Fear of Marriage
By Willard F. Harley, Jr., Ph.D.
This week I'm shifting gears. For the past few weeks, I've been focusing attention on what to do when your spouse is abusive or neglectful and unwilling to change. But many of you are single, and when you read these horror stories, it makes you wonder if marriage is worth the risk. Your parents, friends and relatives may be divorced or miserable in their marriage. So what are the chances that your marriage won't turn out that way?
As I've stated twice in this series of newsletters, only about twenty percent of marriages end up being happy and fulfilling. Forty percent end up divorced, twenty percent permanently separate, and twenty percent stay together in an unhappy marriage. Joyce and I are happily married, but how can you be sure you'll end up like us and the other twenty percent that you hear about but may not know personally?
This week's letter comes from one of my single readers with a fear of marriage. What can she do to overcome that fear? Should she overcome it?
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Dear Dr. Harley,
I am a 45 year old unmarried female and have received your newsletter for a long while now hoping to heal my negative concepts of marriage. How do I undue this fear and negativity? I feel like they are deep rooted weeds I can't pull.
Growing up, all I heard was "don't get married" or "you can always get married later." The message was clear to not rely on a man, but to instead travel, socialize, experience life.
Now it's "later" and all I hear is "if you get married you have to put up with someone's crap... marriage is hard... men don't help... you have to take care of them and everything else... it's thankless"
Needless to say my marriage does not have to be my parents/grandparents marriage, but I'm afraid of getting trapped in something I can't get out of, or I'll get bored, or we'll irritate each other, or he'll hurt me emotionally, or he'll cheat on me -- you get the picture.
I have had therapy and have worked out many issues (my dad and I didn't have a good relationship), but I just can't wrestle this from my psyche.
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Dear M. W.,
With so many divorces and unhappy couples, it's reasonable to fear marriage. Your therapy hasn't helped overcome your reservations because the risks are real, and you're smart enough to see them for what they are.
My parents had a terrific marriage, but I can't honestly say that I wanted what they had. Marriage seemed very stressful and confining, with constant worry about bills, raising children, and all sorts of other pressures. I wanted the freedom to explore places and ideas that few women would be willing to explore with me. I, like most men (and women) wanted to do what I felt like doing. Do I sound like a man who could be happily married?
When I was in high school, I wrote a paper describing my ideal mate in life. She would be an explorer, like I was. She would be a survivalist, willing to live in a remote cabin in Alaska. She would hunt and fish and enjoy horseback riding. She would challenge my theories of life, and be able to beat me in chess. Joyce was none of those things. Yet she's the one I married.
There is only one reason I married Joyce -- I was in love with her. And she was in love with me. If I had not fallen in love with her or some other woman, I might be single today, even if I had met someone who perfectly fit my high school vision of the ideal wife. If a person is not in love, marriage doesn't make much sense. But when you're in love, you throw caution to the wind. I could not imagine going through life without Joyce.
I didn't understand why my marriage to Joyce was so successful when I first started counseling troubled couples. At the time, I thought that it was due to our commitment to each other, our willingness to sacrifice for each other, and our unconditional love for each other. But when I encouraged troubled couples to be more committed, sacrifice, and love each other unconditionally, it didn't help them -- they divorced. Even when they tried to do what I had suggested for a while, it didn't help. They told me that after they had lost their love for each other, they simply couldn't stay married. Eventually, I came to understand that the commitment Joyce and I shared, our willingness to sacrifice, and our unconditional love was the result of our being in love with each other, not the cause.
That's when I changed my marriage counseling strategy. Instead of encouraging commitment, sacrifice, and unconditional love, I taught spouses how to fall in love with each other. When that happened, I started saving marriages.
The only reason I married Joyce and she married me was that we were in love with each other. And while there are many other reasons for us to remain married, the primary reason we're still together is that we are still in love with each other. As you already know by reading my newsletters, our love is sustained because we meet each others most important emotional needs and avoid hurting each other.
Granted, before we were married, there were plenty of logical reasons for us to marry. We fit all five of the most important criterion for compatibility: We had the same IQ, we had the same energy level, the same social interest, the same moral values, and the same cultural background. That made it much easier for us to make Love Bank deposits and avoid withdrawals. I've helped many couples that are not similar in some of these categories to build a successful marriage. But it's more difficult for them to resolve conflicts in ways that build their Love Bank balances.
My parents and my wife's parents enthusiastically supported our relationship right from the beginning, because they knew we would be good for each other. My friends and Joyce's friends were equally supportive. No one ever told either of us to be cautious. Their support was evidence that our relationship was logical.
But besides logic and passion, there are two other factors that are crucial in creating a successful marriage: Willingness to change and mutual respect.
Joyce and I could never have had a lifetime of love if I had persisted in my pre-marriage attitude of independence. I wanted to live my life the way I saw fit, and I wanted Joyce to join me in my great adventure. But thankfully, that's not the way things turned out. I could not have met Joyce's most important emotional needs and avoided hurting her unless I was willing to change to accommodate her feelings and interests. As you probably know, I'm not a survivalist; I rarely hunt and fish; I don't ride horses and don't play chess anymore. I don't miss any of it because I have something far more important: A great marriage.
The other crucial factor is mutual respect. Almost all premarital counselors would agree that listening to the way an engaged couple discuss a conflict is a great way to predict marital success. If either person expresses disrespect for the other person's opinions or ways of expressing themselves, the risk of divorce after they marry is very great. If, on the other hand, they try to understand each others opinions respectfully, and discuss ways that they can accommodate them, the prognosis is good for a happy marriage.
I usually ask an engaged couple to discuss a marital conflict that is almost impossible to resolve. For example, I might ask a devout Christian woman to imagine that her husband, who had been a Christian prior to marriage, would convert to Islam, and would want their children to be taught both Islam and Christianity. How should they educate their children regarding religion? I've yet to see a couple come to an enthusiastic agreement regarding that issue. But what I'm looking for isn't agreement, it's the respect they have for each other as they discuss the issue. Don't ever consider marrying a man who treats you disrespectfully when you disagree with him.
I encourage you to marry, but only to someone with whom you are passionately in love, and who is passionately in love with you. Your friends and family should feel that the marriage makes sense, you should both agree to make whatever changes will be necessary to accommodate each others feelings, and you should both express a profound respect for each other when you face a conflict. In that relationship, you have little to fear.
Willard F. Harley, Jr.
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