Chris Cook and Jessie Deussing
Ideas about marriage (what marriage is, when people should marry, the normalcy and permanence of marriage, etc.) are shifting as our culture is experiencing new challenges and conversations about this ancient institution. According to the National Marriage Project, several trends have emerged in recent years that have an effect on marriage and people thinking about getting married. For example, Americans are less likely to marry, and the rate of marriage is continuing to decline. Additionally, people who are marrying for the first time have a probability of between 40% and 50% of divorcing or separating sometime in their lives, although people who earn more than $50,000/year, are older, are more educated, wait to have children, and who are religious tend to have lower rates of divorce. Rates of divorce are, on the whole, decreasing. Further, in the past few decades the rate of couples who consider their marriage to be “very happy” is stable. Younger Americans are cohabitating more than they are marrying, and most newly married couples have lived together before marrying. This is true in spite of the fact that living together before marriage increases the risk of breaking up after marriage, that living together outside of marriage increases the risk of domestic violence and abuse of children, and that married couples are happier and report greater wellness than unmarried couples.
We believe the Biblical view of marriage envisions marriage as a committed and loving covenant relationship. Marriage is for the mutual social benefit of both partners, facilitates a complementary relationship that encourages growth, care, love, and protection from loneliness and isolation, and provides a stable social context for the raising of future generations. Couples do best when partners have a strong, safe emotional attachment to one another, and can communicate effectively to work through inevitable disagreements and differences.
In this report, we will discuss biblical support for marriage, premarital factors that contribute to happy marriages, marital enrichment, marital conflict, and affairs and recovery.
Gods’ design for marriage was that spouses be effectually bonded to one another in such a way, that they would reflect his glory more fully, experience his love more deeply, and be better off because of their bond. There is an element of mystery in how this occurs; yet the fruit it yields is undeniable. Within the context of a healthy marital relationship, men and women grow to reflect God’s image more fully and realize their full potential. Marriage is meant to make us better people; more holy, less defensive, more giving, less self-seeking, more alive, and less numb. In the context of this loving union, a secure bond is formed that enables its participants to live whole heartedly, growing in likeness to their Lord, and experiencing his love more fully.
Genesis 2: 18 The Lord God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him.”
Genesis 2:24-25 Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh. 25 And the man and his wife were both naked and were not ashamed.
Many couples have little education about or preparation for marriage before tying the knot, and therefore enter into marriage with greater risk for separation, divorce, or low marital satisfaction. Two important ideas can help couples prepare for their marriage. First, what happens before the marriage can have far reaching implications. Second, pre-marital counseling can be a vital resource for the couple.
It is easy to think that once you marry, the relationship is starting fresh, and what happened prior to marriage will have little impact, but there are some things that occur prior to marriage that can greatly impact the relationship. The National Marriage Project reports that past experiences involving love, sex, and children can greatly impact the marriage, as well as decision-making prior to the marriage, and even the wedding itself. Regarding sex, research indicates that the minority of people who have sex only with the person they marry have a higher quality of marriage than those who have other sexual partners, and particularly for women, the more sexual partners before marriage, the less happy the marriage is. Additionally, living with someone other than the spouse before marriage, being in a previous marriage, and having more romantic partners before marriage all correlate with lower marital satisfaction. What happens before marriage seems to have a big impact on marital satisfaction.
Research also shows that the decision-making process leading up to marriage impacts the quality of the martial relationship. Couples who “slide” into marriage via decisions that are not made intentionally (i.e., living together “just happened”) are less likely to have happy marriages.
Interestingly enough, the size of the wedding is associated with a couple’s long-term satisfaction. Couples who do not have a wedding, or have a small wedding, tend to find less satisfaction in marriage than those who have a large wedding. The reasons for this are not entirely clear, but large weddings may be related to couples who have other protective factors, like a broad community of support, high commitment to the relationship, and financial stability. It is also thought that having many witnesses at the wedding can be a factor that strengthens the couple’s efforts to stick to their commitment.
Several red flags may also help pre-marital couples avoid relationships that are likely to end prematurely or be highly dissatisfying. One red flag is couples who have differing levels of commitment to the relationship. A person that sees his or her commitment to the relationship as stronger than that of the partner is more likely to have a dissatisfying marriage. Second, the presence of premarital infidelity is a sign that the marriage is likely to have major problems. As discussed below, the reasons for affairs and infidelity are varied, but whatever the reasons, pre-marital infidelity is a sign that the relationship is not healthy, and serious consideration should be given before marriage when infidelity has occurred. Finally, the presence of physical aggression should be considered a red flag. Aggression disproportionately affects women and children, and couples who report aggression also report less frequent martial satisfaction.
Pre-marital counseling can be a vital resource for couples. Typically, couples who go to pre-marital counseling have fewer serious relationship problems and tend to have better overall psychological health. Pre-marital counseling is designed to help educate couples about married life, facilitate the development of communication skills, encourage couples to talk about sensitive topics like sex and money, and help develop conflict resolution strategies. You can also ask your therapist about tools like PREPARE/ENRICH, which can help enhance the pre-marital counseling experience.
Couples who find themselves married and can identify risk factors described above are not doomed to dissatisfying relationships or relationships that are destined to fail. Couple can take several steps to help facilitated a relationship that is more satisfying and more likely to last. First, couples can adopt an intentional mindset about decision-making. Talk and make decisions together intentionally. Second, couples can talk about their relationship history and background with each other. Talk about lessons learned and how to move forward together as a couple. Third, get advice and counseling from trusted friends, resources, or a marriage counselor. Counseling can be a great place to start a conversation about troubling background information, work through red flags, or find resources for enrichment.
Enrichment & Secure Connection
At Sure Hope Counseling & Training Center, our therapists are prepared to help you and your spouse reach a new level of intimacy by helping strengthen the bond you share with your partner. Weathering stress, juggling busy schedules, and bearing life’s demands can cause a couple to grow apart and become disconnected. Our counselors are ready to help restore the closeness you once felt in your relationship and guide you to a place of deeper connection. Tragically, sin, upside down priorities, prior emotional wounding, and fear can all play a role in our inability to experience a secure bond; leaving us feeling alone and at times, profoundly disappointed in our marriages. Our therapists understand this struggle and seek to be sensitive to your needs. At Sure Hope, we believe that enrichment and connection are key elements of marital satisfaction and are ready to help you achieve the lasting bond you desire.
In our Western culture, dependency on others is looked down upon while autonomous living is glorified, leaving us to believe that our need for connection is childish. Research shows that the desire for closeness and connection is the lifelong trademark of being human. Attachment theorists, such as John Bowlby, have dedicated their lives to researching these attachment needs and the consequences that ensue when gone unmet.
Studies have shown that closeness to a significant other can reduce distress, calm the nervous system, and lessen feelings of anxiousness. Healthy attachments offer safety to individuals, who live in a world that is unpredictable and harsh. Secure bonds allow for continued development of one’s sense of self and personality, both critical components of successful marriages. Theorists who have studied attachment benefits have found that a secure base incites exploration and more openness to learning about the environment and interpersonal interactions. It encourages risk taking and facilitates to ability to revise our views about one’s self, spouse, or world. In other words, being securely attached helps us to be more flexible and open to change. Further, when we feel secure in our relationship(s) we are better able to extend compassion and comfort to others, better regulate our own emotions, and deal with conflict more positively. Secure persons are in a better position to name their needs and express them clearly, which allows for an opportunity for their partners to respond lovingly, thus positively reinforcing the secure bond between them.
Conflicted and Devitalized Couples
Highly conflicted and devitalized couples have a high risk of divorce and tend to report lower levels of commitment to the relationship than more vitalized couples. They tend to operate in fixed ways and believe that their problems are unsolvable. Conflicted/Devitalized couples typically view their partner negatively and communicate indirectly. These couples rarely make the necessary repairs to their relationship, offer compassion and support, or assume the best in the other; in other words, they are stuck in a destructive cycle.
Dr. John Gottman, researcher and therapist, has studied such couples since the early 1970’s. His findings have informed marriage therapists and couples alike, identifying how both healthy and unhealthy couples function. He argues that all couples will engage in negative behaviors at some time or another, but that four in particular are most destructive. These four are criticism, defensiveness, contempt, and stonewalling, with contempt being the most destructive of them all. Dr. Gottman’s research has led him to conclude that although all couples engage in a measure of criticism, defensiveness, and stonewalling, healthy couples hardly ever use contempt. These behaviors will perpetuate the negative cycle between partners and further threaten the attachment, leading to more distress, alienation, and anxiety.
For a secure bond to develop, one must feel that partner is both emotionally accessible and attentive to their needs. Research suggests that this is true for both infants and adults. Within the context of the marital relationship, this means that securely bonded couples believe that when their partner is needed, he or she will be engaged, responsive, and emotionally attuned. Devitalized couples sense that their partner is unavailable and their bond, fragile. This style of relating can often become frustrating and confusing for the marital partner, leaving them feeling exasperated, defeated, and hopeless.
At Sure Hope Counseling & Training Center our goal is help conflicted and devitalized couples break out of their destructive cycles and form more positive ones, while strengthening core bonds. Our counselors are experienced with working with highly conflicted coupled and prepared to assist you in identifying your strengths as a couple, as well as developing a treatment plan to address your growth areas. During this process our therapists will provide the support, guidance, and safe environment that is necessary to bring about the change you desire in your relationship.
Affairs and Recovery:
As far back as the 1990’s, indications were that 21% of men and 11% of women would have an affair in their lifetime, with the gap narrowing since that time. When emotional affairs are included, the rates increase to 44% of men and 25% of women engaging in affairs. Infidelity is the primary cause of divorce, with 40% of divorced couples citing the presence of an affair.
The reasons for affairs are multi-faceted. Marital conflict and the absence of intimacy are major risk factors, as are power imbalances, differences in role expectations, and lack of a common goal or vision for the marriage. However, not all couples who experience an affair are unhappy. 56% of men and 34% of women who engage in an affair report being happily married at the time of the affair.
Affairs can be very damaging to both partners, the marital relationship, and the families of the married couple. The injured partner often experiences shame, anger, depression, and PTSD-like symptoms. The partner that has participated in the affair can often experience guilt, depression, and an increasingly negative self-image. Some couples can emerge from an affair with a stronger relationship, but a more common result is relational distress and dissolution of the marriage.
Affairs can be destructive to the marital relationship, but many couples are able to find satisfaction and relational recovery after the affair. If the relationship can be salvaged, it has much to do with both partner’s willingness to invest in the relationship, and the participating partner’s ability to tolerate the emotional upheaval and hurt that is expressed by the injured partner. It is challenging to repair a relationship after infidelity, but a good couple’s counselor can help couples who have gone through an affair.
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National Marriage Project: http://nationalmarriageproject.org/about/