I have a good marriage. Is it a great marriage? I don’t know. Do we squabble? Plenty. Do either of us feel shortchanged? With regularity. Might we be happier had we married other people twenty-one years ago? It’s certainly possible. Should I reconsider my marriage? Heavens no.
Amid well-intentioned efforts to reinforce or rebuild a disappearing marriage culture, there remains a persistent hazardthat in belaboring the beauty of marriage very many people in challenging unions will feel more discouraged, not less. Their marriages haven’t felt wonderful for a very long time. Or the dismal follows the wonderful in a predictably cyclical fashion. Or misunderstanding seems chronic. Bedrooms become battlegrounds. It’s not how marriage was intended to be, but it is how many turn and how some remain.
A measure of relational trial is, of course, endemic to the human condition. “Interaction breeds conflict” is as close as sociologists can come to identifying a law of the social universe. And yet conflict can be productively harnessed. Marital difficulty and challenge can, as the recent Humanum film series illustrates, reveal a “hidden sweetness.”
We could counsel people not to compare their marriages to those of others, but it’s deeply inhuman to pay no heed to those around you. Especially since human beings are constituted as persons by their social relationships. This is obvious from our rapid uptake of social media, a phenomenon whichof courserisks exacerbating our relationship problems. In a study in the February issue of Computers and Human Behavior, the authors noted that those who didn’t use social media sites at all
reported being 11.4 percent happier with their marriage than heavy social media users. And heavy social media users were 32 percent more likely to think about leaving their spouse, compared with 16 percent for a nonuser.
That study relied on my New Family Structures Study data, which went unidentified by the authors for fear of reprisals. When I analyzed the same data in 2012, I documented the long-term benefits of having grown up with a married mother and father who have hung in there, in comparison to every other combination. (Even the death of a parent proved far more navigable and less consequential than a divorce.) And I didn’t evaluate or “control for” their marital happiness in my analyses, only their marital status. Some stable households were no doubt more blissful than others. But an unsightly building can still provide shelter.
A friend of mine recently left his wife after nearly thirty years of marriage, reinforcing the dismal data on “gray divorce.” While I don’t know the particulars, and his exit seems to have no obvious logic, I know theirs was neither a simple nor an easy marriage, and that both spouses had high expectations for it. One twentieth-century Catholic observer lamented this human habit, which extends well beyond marital hopes to simpler ones about work, health, material goods, vacations, even tonight’s dinner:
That happens with so many things in life. We inject them with poetry in our imaginations, we idealize them, and come to believe they are the epitome of happiness and beauty. But then when we have them in front of us, and see them just as they are, our hearts sink to our boots.
I and a few other friends of his got together in an effort to ask him to reconsider his departure. One of us wondered aloud, “Wouldn’t it be better to limp to the finish line, with the help of others, than quit the race?” After all, if marriage is a marathon, our friend was probably nearing the twenty-mile mark. The rest of us concurred, but to no avail.
My late colleague Norval Glenn discovered that even so-called “good” divorces are consequential. Amicable divorces, he noted, foster disorientation in children, who feel at a loss to explain what they’ve witnessed, much less improve upon it themselves someday. Such divorces, he concluded, are worse than maintaining a mediocre marriage.
I still maintain that my friend was wrong about his decision to exit his “good enough” marriage. Perhaps new information would change my mind, but it’s unlikely. There are precious few scenarios in which his children would be better off for his having left. Perhaps my confidence seems the height of arrogance. All I know is that his wife would like him to come home.
What should we do? A trio of simple commitments is a good start.
First, be wary of taking sides. Remember that when we offer comfort by belittling someone else’s spouse, we do damage to their marriagean entity that we did not found, and one that exists independently of each. The temptation to do this is very strong (and often fed by one of the spouses). I myself am guilty. To be sure, some marriages must endbut not so many as we’ve witnessed.
Second, be gentle. We harm our brothers and sisters not when we display affection, respect, and sacrifice for our own spousesthey need to see that (though perhaps more in reality than online). We do harm when we fail to esteem others’ unions, fragile though they may be. Praise those aspects of others’ marriages that merit it. A bruised reed we ought not break.
Third, be observant and courageous. If in fact many mediocre marriages don’t deserve the death penalty, then you must speak up. Just under 20 percent of married Americans report having thought about leaving their spouse in the past year. Undisciplined children seldom turn out well; so too the marriages in our social orbits. It is a vigil of love that we must keep. We forget that marriage is bigger than two peopletwo frail lovers. It is about sacrifice. It is your own project for the world.
Mark Regnerus is associate professor of sociology at the University of Texas at Austin and senior fellow at the Austin Institute for the Study of Family and Culture.