An All-Or-Nothing Marriage? *

By Rev. Dr. Ronald Lehenbauer

Do we expect more from marriage today than our parents or grandparents did? Our culture is rapidly changing, and marriage is changing with it.  In our times marriage is no longer a precondition for becoming a grownup, getting it on, ensuring economic security, or having kids.

In this 21st century, spouses seem to want more from their partners and more from marriage.  They seek partners who will bring out their best, most authentic selves, who can spot potential in their mate, and find (Michelangelo-like) the beautiful sculpture within the block of stone.

We still want the basic benefits of couple-hood.  We still want security.  We still want a passionate lover.  We still want good parenting skills.  Those come standard.  We continue to view our marriage as a central locus of love and passion, and we continue to view our home as a safe-haven in a heartless world.  But, in addition, we also need someone who promotes self-expression and personal self-actualization.

The history of marriage is like the ascent up a Maslow-like mountain of needs and desires.  At base camp are economic and physical safety.  Higher up the mountain, it takes a different kind of effort to make a marriage work.  We are expected to be each other’s coach, therapist and champion, while also being vulnerable, familiar and playful.

A good marriage relationship with trust and commitment provides not only a safe-haven, characterized by intimacy, understanding and differentiated communication.  Marriage is also about creating shared meaning, honoring one another’s life’s journey, and helping make each other’s dreams and aspirations come true. (Cf. John Gottman’s “Sound Marital House.”)We need to figure out both what our partner needs at any given point, and how we, with our own challenges and quirks, might be able to provide it.

The climb to the top of this marriage mountain may seem difficult, but the rewards are considerable, placing in reach a whole new level of intimate connection, unity and joy.

There’s no magic formula for traveling up this mountain together.  But some primary gifts and behaviors are: differentiated dialogue, being responsive to each other’s emotional bids, having fun together, giving your partner the benefit of the doubt with positive sentiment override, occasionally lowering your expectations for what your partner can do for you, and carving out some time just for each other.

This “new” idea of marriage, I believe, was the original vision for marriage by our Creator-God.  And because we are imperfect human-partners, there will be missteps, failures, and disappointments along the path up the mountain, with frequent need for forgiveness, compassion and grace.  Therefore we will be happier in our marriages if we can gracefully accept that it’s not all-or-nothing.

* Rev. Dr. Lehenbauer has extensively based this article on Belinda Luscombe, “Why marriage is harder than ever – and maybe better too,” Time (9/25/17, p.25), reviewing Eli Finkel’s book, The All-or-Nothing Marriage; and using John Gottman, “The Sound Marital House,” The Gottman Institute, 2001.  Dr. Ronald Lehenbauer, a certified Imago Therapist,counsels adults and couples at our sites in Mineola and Woodside, Queens.

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