Divorce isn’t all bad. If nothing else, it makes singles considerably more cautious about getting married; people are waiting longer to tie the knot and, with the exception of the occasional fly-by-night, drunken Las Vegas betrothals, most folks do the best they can to ascertain whether their prospective mate is a good match. After all, compatibility is the name of the game, right? Well, truth be told, not exactly.
Over the years, many reporters have asked what people considering marriage should know about their future partners in order to determine compatibility. That’s a reasonable question. After all, it makes perfect sense that two people planning a life together should discuss major life decisions such whether to have children or remain childless, how many children they want, where to live, religious beliefs, how free time should be spent, with whom they’ll spend holidays, and so on. Many of life’s disappointments may be avoided if people discover in advance of marriage that their expectations simply do not jive.
However, I’m convinced that a false sense of security can come from believing that agreement on these issues or that having similar values, backgrounds, or even likes and dislikes can insure a happily-ever-after-marriage. It doesn’t. Take as many compatibility quizzes as you like, Match.com-ers, these questionnaires won’t offer a clue about what really makes marriages work. Why?
Well, for a few reasons. To start with, what a person believes at one stage in life may be radically different from what she or he believes years later or with more of life’s experiences under one’s belt. In short, people change. If people think that their partners’ attitudes and beliefs early in marriage will be the same when they turn forty or fifty, they may be in for a rude awakening and feel that they’ve been fooled by a bait-and-switch ploy. They haven’t.
Secondly, even if you have similar backgrounds and values, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you will see things eye-to-eye on important issues. For example, many believe that being of the same faith is a prerequisite to having a successful marriage. I once worked with a very religious couple whose faith was the most important thing in their lives. However, they had major disagreements about how to practice their religion and eventually ended up divorcing.
I remember reading a study listing several factors that placed marriages at risk of divorce such as having divorced parents, marrying at an early age, marriages where the woman had achieved a higher educational degree than the man, cohabitation prior to marriage, and so on. As I read the article, I quickly became aware that my husband of thirty-something years and I were poster children for marriages doomed to failure. (I hope he doesn’t read the article.)
So, is longevity in marriage simply the luck of the draw? Are loving, life partners just chosen randomly? Absolutely not. What then, accounts for marriages that survive the odds, marriages that last far beyond what compatibility quizzes, matchmakers, or even research predicts?
The answer is simple. Both partners must agree about the importance of working out their differences in fair, constructive and loving ways. There must be a platform upon which both spouses feel safe sharing difficult feelings and knowing that their partners will really care, really listen and take their feelings into account, even if it isn’t convenient. When both people know that their feelings matter, that it’s more important to feel connected than to be right, love works.
Naturally, this ideal sort of interaction doesn’t happen each time conflict arises in relationships. After all, we’re only human. But if, over the long haul, there is more caring than competition, marriages can survive virtually any kind of infraction, crisis or misfortune. If more people screened their partners for their willingness to learn and practice constructive conflict management skills, I feel certain I’d be selling fewer
Divorce Busting books. And that would be a good thing.