I believe that marriage can be considered the most essential relationship, in that it is the means God has chosen for the perpetuation of the human race. Marriage also generates personalities, lifestyles, attitudes, and life perspectives. It is the basis for a depth of intimacy that cannot be found elsewhere. In my experience, marriage is the most rewarding of human experiences, and at the same time perhaps one of the most difficult.

One challenge to marriage may be our cultural emphasis on self-enhancement. Some try to squeeze marriage into their lives while pursuing Freud's trilogy of values: love, work, and play, from an individualistic perspective. Marriage requires devotion to another person and to the marriage itself. It often requires selflessness and compromise. People who take their marriage seriously may feel that they are swimming upstream in a culture where achievement is valued more highly than relationships. Dealing with the conflict and differences inherent in marriage can be seen as an impediment to personal happiness, rather than a passageway to greater depth of commitment, and a model of the same for children.

Marriage and divorce statistics are complicated and difficult to pin down. Although we often hear the statement, "Fifty percent of marriages end in divorce," the situation is not that simple. There are many variables associated with permanence, or the lack thereof, in marriage. These include the era in which a person was married, age when married, age difference between spouses, education, family background, income, beliefs and values, among others. Besides these more easily measured statistical factors, there is the nebulous concept of commitment to marriage. I view scriptural references to marriage as a description of what marriage looks like from its creator. They assume permanent commitment, embodying what is most important in relationships: loving one another selflessly, and meeting each others needs. Genesis 2:22-25 refers to husband and wife becoming "one flesh." Ephesians 5:31-32 goes a step further, suggesting that the love of one spouse for the other is sacrificial, modeled after the love of Christ for those who follow him.

In a survey of 351 couples married over fifteen years, respondents were asked to choose the reasons their marriages had lasted. Cumulatively, the top seven reasons were ranked in the following order:

  • My spouse is my best friend.
  • I like my spouse as a person.
  • Marriage is a long-term commitment.
  • Marriage is sacred.
  • We agree on aims and goals.
  • My spouse has grown more interesting.
  • I want the relationship to succeed.

Besides the rather amazing fact that husbands and wives cumulatively agreed on the rank order of the first seven reasons, it is interesting that three of the seven reasons are directly related to the idea of commitment. Three others focus on the value placed on the spouse as an individual.

The Good Marriage: How and Why Love Lasts by Judith Wallerestein gives another perspective on what the guts of marriage consists of. She provides a list of essential marriage tasks:

  • Task 1: Separate emotionally from the family of ones childhood and invest fully in the marriage.
  • Task 2: Build togetherness through identifying with each other, shared experiences, and develop an expanded conscience that includes both partners.
  • Task 3: Establish a pleasurable sexual relationship and protect it.
  • Task 4: Absorb the impact of children, protecting the marriage.
  • Task 5: Confront and master crises together.
  • Task 6: Maintain the marriage bond in the face of adversity.
  • Task 7: Use humor and laughter to keep perspective and avoid boredom and isolation.
  • Task 8: Nurture and comfort each other.
  • Task 9: Keep romance alive while facing the realities of change and the passage of time.

Perhaps the best way to evaluate marriage comes from the long-term research of John Gottman. He essentially separates married couples into three goups: married and reasonably happy, married and unhappy, and divorced. I think most couples who have been married for a significant period of time would agree that to reside in the "married and reasonably happy" category is a challenge. According to Gottman's research, satisfaction in marriage is associated with continuous efforts to know each other well, expressing fondness for each other, giving each other attention when requested, maintaining a positive perspective of your spouse, and building a life together. Couples are often unaware of how important these factors are, hoping to find intimacy and companionship that is self-perpetuating, without lifelong commitment and the intentional approach to their marriage that is necessary.

So what is marriage therapy all about? Sometimes we need assistance in bringing our attention back to the "roadmap" we need to follow as a couple, bearing in mind that there are often numerous routes to the same destination. A therapist can help develop a broader view of marriage, when our focus is locked on a particular source of frustration or disappointment. My goal as a psychologist is to do all that I can to preserve marriages. In order to do that, principles such as commitment, selflessness, understanding each other, conflict management, and developing a shared sense of purpose, need to be made concrete, in the context of your particular marriage, and taking into account your individual personalities.




Dr. Greg Swenson PhD
Copyright 1997-2017 
All rights reserved.
Revised: 2017.