The Ties That Bind

American marriage in crisis

How happy the newly married couples looked this year in San Francisco and Portland, the thousands of same-sex partners recently allowed by government decree to obtain marriage certificates! This bliss, however, has been accompanied by a serious social backlash from those arguing that the institution of marriage is traditionally, culturally and spiritually heterosexual. There’s one debate card, however, that advocates of hetero-only marriage can’t play: the claim that male-female marriage promotes satisfactory lifetime commitments between couples. Long-term divorce statistics, coupled with the historical trending away from church-bound marital obligations, seem to indicate otherwise.

Divorce Magazine reports that, as of 2002, only 52 percent of married people reached their 15th wedding anniversaries; only 33 percent had reached the 25-year mark. The Center for Disease Control’s National Vital Statistics Report found that, as of 2002, 50 percent of first marriages had ended in divorce, and 60 percent of remarriages had also ended with divorce proceedings. The Vital Statistics Report also indicated a quadrupling in the number of divorces over the last quarter of the 20th century, from 4.3 million in 1970 to 18.3 million in 1996.

Three recent popular books on marriage were written by therapists who’ve each had much experience dealing with relationship problems, and who each bring different outlooks and strategies to the issue. Dr. Stephen Mitchell’s Can Love Last? was released posthumously in 2002 to a good deal of critical acclaim, hailed as a book that deftly balanced a brainy, clinical psychological analysis of marriage with the warm and ingratiating tone of someone you’d want as your therapist. Toward that end, Mitchell comfortably sprinkles pop-culture references and colloquialisms throughout the book.

Mitchell, who died in December 2000 at the age of 54, made a name for himself in academic psychology by, among other things, analyzing Sigmund Freud’s theories. Like Freud, Mitchell saw that adult issues often have their genesis in unresolved early-childhood conflict and resolution. As he begins to address how individuals in marital crisis might do well to focus on their long-term psychological tendencies, he writes:

In these pages, Freud is never taken as the last word, but he is sometimes taken as the first word — as the one who posed questions about fundamental aspects of human experience with which subsequent analytic theorists, and all of us as individuals, continue to struggle.

Expanding upon Freud’s observation that the concepts of love and desire seem to have a fundamental psychological incompatibility, Mitchell notes a “centrality of idealization” in the first flushes of romantic desire, which creates a bonding magic that brings people together, but is also one important cause of a relationship’s fragility:

If romance is contingent upon the illusions of idealization, it can only be fleeting or seriously deluded. … Romance fades over time because familiarity provides a more reasonable “warts and all” view of the other; the harsh sunlight of the morning after dispels the enchantment of the moonlight. The most we can hope for is that infatuation will be transformed into a more sober liking.”

According to Mitchell, it is upon the more stable ground of this sober and reasoned “liking” that a long-term marital commitment can be an invigorating possibility rather than a threatening burden.

Mitchell invites couples that are unhappy in long-term relationships to question whether they are as unhappy as they think they are. He, like the other two authors reviewed here, is wary of any “grass is greener” thinking among those in marital crisis. Better first, he argues, to consider the possibilities of what one already has, seeking to discover (or rediscover) something essential and transformative. To give up without fully exploring those possibilities leaves one vulnerable to repeating similar self-defeating mind traps with future mates.

Exploring the transformational possibilities of a stuck marriage, Mitchell writes, takes at the least an understanding of the creative aspect of a relationship. He says that marriage ideally is a “sandcastle built for two,” with the notion of “objective reality” accepted as a construction that can be molded and remolded:

We tend to assume that ordinary reality is factual and objective, which makes the transcendence that transforms the ordinary other into an object of desire a fantasy-driven illusion. But if ordinary reality no longer wears the mantle of objectivity, if ordinary reality is understood as a construction, useful for some purposes, useless for others, its transcendence in the creation of the desirable is not a contamination or masking of what is really there, but an alternative construction, a window into what is really there.

Throughout the book Mitchell uses case histories from his three decades of practice to illuminate his points. When the ability to enhance one’s relationship is blocked by the very tendencies that make the relationship unhappy, he hints at a need for couples and individuals to seek formal therapy and analysis, to look at unresolved personal issues that may be hampering one’s chance at saving a relationship.

It’s here where one of the few limitations of his approach appears. As a respected Manhattan therapist, it’s understandable that Mitchell would have an optimistic view of therapy as a way to help individuals free themselves from mental bondage. Trouble is, not all therapists — maybe not even the majority of them — have the combination of warmth, patience, wit and breadth of real-world intelligence that Mitchell seemed to possess. Going into therapy with one who was heretofore a stranger, having trusted only in the power of personal reference and/or advertising, can be a crapshoot, one that might leave those who try it ultimately worse off than they were before.

By focusing primarily on the psychological underpinnings of the partners in a relationship, Mitchell gives little more than a passing glance to the issue of children in a marriage. For those who have children, and who value their roles as parents as much as their roles as spouses, this is a major blind spot.

Into that vacuum jumps another marital therapist, Dr. Joshua Coleman, with his 2003 book Imperfect Harmony. It presumes that, for most readers, the welfare of a couple’s children will be a big factor in the equation of whether or not their relationship is successful. While his writing style is not nearly as elegant as Mitchell’s, his focus on the familial aspects of marriage is refreshingly down-to-earth.

Coleman draws from case histories of counseling patients who sought to stay together so their children might avoid financial hardship or a life with only one parent around at a time. He sees healthy possibilities in couples that make the choice to stay together, even if both partners in marriage realize that their romantic relationship is likely beyond repair. This is possible, he cautions, only by “changing whatever you have to change in yourself to be an effective and positive force in your kids’ lives.”

Coleman uses his counseling stories to spur the reader to self-inquiry, to make him answer for himself: How and when do you stay in a marriage because of the children? And how much of your own psychology is contributing to the difficulties in your marriage? He asks the reader to recognize that the fear one may have of changing “is almost always based on an irrational worry from childhood.”

He defines a five-point scale marking the types of marriage-in-crisis, from “capable at revitalization” and “co-parent friends” to “covert fighters” and “constant battlers” — with the state of simply being “roommates” in the middle of the scale. For readers resigned to living with a moribund relationship, he asks that they begin with a proper “mindset for going forward.” This includes no longer relying on the partner as a source of intimacy, or bemoaning what the partner is not providing; a willingness to examine counterproductive beliefs about the centrality of marriage to one’s happiness; and the resolve to work hard at developing one’s individual mental health and life performance.

With such a mindset, Coleman says that many couples can find that, in the long run if nothing else, a “dead” relationship can more likely than not be revived:

While time doesn’t heal all, it creates the possibility for your marriage to change for the better. Divorce buries that possibility once and for all. … Sometimes, it really is a matter of hanging in there long enough of working on it until things change sufficiently so it’s manageable; your kids get older, your partner mellows out, you get a new perspective.

Coleman acknowledges that marital bickering can be a mental drain. He advises becoming aware of “irrational, self-limiting beliefs” and “developing positive counterstatements to the beliefs.” While in verbal conflict with a partner, the goal should be “not getting defensive while your partner voices a complaint or criticism”; one should “avoid getting into who’s right or wrong” during the discussion:

The goal isn’t to win, it’s to live your life in a way that isn’t controlled or dominated by your partner’s behavior. The issue is who you want to be in your marriage.

Coleman, like Mitchell, employs a mostly gentle and tactful approach, offering his views with respect and compassion. By contrast, the macho style of television talk-show therapist (and new American icon) “Dr. Phil” McGraw, while it can surprise with moments of tact and self-effacing wit, is anything but gentle.

A reader favoring modest rhetorical eloquence may find something off-putting about Dr. Phil’s best-selling 2000 book on marriage, Relationship Rescue. Like McGraw’s other best sellers, it features a mass-marketed “in your face” machismo aimed at middle-of-the-roadsters unlikely to question the props he gives to the likes of God and Whitney Houston. Yet his communicative strategy is often successful, at least insofar as it creates a tough-as-nails, straight-talking daddy figure whom the average reader, presumably, will respond to more readily to than the milquetoast style of the other authors.

“I want you, right now, to listen to me”: typical Phil-speak. He wants the reader to “forget what you think you know” and “get real,” because “what you are doing is not working.” Relating his years of working with couples to his target audience, McGraw declares that “I know what you don’t know” and “I know how to get your relationship under control.”

As the sales figures of Dr. Phil’s books attest, there is something compelling in his aggressive approach: there may be something to the therapeutic need for a comforting and decisive father figure. And although this strategy has its limitations, particularly when the aggression devolves into arrogance, it ultimately need not distract from the wealth of reasonable advice and information contained in his book on marriage.

Beyond the bravado, there are actually many points where Drs. McGraw, Coleman and Mitchell agree on the subject of an individual’s role in a marriage. Like Coleman, Dr. Phil tries to point the reader in the direction of a new perspective on fear, to rid one’s mind of irrational “monsters in the dark” that may keep one from taking necessary positive steps; he also, like Coleman, makes the point that one’s position in a marriage, no matter how seemingly painful and stuck, may well involve some personal “payoff” that makes change difficult. Along with Mitchell, McGraw places high priority on marriages “built on a solid underlying friendship.” And like his colleagues, he makes the point that the best way for readers to help heal their marriages, is by first being willing to deal with their own personal dysfunctions:

Only when you stop seeing yourself as a victim will you start to see yourself as a fully competent force in your relationship. Your less than perfect relationship will no longer be a source of despair. It will be your opportunity to use your power. Problems truly are nothing more than opportunities to distinguish yourself. It is time to do just that.

McGraw’s book differs from Mitchell’s and Coleman’s in its emphasis on personal assignments and exercises. Coleman’s book offers a few suggested assignment strategies, and Mitchell’s none at all — but with Dr. Phil, it’s time to get out the pen and notebook, lest you receive a mid-book warning about how you’re not ready for the next steps for having failed to do your assigned.

The homework itself is worth a look, if only to spark further inquiry into what issues should receive special focus in one’s marriage. Of interest is a detailed “Partner Awareness Quiz,” where one can get in touch with their inner Newlywed Game contestant and learn how much he or she knows (or doesn’t know) about The Other Half.

Early in the book, McGraw seeks to debunk what he calls common myths about marriage, such as “a great relationship is a peaceful one” and “a great relationship has nothing to do with sex.” (Arguing is not inherently good or bad, according to Doc Phil; and marital sex, he writes, is a “needed exercise in vulnerability wherein you allow your partner to get close.”) He then reveals his list of 10 “Personal Relationship Values” that will “reprogram you for success.” The proactive values range from “own your relationship” to “be up front and forthright” to “promote your partner’s self-esteem” and “put motion into your emotion”:

You can no longer settle for living a second-class life with your partner. Ambivalence is no longer in your vocabulary. Passivity is no longer part of your behavioral repertoire, and hatefulness is no longer on your list of emotional choices. You must set the bar of excellence for yourself an unprecedented high level, and then with tenacious determination strive to leap over it.

As the book progresses, McGraw requests more of the reader, and offers what can seem a daunting challenge to those who are “going it alone” without the partner’s knowledge or cooperation: to open up a new dialogue with the partner, based on principles forwarded in the book. (The book has, near its end, exercises in creating constructive dialogue that couples are to do together.) He recognizes that this step, as it may involve dealing with an especially obstinate mate, can be painful and perhaps take an extended period to pull off, and offers reassuring language about the reader’s inherent worth and the potential satisfaction in breaking through, though for some readers the mental “anchors” required to negotiate this step without breaking down may be more than any single book can create.

McGraw writes of how he abandoned his private practice in couples therapy after seeing limitations in the field, hampered by what he calls an “ivory-tower ideology” and “approaches to relationships usually so embarrassing that I want to turn my head in shame.” But for some, the “human touch” available not only from the better therapists, but also from assorted social-support groups capable of giving powerful “in your face” reinforcement, might be the most effective way of clearing the largest marital hurdles.

Understandably, neither McGraw, Mitchell nor Coleman gives much emphasis to the concept of a “hopeless marriage.” Mitchell, again, sees the final arbiter as a disciplined self-examination, probably best helped along by a trained professional. Coleman also values the therapeutic route, while in his book offering a small but respectful place for the view that some marital arrangements do have a fundamental lack of authenticity and compatibility, and as such are best abandoned. Dr. Phil, predictably, is more aggressively declarative on the matter:

Until you can look yourself in the eye in the mirror, until you can look your children in the eye and say I did everything I could to save this relationship and it could not be done, then you have not earned the right to quit. Arrogant as it may sound, until you have done everything I outline in this book, then I don’t think you have earned the right to quit.

As over-the-top as that may seem, it does point to a probable truth about married couples in crisis: most of them could, and should, try harder to stick it out and work it out. To see the greatest possibilities in nurturing a love that, as Mitchell puts it, “over time entails the capacity to tolerate and repair hatred.”