Friday, November 25, 2016

Troubled Relationships

Our culture, such as it is, recommends that everyone postpone marriage. Thus, the age of first marriage has been rising, as has the number of people who cohabit without benefit of any connubial tie.

The culture teaches, reasonably, that age and experience, to say nothing of independence and autonomy, bring wisdom. Thus, the older you are the more likely you are to make a more intelligent choice of a spouse.

Certainly, it makes sense. It makes so much sense that if you, as a young person, tell your friends that you want to marry in your early twenties they will attack you for being a dupe of the patriarchy. They will tell you that you are throwing your life away and will end up shunning you. It is not easy being the only member of your crowd who is married at 23.

Since no one bothers to enumerate some of the difficulties that arise with later marriage, allow me to do so.

Strictly speaking, it is easier for two people to build a life together than to merge two independent lives. It is easier to develop relationship habits when you have not spent over a decade building bachelor or bachelorette habits. Such is the source of no small number of relationship conflicts.

If you have undergone a series of relationships you have had to develop different couples’ routines with different people. If you act as you had with one partner when you are with another partner, he will notice, consciously or unconsciously, and will not feel like you are really present in the relationship. For example, if your dance moves are synchronized to one partner, when you find a new partner you are more likely to use the moves that you developed with the first partner. By force of habit. Without even thinking. The result is relationship disharmony.

Also, if you marry later, you will have undergone any number of relationship traumas. If your prior relationships have not led to the altar, they have presumably ended in trauma. This means that your judgment will be somewhat impaired. While you might be more alert to bad relationship prospects you might also dismiss a good prospect because he or she reminds you—for no good reason—of a past bad prospect. As in, they both had red hair.

And that’s only the beginning.

Several years ago someone named Mark Manson—no relation to Charles—wrote an essay about toxic relationship habits. I missed it at the time but did not miss the repost on Quartz.

Many of Manson’s points are salient. When he points out that much relationship advice is worthless one cannot help but agree. And yet, his own advice feels like same old, same old. Or better, it sounds like the latest in approved therapy culture wisdom.

Manson frames the issue thusly:

But part of the problem is that many unhealthy relationship habits are baked into our culture. We worship romantic love — you know, that dizzying and irrational romantic love that somehow finds breaking china plates on the wall in a fit of tears somewhat endearing — and scoff at practicality or unconventional sexualities. Men and women are raised to objectify each other and to objectify their relationships. Thus, our partners are often seen as assets rather than someone to share mutual emotional support.

A lot of the self-help literature out there isn’t helpful either (no, men and women are notfrom different planets, you over-generalizing prick). And for most of us, mom and dad surely weren’t the best examples either.

Fortunately, there’s been a lot of psychological research into healthy and happy relationships the past few decades and there are some general principles that keep popping up consistently that most people are unaware of or don’t follow. In fact, some of these principles actually go against what is traditionally considered “romantic” or normal in a relationship.

Rather than tell you how best to play out the drama of young adult relationships I will ask why people in prior generations managed to sustain their marriages without having had the benefit of all the research into healthy relationships. 

And yet, Manson has little to offer beyond what the therapy culture is selling: be honest about your feelings and display them openly. It sounds like a bad method acting class. Exactly the wrong way to go. In my humble opinion, good method acting will not make you a good actor. That’s why so many of today’s best actors come from Great Britain.

And yet, the more difficult issue, one that Manson alludes to in passing, is definition. What are we to call these relationships? Are they supposed to lead to marriage? Are they like marriages without being marriages? Are they ways to pass the time before the question of marriage arises?

We understand that for teenagers relationships are a learning experience. And yet, when someone who is in his or her twenties is acting like a teenager, though with more benefits and perhaps even with cohabitation, something feels disjointed.

Young people would do better to act their age and think in terms of making a commitment. There is only so much you can learn from relationships that are not designed to last.

What’s wrong with these young people? Why are they so allergic to marriage? Manson makes an important point here. Today’s millennials were raised in broken homes. Their parents’ marriages were fraught with conflict. As children, they suffered the fallout of the marital discord. Too many parents thought first about themselves and second about what divorce does to children. I will not belabor why so many marriages have failed, but you can probably guess.

Manson explains:

Any time a major conflict or issue comes up in the relationship, instead of solving it, one covers it up with the excitement and good feelings that come with buying something nice or going on a trip somewhere.

My parents were experts at this one. And it got them real far: a big fat divorce and 15 years of hardly speaking to each other since. They have both since independently told me that this was the primary problem in their marriage: continuously covering up their real issues with superficial pleasures.

When the culture tells young people to postpone marriage, the message is credible because so many of these people were brought up by parents who did not have good marriages.

Thus, millennials are flying blind. Too many of them did not grow up in a home where their parents got along, where they trusted each other, where they were reliable and responsible, where their lives were synchronized and coordinated, where two people functioned as one.


Shaun F said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Shaun F said...

Oddly enough I wrote a short piece that somewhat overlaps with your post.

I am old enough now to have friends that have children in their twenties and even thirties. I often ask, if the parents approve of the person their son or daughter is involved with. The responses are interesting. In general, there is a prolonged pause of silence. Some take a philosophical air "Well, we look at it like it could be her first marriage." Others are more practical and say "Years ago, parents married their children off because their children's judgement was so poor." Some are more honest and speak to their children and say "You know son, this relationship has a shelf life." I liked the last comment by the father to his son. Some of these comments are telling. I mean if the best you can offer your children is a tepid live and let live endorsement of whomever they're moving forward in life with - I will observe that speaks to your character and the relationship you have with your children.

My Dad's seventy sixth birthday was yesterday, and he is still married to my mom - and it is a blessing to see what they have. Perhaps your lives become richer when you've been together for fifty years and your time here is coming to an end. I don't know - but I am thankful that I am a witness to these events. But one thing they have both noted - they agree that they married well.

Sam L. said...

The millenials are also getting a LOT of BAD advice from the culture and its media minions.