felt newly centered and confident about my marriage, but then a few years later I called him to see if he could offer me more help about my most significant relationship and other matters. And what he said may have made the difference. (Paula and I are still together after 57 years.)
American marriages end in divorce in about 40% to 50 % of the time, with divorce rates higher for subsequent marriages. While marriage has positive effects on a couple’s mental and physical health and on any children too, the high rate of divorce has to mean that half of married folks find the arrangement untenable.
Perhaps divorce has to do with simple misjudgments about whom to marry: “It was a mistake,” he or she says. Other people believe there’s not much depth to the choice of a life partner, that people get married because it’s the right time and a potential partner is there, available and willing. I might accept that but it would mean that many partners might do. The decision, “Okay it’s you,” comes from some deeper resonance that practicality and opportunity do not explain.
A recent essay in Psychology Today lists the most likely sources of marital discord: lack of compatibility in values, religion, politics; irreconcilable differences in life goals, or parenting regimens; different attitudes toward money, where to spend it, how much to save; lack of communication and withdrawal, where the couple shuts down discussing their problems, constant conflict and fighting; infidelity; lack of intimacy; abuse; and addiction.
Advice columns offer ways to resolve these standard sources of relational conflict, which can drive a partner or couple to the therapist or beyond. They also have deeper, more complex origins which we can occasionally glimpse lurking around our abiding relationships.
There we find Jung’s notion that we commit to and marry people who attract and mystify us, who in fact represent our dark self, luring us through its foreign Otherness. Our partner opens us up to it and we love and despise each other in our frustrating hunt for our hidden and somewhat frightening unknown self.
Examples abound. The organized efficient wife and the sloppy, creative husband–no mystery what complement they seek from each other. He wants more order, she wants more disorder. It will cost them to get it. Though sharing is the avowed purpose of deep relationships, they‘ll both have to fight to give up the gold the other both wants and fears. Or, the talkative commanding husband and the demure, differential wife–again, no mystery what they seek from each other. And, the adventurous and the spooked. The practical and the reckless. The reclusive and the outgoing. The paranoid and the egoistical. In our contemporary world of shifting gender roles, these characteristics can inhabit either sex or hybrid sexual or social identities.
These complementary opposites fuel relationships. You think you really want that snazzy beau or babe with the social chops in any setting or conversation, yet what you want is your repressed, covert snazziness to get unchained, through the Other. Your finagling for release will cause him or her to keep you from it, since it is the mysterious power he or she has over you and wants to keep from you since it feels like a loss to share it or give it up. This ignites the fireworks.
Cher (Alicia Silverstone) and Josh (Paul Rudd) realize this in the 1995 film Clueless. What starts out as a comic conflict between the spoiled-rotten fashionista airhead and the uptight, uncool bookish nerd reaches a crisis of discovery when they both see they are clueless about the other’s way of thinking and being. This provokes the romantic kiss of discovery that concludes this and nearly all romantic comedies, an ancient form celebrating personal love and social communion that reinforce society’s need for couples to get along, marry, procreate and rear the next generation.
(In case you are wondering about my low brow example, Director Amy Heckerling used Jane Austen’s Emma as a model for her film, which she also wrote. I praised the writing in class and a student who knew Heckerling brought me her autographed script with a note of thanks for my comment.)
Things don’t always work out of course.
In the 1979 Kramer vs. Kramer movie, Dustin Hoffman’s work-driven husband Ted drives Meryl Streep’s Joanna, the wife, away. The whole film features marriage strife over a painful custody battle for their son Billy. Ted could easily become even more assertive, Joanna more pained and fuller of vindictive hurt over him. But in caring for Billy, Ted becomes more loving and nurturing, while distanced Joanna gets more assertive and commanding. They each need what the other has in order to win the high prize of custody. They finally connect to bring out their hidden sides. We see Ted painfully preparing to surrender Billy to Joanna because of his loss in court. But victorious Joanna sees Billy’s and Ted’s love for each other and agrees to surrender her win. They tell an intimate truth about their relationship in court and share something special about their marriage, worth more than either of them alone. They have both realized fuller versions of their psyches through a bitter public/private fight that lets them see and learn the Other’s way.
This may cancel the wisdom that relationships don’t work out, in one sense. Ted and Joanna don’t stay together, but now will likely cooperate as separated but wiser parents.
What might it take to bring relationship battles to some sort of peace if not happy fruition? Two words seem appropriate–respect and tolerance. Once your mate’s counter-self blossoms for you, you may feel stronger love but respect seems the likelier response. You were shown something hidden in your partner you needed to see about yourself, probably voluntarily revealed, and you have to respect that gift, a kind of sacrifice. That’s Ted’s and Joanna’s story. If quarrels continue over familiar ground, tolerating them is the best one can do. Love may fade, but respect and tolerance can keep a salvageable marriage together. Love becomes respect and tolerance.
Contemporary middleclass men and women postpone marriage to get education and careers first. In the 2016 comic film How to Be Single, we follow six or seven characters trying to negotiate the dating and hook up scene while remaining aloof and disengaged. These are mostly women, performing their attractive selves for parties, status and sex, but we soon understand they pull back from commitment because they fear rejection and hurt. Just about every character keeps his or her inner psyche cloaked.
Female protagonist Alice (Dakota Johnson) wants a long timeout from her steady boyfriend Josh (Nickolas Braun) so that she can explore who she is without entanglements. Instead she falls romantically in bed with nearly every guy she meets, but they don’t want any of this inner exposure or commitment stuff. Her guide through the vicissitudes of being single is lascivious party girl Robin (Rebel Wilson), who mocks needy Alice, saying she sinks into “dicksand” with any guy. The old boyfriend shows up near the end, talks up his enduring love for her, she goes full in, until he tells her he’s engaged. She’s defeated and we think she’s done.
Her pediatrician sister Meg (Leslie Mann) wants to remain professionally detached to avoid the fractious entanglements of love, marriage, and motherhood. She gets sucked in by the smiles of a baby she has delivered and gets artificially inseminated. Much younger Ken (Jack Lacy) pursues her, first sexually, and thinks she’s pregnant with his child, but he opens to her and shows he’s a loving caring man, who can accept the baby as his, and she realizes and reveals her very human maternal side to him. They can then be a couple in their own relationship drama.
Alice, however, gives up the love and marriage game, at least for a while, and has a revelation on a sublime ledge of the Grand Canyon that she is intact as is, not needing a fulfilling opposite to open her to a deeper self. This may be the point of how to be single–find connections by yourself to yourself, in her case with nature that engages without entangling. Whether such relationships “don’t work” over the long haul or at all is something we are left to ponder.
In America today nearly half the committed relationships succeed and endure. All require plenty of contentious emotional and psychological work from both partners.
(Note: Wisdom is what you get when you have lived long enough to make enough mistakes and have enough time to reflect on what they taught you.)
Unnecessary Afterward: The Zen Yin and Yang symbol can be made to depict this inner crossover. The small white in the black and the small black in the white can stand for limited, seemingly opposed psyches. The white will have to struggle through all that massive black to connect with its larger more conscious being. Once connected and fully realized, the white still retains a key element of the black, since it has experienced the black to attain its full self. Similarly for the small black psyche, wading through the white to attain its fuller self. When complete, each reformed psyche contains both modes of consciousness now in dynamic cooperation instead of conflict. So too the couple: each partner completes rather than confines the other, once they have shared their inner differences and integrated them into their more complete selves. (The social and racial dimension of this process points both to its difficulty and its natural energy for successful completion.)