Why Bother Staying Married?

Life has changed a great deal since we entered the 21st Century. Massive, worldwide economic, political and social upheavals are impacting all areas of our lives. Marriages (and equivalent relationships) are no exception. In fact, long-term relationships face new stresses and challenges. People enter them within a world of shifting social norms, diversity, and increasing openness about emotional and sexual engagements, including ones that differ from the conventional.

These new realities raise a important question for couples to face, head-on: Do you want to stay married at this point in your life — in your relationship as it now exists, and at this time in our culture?

Consider this: It may be psychologically healthier to end your marriage. That is, I think that the conditions and challenges of the 21st world – the “new normal” – point to considering a more radical way of life: Engaging in two different kinds of marriages may be a better response to the emotional and sexual realities of our fluid, interconnected world.

On the other hand, you might decide to reconstitute you marriage in ways more in synch with how each of you are “evolving” in your individual lives; and more consistent with your vision of what you want a partnership to be as you become older.

Let me explain both paths. Increasingly, people recognize that our post- 9-11 world — the economic downturn, global crises and uncertainties, the impact of climate change, the increasing diversity of our population, global interconnection, and a host of other shifts – all of it forms a new era of uncertainty, unpredictability and diminished expectations of career and material success.

Part of this new normal includes turmoil in people’s emotional and sexual attitudes and behavior, and generates what looks like contradictions in relationships. For example, people report wanting a “soul mate” relationship that sustains for the long run. And in fact, new brain research confirms that romantic love can, in fact, last – it’s not a fantasy.

On the other hand, affairs are pretty much socially accepted, and the services of sex workers seem headed in the same direction. People seek that “high” associated with the intense connection and excitement of a new partner, and which is also visible in brain changes, according to recent studies.

Such apparent contradictions actually reflect a growing rejection of the tendency to simply accept a marriage’s inevitable descent into the “functional relationship,” one devoid of energy, connection, and intimacy. This backlash had been underway prior to the events of the last decade, but it’s now intensifying. At the start of the new century men and women were reporting increasing boredom and crises in their marriages – along with the 50% divorce rate. Interestingly, research shows that the “love hormone” oxytocin is also associated with distinctly negative memories and feelings about one’s partner. Not surprisingly, survey research shows that marriage problems often occur between about 7 and 15 years of marriage

In my view, all of these shifts, challenges, and social trends occurring within today’s world warrant new ideas about what constitutes psychologically healthy relationships. I propose considering two kinds of marriages more relevant to current realities. And, in the meantime, that couples reassess why they stay together; whether they want to do so, at they go forward in their lives. Let’s look at each:

Two Kinds of Marriages

In Marriage #1, people who want to raise children would join with a partner who shares the same basic values about child rearing; and whose ethics, views about finances, education, as well as physical features support a positive marriage partnership. The objective is raising healthy children within an emotionally supportive, stable environment.

Marriage #2 is next, after child-rearing and financial goals of Marriage #1 have been achieved. Then, you would connect with a partner with whom you experienced a stronger romantic, soul-mate connection; a shared “same wave-length” kind of feeling about how you envision your life, growing and unfolding in the years ahead.

Of course, some may find that both kinds of marriage occur with the same partner. But I propose this framework for thinking about what best serves your children and your own psychological growth and development throughout life.

Meanwhile, Do You Continue?

Say you’ve been together a number of years. You’ve probably had good times and bad; probably wondered what your lives might be like if you went in different directions without each other; or followed a different life path altogether. If you’re in midlife, you’ve almost certainly had some of these thoughts. Maybe you suppressed them or dismissed them with a laugh. But just as many baby boomers are thinking about “encore careers” or a career shift during one’s prime, I suggest you do the same about your marriage.

Specifically, take an honest look at your marriage as it exists today. With your partner, confront whether you want it to continue. That is, your aim is to clarify whether you want to stay with this person for the rest of your life. If so, why; and what will it take? ?And if that’s not the case, can you end it with regret, respect, and mutual support for your future life paths?

Some steps: Consider the possibility that the marriage you began years ago, and within which you raised children, worked for that earlier purpose; but may no longer work for you, today.

  • Be open with each other about how you view the state of your marriage at this point in your relationship.
  • Reflect on why the two of you joined together in the first place. How have each of you have changed over the years? How does each of you experience the changes in the other?
  • What do you want a relationship to look like, to feel like, as you go forward post-children? With your partner, compare and discuss where you are aligned.
  • Where you aren’t, what qualities would you like to see in your partner? What are you willing to “grow” within yourself in response to the feedback your partner gives you?

The most positive outcome, here, would be to reconstitute your marriage in ways that support who each of you are, in reality, at this point in your life – assuming you’re aiming in the same direction, and want to go that way together. That can build a new foundation for a self-sustaining relationship — one that stays alive and resilient as you face the unknowns and unpredictable events and experiences waiting for you down the road.