Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Marital Advice from Divorcees

It must have seemed like a good idea at the time. Seek out marital advice from people whose marriages had failed.

It sounds like asking Julia Allison for some pointers about dating.  

There's something wrong with a culture that seeks how-to advice from people who don't know how to.

Most researchers look at successful marriages. It makes a lot of sense. Psychologist Terry Orbuch has chosen the opposite tack. She believes that divorcees have spent more time obsessing over failure, and thus, that they will be especially good at giving advice.


Elizabeth Bernstein summarizes Orbuch’s concept:

People who lose the most important relationship of their life tend to spend some time thinking about what went wrong. If they are at all self-reflective, this means they will acknowledge their own mistakes, not just their ex's blunders. And if they want to be lucky in love next time, they'll try to learn from these mistakes.

Of course, people who are introspective, self-absorbed and self-critical are, by definition, more likely to end up divorced.

People who know what went wrong and who swear never to make the same mistake again often end up making different mistakes.

Perfecting the art of introspective self-criticism gets them caught up in a feedback loop, between mistakes and self-critical self-awareness.

Nothing about the process helps you to develop the good habits that are the basis for a successful marriage.

As might be imagined, Orbuch’s divorcees say what a psychologist would want them to say. They advise talking things over, expressing your feelings, being open, honest and supportive.

While wallowing in therapy culture pieties, the study does not say how the divorced couples defined their roles. Did they see themselves as husband and wife in the more traditional sense or did they see themselves as equal persons?

We know nothing about who was playing which roles, and have no information about any couple’s financial condition.

Orbuch’s advice is wrong and wrongheaded because it suggests that a marriage can be made to work.

True enough, marriage requires work and adjustment. But you cannot force it to work when other factors are militating against it.

If you want to know what makes a marriage work, begin with the most important fact: whom you choose to marry. If you choose the wrong person, you are not going to make it work by rearranging your mental furniture and showering your spouse with empathy.

Over at the Hooking Up Smart blog, Susan Walsh has offered a good list of questions you should ask yourself when you are choosing a mate.

If I had to limit myself to three qualities that are most important in a successful marriage, I would begin with character.

If your beloved has bad character, if he or she is unreliable and cannot be trusted, if he or she evinces disloyalty… you are going to have more drama than harmony, and ultimately a less successful marriage.

How do you judge character? Try asking your friends and family.

If none of the people who love you the most likes your intended, then it is likely that your love has blinded you to the person’s character flaws.

Marriage is a social institution. When you marry someone you make that person a part of your family and a part of your circle of friends.

If you choose someone whose bad character alienates these people marriage will cost you your social moorings.

Good communication will not compensate for the ensuing problems.

Serious sociological studies have shown that the second most important predictor of a happy marriage is: coming from the same or a similar culture.

You do not need to think the same thoughts, have the same feelings or have the same interests. You are not going to be happy if you marry an echo chamber.

It does mean that you should have a great deal in common, culturally. If you come from radically different cultural backgrounds you will find that the social cues that mean one thing in one culture mean something else in someone else’s culture.

It may be the case that you will feel a stronger emotional connection to someone who comes from a different world, but that just means that your emotions are compensating for your inability to understand the signals you are sending each other.

The further apart you are culturally, the more you will have to explain yourself all the time.

People who come from radically different worlds often exhaust themselves trying to bridge their culture gap with words and feelings.

With marriage and with any romantic relationship the less you have to explain yourself the better off you will be.

Finally, marriages fail because no one knows what marriage is any more. People have come to believe that marriage expresses true love and involves an emotional affinity, as in soul mating.

If you want a happy and long lasting marriage you will to rely less of feeling and more on consistent routines. The more harmonious your household, the better your marriage. 

Talking about why you can’t get along does not help you to get along. It exacerbates the tensions by accentuating the points of conflict.


JP said...

Knowing that "social cues" exist would have been helpful for the first 35 years of my life.

I only realized that they existed a few years ago and am just now trying to incorporate this knowledge into how I live life.

Why in the world don't they teach this in school?

Although with respect to the marriage issue, who in the world is going to get married to someone if they aren't deeply emotionally attached to them?

Stuart Schneiderman said...

True enough, deep emotional attachment matters. But I was trying to show how to create the conditions to allow such attachment to endure as a positive force.

We have often seen deep affection turn into more negative emotions, like jealousy, enmity, and anger.

Anonymous said...

The second half of this opinion I'll go with but the first simply could not be more wrong-headed.

There is no finer educator - right to the point of complete self-reform - than the pain of experience. Character is built by pain; not exclusively of course, but frequently and expertly.

How this fundamental misses a trained and otherwise clear-thinking mind is a mystery and frankly, a dangerous one. I refer you back to the seminal The Road Less Traveled.

Stuart Schneiderman said...

You want us to believe that the bad golfer is a better teacher than the good golfer... that not knowing how to do something is more of a qualification than knowing how to do something... which is frankly silly.

The Road Less Traveled is pop psych-- it is only important because it sold a lot of books to people who don't know any better. It is not an important work in any other sense.

You would do well to get your own arrogance under control, too.

Anonymous said...

I agree with Anon on the point that you can learn from others' mistakes.
But I more agree with Stuart that we should not be taking advice from the ones who failed.
I would much rather take advice from someone who has been married for 20, or 40 years...
I mostly have divorced friends, and their advice seems to get them in the same predicaments they were at failed marriage #1 or 2...
The selfish are still selfish... The quitters are still quitters... The drinkers are still drinkers... The wanderers are still wandering... And looking for a better "match" to put up with them...