Why Marriages Fail

Why Marriages Fail

Jim and Jenny have been married for seven years.  Their marriage is failing.  The spark that was there at the beginning no longer exists.  They no longer take the time to talk to each other with curiosity and interest.  They no longer hunger for each other sexually.  Jim has become preoccupied with his career and Jenny feels she’s stuck at home with two kids.  I could go on, but you get the picture.  So, wouldn’t you be interested to know that their marriage isn’t failing at all.  It’s just changing and maturing in ways they did not anticipate.  Human beings change and grow all the time but do so at different rates.  A relationship requires a constant capacity to adapt to change and, as the divorce rate tells us, we’re not very good at it.  This brings us to one of the biggest reason why marriages fail; maintaining them is hard.

Relationships are hard.  They are perhaps the hardest thing for human beings to do.  I’m not talking about friendships that you can take a break from, I’m talking about intimate relationships between two people living together who have mutual and exclusive ties to each other and therefore cannot escape from petty differences that pull them apart.  With no escape clause we often feel caught in a whirlpool of emotions that can easily cause us to pull the cord on the divorce parachute.

A maturing relationship requires a different kind of energy then when it was shiny and new.  The changing nature of relationships introduces new elements to the marriage, such as children and financial pressure.  Lifestyles are created and have to be maintained.  Jobs are no longer choices but necessities.  The demands of life increase exponentially as we age, and as we do, wisdom is acquired and whimsy is left to our adolescent memory.  As our marriage matures sex has to be driven from the inside, not motivated by excitement and desire from the outside.  Money has to be budgeted and accounted for, not spent freely courting or establishing a household.  Intimacy has to be defined, not just assumed.  And, conflict resolution needs to be learned without relying on old and outdated ways of fighting.  Which brings us to the second reason marriages fail, we generally don’t know how to resolve conflict.

Conflict resolution is a skill.  When a marriage matures we tend to think that something is wrong, that it’s broken.  Yes, things may be wrong, but it’s normal that conflict should arise.  Living together day in and day out over the years magnifies each little difference that may arise.  The contrast between how the relationship used to be and how it is now makes us think we’ve lost something, when really it should inspire us to consider learning to do things differently.  As we confront our frustration over unwanted changes we begin to fight with our spouse.  When we fight we end up in pain and when we end up in pain we fight about the fact that we’re hurting.  The conflict intensifies and resolution is nowhere to be seen.

Conflict resolution has to be learned.  Most people come from families where there was high conflict and no resolution, or low conflict and therefore no need for resolution.  In either case, the mental model for conflict resolution is absent.  For those fortunate enough to come from families where conflict was openly displayed and equitably resolved, chances are they married someone who did not come from that type of family.  How can we expect to resolve conflict in our adult lives if we never saw it resolved when we were children?  We simply have no modeling for it.  Consequently, conflict resolution is a learned behavior, not a natural one.  In other relationships we may be able to resolve conflict because we are not as emotionally involved as we are in a marriage, but in a marriage the conflict persists until it’s resolved.

The 90/10 Rule.  An interesting thing about conflict is that we spend 90% of our time fighting over 10% of what we disagree about.  For the most part spouses agree on things, with slight variations to account for individual differences.  Typically, they have the same values, religious beliefs and political affiliations.  If they don’t they’ve learned long ago to not engage in discussions on hot button topics.  But mostly they agree.  Even in situations where you have one lenient parent and one strict parent there’s generally agreement.  The difference in their styles is usually because one parent is compensating for the other, giving the appearance of a huge discrepancy when actually they are both more closely aligned than you would think.  For instance, consider a mom that insists that her child eat a hot meal for breakfast every day, and a dad who may insist on sometimes feeding their child cold cereal.  If there’s no flexibility in the menu, both spouses will lock in their position until they routinely oppose the other.  Upon further reflection of these entrenched situations, both parents agree that the child should have a healthy breakfast but variations in what they consider “healthy” create an impasse.  The strength of the impasse correspondingly magnifies their individual variations.  They will then spend 90% of their time fighting over their variations when they are actually 90% in agreement.  It’s a natural absurdity of marriage common to all couples.  Which bring us to the final reason marriages fail: for one spouse to be right, the other spouse has to be wrong.

The either/or paradox.  We live in an either/or world where divisions are drawn between right and wrong and good and bad.  In marriage there’s a very interesting and curious dynamic that I call polar entrenchment which is based on the either/or principle (see blog post, Everyday Mysticism, Part II).  Take the breakfast menu for example, both spouses are clearly right in their desire for their child to have a healthy breakfast, just one equates healthy to hot and the other equates healthy to hot or cold.  So, they are actually in agreement.  Why then are they entrenched?  The spouse that wants a hot healthy breakfast, although right in her assertion, is also wrong because a hot breakfast isn’t the only way to have a healthy one.  She’s clearly too rigid about it.  The spouse that compensates by offering a cold healthy breakfast is right because it’s hard to argue with healthy content, but he is also wrong because compensation negates his spouses’ point of view altogether, and he therefore becomes equally rigid in his position.

The interesting thing about this dynamic is that they both fear if they say something remotely supportive to their spouse it will negate the point that they are trying to make.  Therefore, each steadfastly digs in creating the impasse.  They are suffering from “polar entrenchment”, never allowing their spouse to be right and only fighting to support their particular point of view.  Entrenched couples never see agreement, only disagreement.  By not wanting their spouse to be right, by default, they make their spouse wrong.  To add further insult to this dysfunctional loop, the cold cereal spouse thinks his hot meal counterpart is being ridiculous and it angers him.  But, instead of dealing with his anger he passively undermines her by feeding their child cold cereal anyway, which then makes her angry at him.  The angry hot meal spouse subsequently acts out her cold cereal spouses’ anger because he refuses to do it openly on his own.  Pretty absurd isn’t it, and very normal.  These types of redundant loops are what make relationships so hard!

Of course these four reasons are not the only cause of marital failure.  There are all sorts of reasons, including deceit, infidelity, violence, politics, religion and unresolved childhood issues that also create marital failure.   For the most part, however, these four reasons are central to why many marriages fail.  Once couples learn how to mature their relationship, resolve conflict, and not get caught in up in the right/wrong paradox that creates so much conflict, marital life gets more satisfying (and more interesting).  Finding the sweet spot of the marriage means you have to get past the early stages and into the mature part where reciprocity and respect prevail.

Five Minute Articles For Your Consideration2 comments

  1. Thanks Larry for your insightful articles! I especially liked the one on Marriage.

  2. Sean MacLeod says:

    Really a good piece, Larry! I am now forwarding it to Karen.
    Talk to you soon, and thank you for sending this.

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