26/04/2018 10:26 SAST | Updated 26/04/2018 11:12 SAST

Marriage: New Thoughts On An Old Institution

If you invest time and energy into marriage, you will have a sense of fulfilment undreamt of.

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I should understand the institution of marriage. I've had two of my own over the past 40 years, and I choose to spend hours of my working day in other people's marriages/significant relationships. So I'm always excited as I begin to notice changes in marriage that my clients bring to my attention.

New themes emerge and the game is on — I want to know and understand more about how the social, political, technological and economic forces are effecting changes in marriage.

I mean, how do you go from being happy with your role as a stay-at-home mom and wife (albeit popping Valium to be turned on by your daily vacuuming experience), to being unhappy and demanding an equal cooperative relationship with your male partner?

How did we in Western society move from simply accepting that marriage offered us a union between a man and a woman characterised by residential cohabitation, economic cooperation and sexual activity, to expecting same-sex couples to have the same rights, to a marriage that meant not necessarily living in the same bed, house or city, to expecting marriage to be open and consensually nonmonogamous?

The most significant change in marriage has been the introduction of the idea of love. Until the 18th century, this was not a reasonable reason to marry. Practicalities dictated the need for marriage. The household was a place where partners were totally responsible for keeping themselves and families literally alive. The primary functions of the marriage revolved around food, clothing and healthcare. Two people plus extended families were essential to the survival of families.

The industrial era eased these daily struggles to meet basic survival needs, and people could exhale and fall in love. Between 1850 and 1965 love was highest on your tick box for choice of marriage partner. Not a man who could literally kill a sheep for you, but a man/woman who made you feel fed through feeling in love with him/her. We looked to marry for love, passion and fulfilment of emotional needs. Marriages became, and still remain, love based.

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The contraceptive pill, free love, feminism and more comfortable economic lives shifted our tick box list once again. We wanted more from marriage. From 1965 until today, we are living in what Eli J Finkel in his just fabulous book "The All-Or-Nothing Marriage", calls the self-expressive marriage.

Turn your attention to Abraham Maslow and his pyramid of the hierarchy of needs. Working from the bottom up, physiological > safety > belonging and love > self-esteem > actualisation.

You can provide your own food and safety, you feel you have committed and are loving in your marriage, and your self-esteem is your responsibility to gain inside and outside the marriage... but you want more.

You want to feel you are living the best life possible; that you can attain self-actualisation. And you turn to your partner with a new tick list and say: fill all my emotional and psychological needs so I can experience personal growth and self-discovery in my marriage. Oh, and don't forget the sexual passion, best friend part and co-parenting as well.

I'm going to tell you why you're struggling with your marriage. You desire this kind of self-actualised meaningful marriage, but... you don't have the time to invest in creating it.

Questions for you :

  1. How willing and able are you to fulfil these self-actualisation needs in your partner?
  2. How much time do you have for this kind of marriage?
  3. How much are you willing to invest in this kind of marriage?
  4. Do you strive for "happiness', or "meaning" in your marriage? "Happiness" has an emphasis on pleasure, feeling good about yourself, and believing marriage should not be hard work — or else divorce is an option. "Meaning" gets you to seek self-expression and personal growth, and so you endure challenges during the marriage.

I'm going to tell you why you're struggling with your marriage. You desire this kind of self-actualised meaningful marriage, but... you don't have the time to invest in creating it. You have made children the centre of your universe, so the majority of your time is spent around them, more time at work, less time alone with friends and family, and even less time alone with your spouse. Yet you want to be known and self-actualised through a spouse who doesn't get to know you or your needs. You feel disappointed.

Here is the happy news: if you invest time and energy into marriage, you will have a sense of fulfilment undreamt of. Finkel refers to this as "oxygenating" your marriage. Withholding judgment, the reasons you are starving your marriage of oxygen and left feeling unhappy, disappointed and in flight- or infidelity mode is real.

No time: Partners are spending less time alone together, less time visiting friends together and seldom do they share meals together. Instead, time together is focused on television and children.

Stress: People are individually overwhelmed with their worlds. It is very difficult to be sensitive and consciously present with a partner when you are in a state of stress.

Mental fragmentation: We are chronically interrupted and distracted by social media, multitasking and to-do lists, which limit our ability to be present with a partner.

So I ask myself: what is reasonable for couples to expect from marriage today?

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I resonate with the thinking of Finkel and the Gottman"s Sound Relationship House, which places "dreams" at the top of their pyramid of marital goals. Expect a lot... but be willing to invest a lot.

No way can you reach your demand for a high return on a marriage, which is to get to the top of the pyramid, where your partner is there to ensure that both your individual dreams and couple dreams are self-actualised, if you do not invest in it.

And investment means minimising your life so there is less stress and noise. Unclutter people and work that do not serve you well. Use this time to spend together to allow your partner to know you, and vice versa. Only by knowing each other can your marriage become the rich institution it potentially can be.

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