Last month, we talked about how relationships can be destroyed through petty communication between two people who have pledged to love each other forever. This month, let’s look at Marriage Mythology, or in other words, those things we think are true about relationships — but really are not.
Myth #1: Neuroses destroy relationships
Guess what, folks. Just because you’re never landed on the therapy couch doesn’t mean that you’re going to be any better at marriage than anyone else. In fact, there is some evidence that suggests that people who feel really good about themselves are most at risk for behaving badly toward others — and that includes their spouses.
Conversely, even individuals who struggle with serious emotional challenges can create lifelong unions full of love, passion, and permanence. When it comes to connecting authentically, then, “normal” gets you nowhere. So go ahead: confess your crazy buttons. We all have them. What matters is that we own them.
Myth #2: Common interests are the key to happiness
Paul Newman was once quoted as saying that the key to his successful marriage to Joanne Woodward was that they had absolutely nothing in common. Although shared interests are much more fun than Paul was copping to, he made an important point: Wanting to spend time with someone, over and over and over, is about something so much vastly deeper than sharing a passion for volleyball or Scrabble. It’s about how we treat each other; whether we can trust one another not to put us down or judge us or criticize; and most importantly, whether that special someone will preserve our dignity and be our friend no matter what.
Myth #3: You scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours
A “tit-for-tat” mentality is one of love’s surest assassins. It takes all of the joy out of getting that caring foot rub if our partner then loan sharks us by saying, “Okay, I rubbed your feet, now you owe me ____.” Yech! Next time, remind me to say, “No, thanks, my dear.”
Myth #4: Avoiding conflict is bad
When we feel disappointed and hurt by our spouses, we need to be assertive and tell them, right? Wrong. I know, I know. It always seems that our “issues” need “airing.” Apparently, however, they don’t. But why don’t they? We are supposed to share our feelings…right? I suspect that the reason that conflict harms relationships is that most of us don’t know how to go about it without doing harm. We rail instead of request. We rage rather than nurture rapport. Instead, we must desist and defer our anger until we can “say it nicely” — and not pretend nicely, either. Using a sugary tone as we claw at our partners’ self respect does not count as nice.
Myth #5: Affairs are the root cause of divorce
A colleague once told me that he had a wonderful marriage…until he found his wife in bed with another man. He walked out and never spoke with her again, despite her pleas to allow her to explain. On the surface, his reaction makes sense. Seeing one’s loved one having sex with another would have to be one of the most painful experiences on the planet.
On the other hand, however, I could not help asking him, what led her to this point? Although he never was able to acknowledge his role in his marital catastrophe, he did admit that he spent most of his time traveling, without ever once including her, even when his business destinations occurred in glorious places like the Caribbean. It then came out that he was not traveling alone, but rather with another colleague who just happened to be a red-headed glamour queen who was wicked-smart, funny, and at least 15 years younger than his spouse. Although I believed him, mostly, when he insisted that this connection was hanky-panky free and only about their joint writing projects, I began to understand how his wife might have felt desperately, superfluously, lonely.
Myth #6: Men are not built for marriage
There is a persistent myth, still held even by some scientists who should know better, that men are roamers by nature while women pair bond for life. Recent research tells us that cheating is not about anything other than what its name implies: sneaking out on one’s partner. It takes grit to commit, regardless of gender. It’s a decision, not a proclivity. Men have the same needs to find integrity within themselves as women do; for that is what loyalty is ultimately about.
Myth #7: Men and women are from different planets
Research has shown that while we can always find gender differences if we look for them, women and men share a vital trait in common: both value friendship and kindness more than any other quality when looking for a mate. This says it all.
Okay, enough about the myths. What are the real secrets to success that happy couples know that the rest of us don’t? The good news is that they are as straight-forward and common-sensical as slipping down a slide. The bad news is that they require some serious wisdom, dedication and effort; for they are deliriously difficult when what we really feel like doing is telling our partner to kiss off.
Dr. Kara Witt is a psychologist in the Twin Cities.
This article first appeared in the August 2012 issue of Minnesota Good Age. We may earn commissions on some of the links on this page, at no cost to you.