In her book, Marriage: A History, Stephanie Coontz writes, “For most of history it was inconceivable that people would choose their mates on the basis of something as fragile and irrational as love and then focus all their sexual, intimate, and altruistic desires on the resulting marriage.” Today, we put so much of our hopes and desires for a happy and fulfilled life on the success of our marriage. That is a huge weight and an enormous responsibility. Every couple should know from observing their friends and families that the odds of success are against you since the divorce rate for first marriages is hovering around 40% and the divorce rate for second marriages is closer to 60%. What isgoing on?
First of all, I am all for marriage; but it is a very precarious time. You are probably making the most important decision of your young life at a time when neuroscientists are now telling us that couples experience “hormonal flooding” – which produces a false state of well-being – an “in love” phenomenon – which lasts for up to two years. TV shows are yelling, “follow your instincts! There is a heightened sense of euphoria produced. People are looking for a “soulmate” so that they will never be lonely again. Sex and love go together like never before. You understand the other without saying much; you are reading each other’s minds. This is not the best environment to make a long term decision.
The down to earth version of the above is that you are marrying an imperfect human being, like yourself…scared from past experiences…not always pure and truthful…bringing wounds in their backpack from their family of origin…having high hopes that you, their new soulmate, will heal them…unfortunately, you are not always kind…and you both are hiding some serious information which, you feel, if revealed, would ruin this romance so you decide to put it off until later…and psychology tells us that when seeking a mate we are not necessarily drawn to people who will make us happy but, maybe more strongly, to people who feel “familiar” to us – like the family and home we grew up in. That’s the sneaky, underlying truth. You are going to bring your unresolved issues with your family of origin and join another imperfect human being with their unresolved issues – and often they will be familiar to you. Familiarity seems to bring comfort – somehow leading you to believe, “I know this and I’ve handled it before.”
Wow! That’s the brutal reality which family educators and consultants know; but, almost no one goes to seek out this information. Why not? The couple is in the romantic “in love phase” where they don’t want to hear anything bad about marriage and the people around them who might be a little older and wiser don’t want to “rain on their parade.” Some religious groups run marriage education courses; the courses are good but the people taking them really don’t want to go deep enough to hear where some of the weak spots are and hear about the issues that they will have to face. For example, I once pointed out to a woman that her fiancé had a long history of alcoholism in his family. I showed her where the questionnaire that they both had taken pointed this out as a serious concern that should be considered. I asked her if she had worries about his drinking and she answered, “yes, but, he’s promised me that he’s going to stop drinking after we get married.” I told her in his presence that the evidence isn’t on her side. But, she was too consumed with the wedding arrangements to take my suggestion that she have him make a commitment to change his drinking habits, wait for several months and see whether or not his promise was realistic. Too late; the deposit on the reception hall was already down.
What is the emotional transition issue in Stage 2 for the newly married couple to consider and accomplish? The couple, who has had their primary loyalty to their own family of origin for 20 plus years must now transition to shifting primary loyalty from one’s parents to the new marital partner. If you have problems with your in-laws, you can guarantee that you have not made the required transition. The couple, and their primary loyalty to each other, has to be of paramount importance. One of the first tests for a newly married couple is the question, asked by one of the parents, “where will you be spending the holidays?” You cannot answer that question without having discussed it first with your spouse. This is one of the invisible, loyalty strings that will hold you back if you don’t handle it correctly. I can’t count the number of people who have said to me, “I was caught off guard, totally surprised…my mother asked me on the beach in July. I looked into my mother’s eyes and she was so longingly, desperately looking for a yes, that I just could not disappoint her.’ However, when I later asked my mate how about it, all hell broke loose because he/she would also have to deal with the same loyalty issue towards his/her parent’s. Making the transition is difficult, but enormously worthwhile. The question to ask is: what is best for the couple. Did anyone ever think of, “thanks so much for the invite, I’ll have to check with Bill/Sarah. Build a strong marital bond so that extended family members do not cause conflict later about who is taking orders from, siding with, getting their cues, from parents. It will sabotage your marriage.
Send me some questions about this very important developmental stage. I would be glad to answer them.