By Amy Alkon
Q: I really appreciated your recent column about people who go through with getting married when they know deep down that they’re making a mistake. I’m reminded of the common societal admonishment against being a “quitter.” There’s this notion that you’re some kind of loser if you quit anything—even when logic tells you that you should bow out. This sort of absurd anti-logic is used (with the “marriage takes work” notion) to intimidate people into remaining in marriages that are total failures, which prolongs everyone’s suffering.—Been There
A: Ideally, “till death do us part” doesn’t lead to daydreams involving a shovel and a tarp.
Granted, there are people in miserable marriages who stay together—sometimes because they believe that a man with horns and a tail would end up chasing them around with a flaming pitchfork if they split up and married somebody else. Others, in humdrum but not ugly or toxic marriages, stay together, admirably, for their kids’ sake. But many unhappy couples, with no pitter-pattering little feet but the schnauzer’s, don’t split up or are seriously slow to do it out of this notion that quitting is for losers.
I’m not suggesting that couples should scurry off to divorce court at the first sight of a cloud on the marital horizon. But there’s a cost-benefit analysis to be done. Couples need to consider whether it’s actually possible to work to make their marriage succeed or whether that would take their being two totally different and actually compatible people.
As for what “succeeding” in marriage means, let’s be honest: In modern society, we have a luxury we never did before—marrying for love and happiness. Marriage historian Stephanie Coontz points out that for “thousands of years”—until the late 18th century—“marriage was more about property and politics than personal satisfaction.” Two people would get “betrothed” to each other as a way of brokering peace between nations or getting the money to keep land in the family (“marriage is between a man and a potato farm”).
Research by psychologist Elliot Aronson finds that we are prone to “self-justification”—believing whatever puts us in the best light. In other words, we are natural-born spin doctors, driven to protect both our ego and our public persona. Enter psychological tool “self-compassion”—basically, when you’re going through a hard time, treating yourself as kindly as you’d treat someone else who’s struggling. Psychologist Kristin Neff, who studies self-compassion, finds that an essential element of this is seeing your “common humanity”—meaning viewing yourself as part of a whole population of flawed, fallible humans.
This might help you look charitably on the concept of the “starter marriage.” This is a first marriage for a very young couple without kids or many assets that ends in divorce in five years or less. (These are people who went into marriage not knowing themselves or their partner all that well and not really understanding what marriage requires.) Still, older people, upon hearing about this newfangled “get out of jail free” card, will often grumble the marital version of, “When I was your age, I crawled 20 miles to school over broken glass!”
But consider that this “starter marriage” concept is actually very helpful—right in line with the notion from self-compassion that you’re not alone in making mistakes. Understanding this can help you view your failures less as shameful embarrassments and more as learning experiences. Seeing failures in this more compassionate, positive light could also help you be a bit faster to admit when you’ve screwed up so you can move on. This is certainly preferable to just sitting there glumly mired in your bad choices like a little kid who peed his pants—and has to stay in those wet pants for the next 50 years, at which point somebody will throw him a big anniversary party to celebrate.