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Should you stay or should you go? Thoughts on marriage

Christine Carter, director, Greater Good Parents | February 18, 2011

Lucky us: We live in a world where many of us have an abundance of choices: where to live, what to do for a living, and, of course, who to marry—or whether to get married at all.

All these choices give us certain freedoms, but they don’t necessarily make us happier. They create certain perfectionistic expectations: If we aren’t perfectly happy with the one we love, for example, might we have chosen wrong? Should I make a different choice now? Would the grass be greener with my high school sweetheart?

Here’s where I find John and Julie Gottman’s seminal research to be totally essential to understanding the problems of long-term romantic relationships. Here are two key things I’ve learned from them.

First, all couples have problems. Think the grass might be greener? Remember you’re trading out one set of problems for another. It isn’t about finding a conflict-free relationship, or even about solving all of your relationship’s problems, but rather about accepting the problems you can live with.

In her book Committed, Elizabeth Gilbert offers a very useful metaphor for this, quoting her gem-buyer husband:

A parcel is this random collection of gems that the miner … puts together. … Supposedly, you get a better deal that way—buying them all in a bunch—but you have to be careful, because … [he’s] trying to unload his bad gemstones on you by packaging them together with a few really good ones. …

After I got burned enough times, I … learned this: You have to ignore the perfect gemstones. … Just put them away and have a careful look at the really bad stones. Look at them for a long time, and then ask yourself honestly, “Can I work with these? Can I make something out of this?”

Spouses are much the same: They come with flawed bits as well as sparkly strengths. The question isn’t so much whether you want the sparkly parts (of course you do) but rather whether you can deal with the flaws.

Second, there are really only four types of problems. The key is knowing what type of problem you’ve got, and then deciding whether or not you can work with it. The four kinds of problems are:

(1) One-time, solvable problems. I think many of us bull-headed people assume that all problems are solvable. They’re not.

But some are. These tend to be the types of conflicts that arise from a unique situation rather than differences in our personalities.

Say one person wants a dog and the other doesn’t. This is a conflict that can be solved, using your well-practiced conflict resolution skills. (I’ll be blogging about that next.) If you don’t resolve the conflict, it can turn into #2, below: a conflict that comes up again and again and again, until you just get the darn dog.

(2) Cyclical conflicts. The Gottmans call these problems “perpetual issues.” Unlike solvable problems, they are based on fundamental differences in your personalities, emotional needs, or ideas about how you’d like to live life — and they will never, ever go away. Period. Accept that now.

They can become workable, however. ….

Excerpted from Christine Carter’s blog, Raising Happiness (“Science for Joyful Kids and Happier Parents”) — where you can read the rest of this post.

Comments to “Should you stay or should you go? Thoughts on marriage

  1. U.S. Citizenship & Immigration Services and the U.S. Department of State both judge the validity of the marriage based on the laws of the place where the marriage was celebrated.A marriage that is not valid in the place where it was celebrated will not be recognized as a marriage for the purposes of receiving immigration benefits.

  2. Its true Cyclical Conflicts will never go away, but what if we have (or at least we hope we did) come to an agreement of “meeting halfway”? Say, I have an outgoing lifestyle, meet with friends once in a while, other parents etc, and he has the more introvert lifestyle (I call it private). Of course that;s a recipe for conflict, but then we come into terms of me not going out as much as before and him going out as much as he can, or even going out together. Do you think we are just brewing ourselves to a huge conflict in the future? or is that what we call compromise?

  3. The first thing you learn in a performance driving course is to keep your head up and look far into the distance.

    I think most people know whether they are in a security blanket type relationship, which is temporary and meant for immediate comfort and gratification, or a marriage track situation, which will lead to a long term commitment to build a family.

    In security blanket type relationship, we ultimately resent our attachment to the other person, and conflicts, cyclical or otherwise, defeat the purpose of being together. The longer the relationship lasts, the more neurotic or demanding we become in it, since its sole purpose is to meet our selfish emotional needs.

    But when we are choosing a spouse, we are also attempting to select the children we want. It’s amazing the degree to which two people can find common ground and resolve conflicts when they have before them the momentous goal of rearing a child they care for in a loving family.

  4. I think that the greatest SATISFACTION we can have in life is that having children, a wife who understand both your flaws and advantages, and that’s it live a happy and a righteous life. I don’t really think that you can find a perfect husband and wife. But all of us can work until the perfection comes. Just think of the successful marriages some has who live a happy life with their family. And asking them and they will surely say that the greatest joy they have in life is for having a family. And from these people I think we can learn a lot. Your family would be the best stepping stone for success in life and improving your family relationship is one of your outstanding investment in this.
    — Luke

  5. You begin your otherwise very insightful blog with:
    “Lucky us: We live in a world where many of us have an abundance of choices: where to live, what to do for a living, and, of course, who to marry—or whether to get married at all.”

    I wish to point out that for many of us (the not-so-lucky ones?), marriage is not a matter of course, nor is it even a choice.

    As an established sociologist who works towards the “greater good,” perhaps you could choose more inclusive language.

  6. Prof. Carter, you bring up a most interesting point. The percentages of failed marriages within and between all cultural groups are just one totally unacceptable consequence of the failed leaderships of all our institutions.

    A most destructive root cause is the fact that our brain is not evolved enough to keep our irrational emotions from creating too many cyclical conflicts, which explains why our species is increasingly threatened with extinction as we continue to lose control over population growth, acceptable resources to support populations, social stability, etc.

    Indeed, “Cyclical conflicts — are based on fundamental differences in your personalities, emotional needs, or ideas about how you’d like to live life — and they will never, ever go away” is as good an explanation of a dominant human failure mode as any.

    If we can’t figure a way to create good leadership, then the future for our civilization is chaos, or worse.

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