An interview with Dr. William Doherty on marriage, from the editors of U.S. Catholic. Doherty, a family therapist and professor in the department of Family Social Science at the University of Minnesota, is the author of Take Back Your Kids (Sorin Books) and Take Back Your Marriage (Guilford Press), among many others.
Does the consumer culture affect marriage?
Yes and it’s devastating. Marriage is becoming a lifestyle with a person I choose because they can meet my needs and we can be happy together.
I don’t believe people bring this attitude to the altar. People still get married, I think, because they love this person and want to be committed to them and live their life together. But there’s this alternative sensibility of entitlement. When the going gets rough, as it almost always does, this voice comes out that asks, “Is this a good deal for me?”
Now I hasten to add that there are some awful things that can occur: You didn’t sign up for your spouse to be philandering or for abuse. There are things that are not acceptable, and those are what I’d call the “hard” reasons why a marriage would come apart.
But today we see the proliferation of “soft” reasons, such as: We don’t communicate well; the sex isn’t any good; he doesn’t listen to me; we’re not friends like we used to be; we argue too much; I don’t feel supported. I’ve been doing marriage therapy for 30 years, and at the beginning I saw people staying together in impossible situations. But today I see people ending marriages for the soft reasons.
This could be the wakeup call to reinvest in your marriage, but suddenly it becomes your ticket out the door. And too often, someone-it could be your clergy, your lay minister, your friend, or your therapist-takes this common human dilemma and makes it a tragedy by agreeing that these are good enough reasons to end a marriage.
Aren’t there people out there who challenge the soft reasons?
Unfortunately not many. People don’t want to interfere.
You can see the consumer values in our cavalierness toward the marriage commitment. In an individualistic culture, the focus is on your needs and your happiness. Nobody wants to be judgmental, so sometimes we escort someone out of a marriage by not challenging them when they say, “I’m thinking of getting out.”
A woman at one of my workshops told me that her married daughter had come to her one day and said, “We’re getting divorced. It’s not working.” The mother said, “Over my dead body. You’re going to get some help and think this through first.” The daughter was stunned, but they did get good help and worked it out. “Over my dead body” was the key. It was telling the daughter, “You have more at stake here than just yourself.” The responsible thing is to slow down, get some help, and then make a decision. That’s an ethic I’d like to see in this country.
Instead people think divorce will make them feel better?
It’s seen as a solution to a problem because people are in agony. But if you back up a year or two or three, they’ve gone through a process that gets them to that agony. You can ruin almost any perfectly fine marriage in a year or two by emphasizing how your spouse is not meeting your needs, especially if you pick at things they’re really not able to change. Like the woman who wants the guy to be warm and emotional. Or the guy who wants the woman to want sex a lot.
Instead we could make the choice to say “This is good enough” and to remind ourselves of our commitment. Partners who are committed, for example, don’t highlight their attraction to other people or spend time comparing their partners to other people.
Do marriages naturally drift apart?
Sure they do. If you use the Mississippi River as an example, we get married at the farthest north point of intensity and passion. Then as years go by, especially if you have kids, there’s a natural drift south. It happens to nearly every couple. There’s even neurochemical evidence to show that torrid, romantic love is different from stable married love. Something cools off.
But people think they’re the only ones it happens to. And they think it’s their spouse’s fault, because we don’t pass on the kind of cultural wisdom about marriage that we do about raising children. I know my cute, 1-year-old grandson will have not-so-cute phases, as surely as the winter will come to Minnesota. But when it comes to marriage, we’re so private. We don’t make ourselves vulnerable. We can vent all sorts of worries about raising teenagers, for example, but there’s no version of that for marriage. I say to clergy, imagine how many people you go up to and say, “How’s your health? How are the kids?” But how many people do you go up to and say, “How’s your marriage?” They can’t imagine saying that.
We can all help married people understand that they’ve got marital versions of the common cold or flu, not a life-threatening disease. I sometimes tell people that every couple has the same two or three fights their entire relationship. If you didn’t have those problems, you’d have some other ones. It’s almost like the spiritual life: You never stop working on your flaws and faults, and you never stop trying to feel better till you die. You never get there, but you don’t stop working at it.
Can churches do anything about this?
Absolutely. Churches are the only institution that married couples trust, because marriage is so personal, as it relates to sexuality. They have credibility. In fact, Catholicism is seen as taking marriage more seriously than other religions, particularly with the pre-Cana programs for couples. Still, one Catholic I know says that “Catholics go from prepare to repair.”
Also, churches get worried about offending the divorced or never married. You acknowledge couples’ anniversaries at church in a moving way, and other people in the back are in tears. We have trouble holding that. I think it takes real pastoral leadership to say that marriage is something important to all of us whether we’re married or not. Life is filled with tragedy. Some people want to get married and don’t, others want to stay married and don’t. But we can still hold onto the ideal of marriage and not let it become simply a private lifestyle decision.
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