What Goes Wrong in Marriage?

When I was a parish pastor, I counseled dozens of couples who were preparing for marriage and presided at their ceremonies. Every one of them was a hopeful (if too stressful) occasion for both bride and groom.

Virtually no one starts marriage without confidence that their relationship will last. Pledges are made, often “til death us do part.” Are some people marrying too fast, too young, too ill prepared for a joint married life? Yes. Add children into the mix and the normal stresses and strains of life pile on. But what really happens to the emotional closeness that most couples feel when they are preparing to marry? What happens to that experience of feeling “in love” that spurs so many to take on these very serious legal bonds of marriage?

Research into marriage done in the last 20 years by Dr. John Gottman (gottmanblog.com) points to a key phase of marriage that seems to make or break relationships. It is the second phase of the relationship, after the first “falling in love” phase in which couples have real conflict.

The couple argues. Words are said, decisions made, feelings hurt. But are they be able to feel that despite the differences, their partner really has their back? Does their partner still care about their opinion when they fight? Can they recover quickly after disagreements? Does their partner have empathy for their pain? This is the time a marriage either builds trust or does not. One partner may feel completely fine. But the other may feel lost, distrusting, and disconnected. This is precisely the time therapy can be very helpful.

It’s at this point that one person may decide to stop the relationship. But if the marriage continues, and the amount of negativity in the relationship builds, the relationship will deteriorate. And even if it lasts years, will never get to the more secure, lasting phase of marriages that are loyal despite differences, that are able to cast off hurts because there is so much positive connection to outweigh it.

Marriage is not just one long experience of being “in love.” That phase of human bonding is relatively short lived in our brains, and fades by the end of 2 years. But marriage can be about a deeper connection, a lasting kind of love that is full of security, joy in shared experiences, loyalty and commitment when life gets hard, and it will. It takes a lot of work to have conflict, to share the process, and land on the upside of emotional wellness. If you and your partner aren’t having success in this second trust-building and conflict-centered phase, good couples therapy can help you recover.


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