One question I always ask couples I work with in counseling is why they got married. Though the longer the marriage the harder it sometimes is to remember, most wives and husbands can come up with some sort of list of the various circumstances, personal qualities and interpersonal dynamics that led to their decision to marry.
I usually follow up with a second question: Why are they still married?
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The answers to these two questions are seldom the same. The reality is, most of us remain in our marriages for significantly different reasons than those that led us to get married in the first place.
Our initial attraction in almost all our relationships was a combination of infatuation, selected blindness and projecting onto our lovers the characteristics we needed to see in them. That's why when I ask couples what initially attracted them to each other they so often say "Well, you used to be …" or "I thought you were …"
After the initial phase of our relationships (which often takes us through the wedding, setting up house together and even children), we begin to realize that romance does not make everything right; we can no longer simply ignore those parts of our spouses' personalities or of our life together that we don't like; and many of the characteristics we thought we saw in our partners were more a function of our wanting than of their being.
This reality comes as quite a shock to most of us. It is certainly not what we are led to believe when we watch movies or TV or read romance novels. Marriages are supposed to have their ups and downs, but to find ourselves questioning almost everything about our life together is not a stage in marriage we expect to pass through.
I suspect, however, that all long-term marriages will pass through such questioning at least once in the course of their existence. It is often a very painful passing through (a friend of mine compared it to passing kidney stones), one fraught with confusion, misunderstanding and anger. Yet as unpleasant as it is -- and as threatening as it can be to the very survival of our marriages -- it is probably a part of married life that cannot be avoided.
Which leads us to our second question: if so many of the reasons we got married in the first place no longer hold, why do we stay married?
Certainly some of us stay together out of fear. We are afraid of the consequences of ending our marriages, afraid of how such a step will affect us, our children, our friends, our standard of living and so on. Talk to anyone who has gone through a divorce and you will find that such fear is grounded in reality. Few things in life are as painful as the ending of a marriage.
Others of us may stay married more out of habit. We're used to each other. We have become accustomed to our life together. We might not love our spouses, perhaps not even like them, but we are not so uncomfortable that we are ready to end it all. We learn to expect little in the way of intimacy or fulfillment from our marriages, sometimes seeking to meet these needs in other relationships.
On a more positive note, many of us remain married because we have successfully worked through this stage in our life together. We have discovered new, more realistic and more mature reasons to be together. Our love has moved beyond infatuation, blindness and projection to an understanding, acceptance and appreciation of our spouses for who they really are.
Unfortunately, the infatuation, blindness and projection that often lead us into marriage do not always leave us with a partner we can later understand, accept or appreciate. There are good reasons why some marriages do not survive this stage in their life cycle.
It is important, however, that we at least allow ourselves a chance to learn what the true promise of our marriage is. That is why it is so crucial that we give it the time and energy (and tolerate the pain) it takes to realistically assess our marriages' potential for mature love.
• Dr. Ken Potts is on the staff of Samaritan Counseling Center in Naperville and Downers Grove. He is the author of "Mix Don't Blend, A Guide to Dating, Engagement and Remarriage With Children."