Preserving the Fantastic Love We Found

…We stood
holding each other by the hand, yet I also
stood as if alone, for a moment, 
just before the vow, though taken
years before, took. It was a vow
of the present and the future, and yet I felt it
to have some touch on the distant past
or the distant past on it, I felt
the silent, dry, crying ghost of my
parents' marriage there, somewhere
in the bright space—…

  ~ Sharon Olds, excerpt from The Wedding Vow


So many wishes came to me as I sat among the rows of people at the mercy of an unforgiving, July sun. Many were about chilly bodies of water, but my mind was also directed to other wishes, by the wedding officiant, who just asked the group of us who were gathered for the vows of a beautiful, young couple. “What is your wish or words of advice for this couple, who is about enter into the institution of marriage?” He paused, look toward the majestic view of a snow smothered Mt. Hood towering above us, “You see, I have thought about marriage a lot and what it means to be married, because until very recently, it wasn’t legal for a gay man, like myself, to be able to marry his partner. Now I stand here, married, about to marry these two dynamic people. What are your words advice about marriage for them?”

People began to shout out their responses, some generic, “Don’t go to bed mad at one another.” Others were archaic and humorous, “Compromise with one another. My wife wanted a cat and I didn’t,” the bride’s red-faced uncle bellowed, “So we compromised and got a cat”. The crowd gave a hearty chuckle of approval. The tattooed woman in front of me leaned back toward our row and said, “A good sex life.” We all agreed that was a good wish for everyone. Then, from either side of me, my sister and husband leaned in and whispered the same thing that I was thinking, “a good marriage therapist”. We smiled at one another, knowing that it wasn’t appropriate for us to mention the probability that there will be a time when this so-completely-in-love man and woman would need or want help with their relationship.

Disappointingly, we are still living with a reality that over 50% of marriages in America end in divorce. In fact, both the bride and groom at this wedding had parents who were divorced. Dr. John Gottman, a leading researcher of couples, projects that most couples spend an average of six years being unhappy in their relationship before they decide to enter therapy. Why do they wait so long? What is the underlying force that keeps them from asking for help? Often the driving force for people who do not ask for help when they need it is fear. Fear of altering others views of our personality traits: not as smart as you want others to see you, not as strong as you want appear, not as stable in your partnership, not as mentally healthy, or not as capable.  It takes honesty to recognize you need help and courage to ask for it. It is commonly believed among therapists that the sooner a couple gets help when they need it the better the outcome. The longer a couple repeats destructive behaviors with one another the harder it is to alter these patterns

Couples counseling has been known to have a bad reputation. Many couples fear that therapy will end their marriage. Some reasons why therapy might not be effective are: the severity and duration of the problems before entering treatment, one of the members of the couple already has decided to end the relationship and uses treatment to tell their partner, addictions and mental illness can also impact treatment success, people who are unwilling to tell the truth in treatment, couples who aren’t fully invested in the therapy process, and finally therapists who are not properly trained or educated in couples effective couples treatment.

Therapy offers the opportunity for a couple recognize their unhealthy or destructive dynamic and to make the necessary shifts to alter behaviors. John Gottman’s research suggests that 80% of couples have a stable dynamic that keeps them interacting in conflictive discussions the same way over and over. He also found that 69% of these perpetual problems do not get resolved, because they are rooted in personality differences between the two people. Counseling can help these couples though. Happy marriages have a 5:1 ratio of positive to negative interactions with one another. Healthy ways of communicating and behaving during conflicts can be learned. Empathy can be learned. Couples can develop insight into themselves, their partner, their own couple- dynamics, and they learn to take the minor or major steps to shift it. Couples can also rebuild trust in one another through the therapy process. Overall, seeking support for a suffering relationship can only help.

When we say our wedding vows, whether they be on mountain tops, sandy shores, churches,  in our backyards, in front of hundreds or just between us, we are making a commitment to do the very best we can to preserve the fantastic love that we found. We do this with our community surrounding us, supporting us as we take this leap of faith with our partner. We do this with courage and hope and faith. Using that same part of us to get help in the times when the beautiful sun isn’t shining brilliantly on our alter flowers, and for the times when the rains, floods, and tornados visit. That faith, courage, and hope will serve you well when you pick up the phone to reach out for help before it is too late. No one should live unhappily married.

Copyright Brooke Sears, M.A., Psy.D., Psychology Assistant (2017)