Recently the New York Times ran an opinion piece by popular philosopher Alain de Botton, Why You Will Marry the Wrong Person. It was widely shared and sat at the top of The Times’ “most viewed” list for nearly two weeks. De Botton argued that the solution to marital unhappiness and divorce is to expect less happiness from marriage. In other words, swapping romanticism for pessimism can save marriages.
In a follow-up debate this week six pundits opine on Knowing When a Marriage Is Over – a pessimistic premise to be sure, and all of them accept that there will be circumstances (other than abuse) where it will be reasonable to say, “It’s over.” It comes down to “what you want”. Significantly, children are barely mentioned.
But as psychiatrist Dr Richard Fitzgibbons notes below, the welfare of children is a key reason for trying to save marriages. And this is possible because the underlying causes of conflict between spouses can be brought to light and healed – again, if “you want”. Not all optimism is merely romantic, just as pessimism is not necessarily realistic.
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Today marriage and family life are being severely traumatized by the divorce epidemic, the explosion of selfishness which is the major enemy of marital love, and failure to understand and address serious emotional conflicts. Around one million children a year in the United States are victimised by divorce. (See my chapter, “Children of Divorce: Conflicts and Healing” in M. McCarthy (ed) Torn Asunder: Children, the Myth of Good Divorce, and the Recovery of Origins – due out in August).
The toll from marital conflicts can be severe and debilitating. Selfishness, excessive anger and behaviours that are controlling, emotionally distant and mistrustful cause grave harm to spouses and children. The loyal spouses who are victimized are often incorrectly blamed as being the primary cause of the marital conflict. These conflicts and their resolution through growth in virtues are rarely addressed in the mental health literature on marriage.
Origins of serious emotional conflicts
In my experience the spouse that initiates divorce often has the most serious psychological difficulties. These are often unconscious wounds they have brought into the marriage. They arise primarily from hurts in the father relationship and secondarily from hurts in the mother relationship, or from giving into selfishness.
These unresolved are on the periphery of the deep goodness in each spouse, the goodness that led to strong love, commitment and marital vows. When they are resolved, trust grows and love is regularly rediscovered.
Confusion about the nature of marriage
An understanding of the nature of marriage is also essential to safeguarding marital love. At the present time, there are two markedly different views on the marriage. Sociologist Dr Brad Wilcox refers to them as the traditional Judeo-Christian view of marriage and the more prevalent psychological view. (Wilcox, B. (2009). The Evolution of Divorce)
In the latter, the primary obligation is not to one’s spouse and family but to one’s self and one’s own happiness and sense of fulfillment. Hence, marital success is defined not by successfully fulfilling one’s responsibilities to a spouse and children. It is characterized by a strong sense of subjective happiness in marriage, usually to be found in material comfort and through an intense, emotional relationship with one’s spouse and others.
Virtues, anger and forgiveness
The role of virtues has been viewed in Western Civilization as being essential in the development of a healthy personality. The mental health field has grown recently to appreciate this approach and a new field, positive psychology, has developed – notably by Dr Martin Seligman and colleagues. (Seligman, M. & Peterson, C. 2004. Character Strengths and Virtues) Positive psychology promotes the development of virtues to address and resolve cognitive, emotional, behavioural and personality conflicts, including those in marriage.
My own particular contribution to this new field is in the use of forgiveness in treating the excessive anger that is present in most psychiatric disorders and in marital conflicts. This subject is treated in detail in a book I co-authored with Dr Robert Enright, Helping Clients Forgive: An Empirical Guide for Resolving Anger and Restoring Hope, published by the American Psychological Association in 2000. (A second edition was published in 2014 with the title, Forgiveness Therapy: An Empirical Guide for Resolving Anger and Restoring Hope.)
The first challenge in the healing process is to acquire self-knowledge about one’s weaknesses, most often unconscious and hidden, so that they can be addressed. My own clinical experience is supported by research that demonstrates that 70 percent of adult psychological conflicts are the result of unresolved issues from childhood.
Most spouses do not deliberately set out to hurt the person they have vowed to honor and love all the days of their lives. Instead, they inflict painful wounds and even divorce because of their “baggage”/family of origin conflicts, giving in to selfishness or loss of faith.
The good news is that selfishness, excessive anger; mistrustful, controlling and emotionally distant behaviors, loneliness and insecurity, and the poor communication patterns that harm many marriages can be correctly identified and in many marriages resolved, especially if there is a faith component in the healing process.
Starting with singles
But we also have to prevent marital conflict and divorce by educating young adults about how the most common relationship stresses can be uncovered and resolved. Singles can then be more hopeful about having a successful marriage, and the retreat from marriage – itself partly attributable to the experience of divorce in families – can be reversed.
In particular young adults need to become more aware of selfishness, because it is of epidemic proportions in today’s culture and is a major reason for the retreat from marriage. This is a task awaiting parents, pastors and others involved in the education and formation of young people.
Dr Richard Fitzgibbons is the director of Comprehensive Counselling Services in Conshohocken, Pennsylvania. He has practiced psychiatry for 40 years with a specialty in the treatment of excessive anger. Further information at: Institute for Marital Healing.