I’m surprised at how many couples feel that the goal of a good marriage is to be relatively problem-free. When a couple comes for marriage counseling, their unspoken agenda could typically be stated like this: “If you would only fix my spouse, then our marriage would be problem-free, and I would be happy.” But there is a problem with being problem-free.
John Gottman is a researcher on marriage at the University of Washington. He has been studying what makes marriages fail and what makes them succeed for over 30 years. One of the interesting findings from his research is that in marriages that fail, approximately 69% of the problems the couple deal with would never have been resolved. They are perennial problems that would have always been there if the couple had stayed married.
Now that doesn’t surprise anyone. But here’s the surprise. He found that in couples who were not only successful, but had created a satisfying, good marriage, the statistic for the number of unresolvable problems was 69%! The same number as in the failed marriages.
Now you wonder–were the problems different? Did those in the failed marriages have deeper, more painful problems? No, that was not a factor. What they found was that
in failed marriages, the problems led to conflict that soon because hostile. The anger and hostility grew, for the couple didn’t know how to deal with their anger. Within typically five years, the couple would divorce because the conflicts were so out of control.
In the marriages that succeeded, the spouses had learned how to dialogue about the problems. They didn’t press for resolution–they pressed for understanding. They learned to laugh together about the problem. You could even say they “made friends with the problem.”
What kinds of problems fall into the seriously unresolvable category? Here is a sampling:
1. Personality differences. We are drawn to someone with a personality that is to some degree different from ours. What’s attractive before we marry, can become a problem area after the wedding. Our response to personality differences is to try to change our spouse–it never works.
2. Differences in the ways our family of origin handles problems. Sometimes a person comes from a family that never had any conflict. No one ever felt strongly enough about anything to raise their voice. They are drawn to someone who shows all kinds of emotion because their family was always arguing and disagreeing. What’s the new family system going to do with emotion and conflict? It all depends on the dialogue.
3. Simply the differences between being male and being female can be an ongoing problem. You could also say that just the fact that every person is a unique creation of God makes us basically incompatible by nature. So incompatibility is no excuse for failure. It’s there with every couple. It all depends on what you do with it.
That’s really what the “work” of marriage is all about. How do you learn to celebrate your differences?