Monday, January 3, 2011

Comments on Marriage and the Marriage Study

Monday, January 3, 2011 9:02:04 AM
Justin....I'll take a stab at the sex before marriage question. I like Coop's response....though it would be fun to help him unpack it. The Church defines the first end of marriage as the building up of a community of life and love between the partners. How does one arrive at that "worthy" end?

As one who has counseled married couples and those preparing for marriage for almost  thirty years, I can confirm the insights of this particular study, which is only one of a number conducted over the last few years that point out the negative impact of co-habitation before marriage for many (not all!!!!!) couples. The studies have shown that those who live together prior to marriage, not just sexually active couples, divorce statistically more frequently than those who do not live together prior to marriage. 
 Here is what I have observed and learned from over 1500 weddings and countless numbers of people who come to me for counseling (at least until I refer them on). Every level of intimacy a couple enters into prior to marriage creates an emotional, physical, financial, and affectional bond that satisfies some aspect of a deep need in us. The stronger those "satisfactions" are met, the more difficult it becomes to end the relationship even if we know that the relationship isn't the best one that we should/could be in.  When we share living space, bank accounts, emotional support, the dog, sometimes the kids (who might be a bigger emotional investment than the partner), the christmas ornaments!, and the bed, we have may needs and desires satisfied that cloud how we view the entire relationship.
Time and again i have heard people who have lived together before their marriage, and several times before their wedding, tell me that they felt forced into marriage/marrying their partner. While they knew a lot more about the other person in the relationship than those who did not live together might know about their significant other, they did not seem to know as much about themselves. Distance can be a great help in a relationship (as well as a tremendously frustrating reality) as it gives us space to know whether we are really happy and satisfied in the relationship and whether we are really looking forward to "seeing" the other again and being with them. Self knowledge and freedom is the key here.

I love the movie Shenandoah. It is an anti-war film made in the late 60's. Jimmy Stewart plays a Virginian farmer who does not want his family caught up in the Civil War. Of course, they get caught up anyway with disastrous results (worth seeing if you ask me). But one scene I always refer to in pre-cana counseling is when a Southern officer comes to ask for his daughters hand in marriage. Stewart asks, "Do you like her?" and the Lt. answers, "Oh Mr. Anderson, I love her."  Stewart asks again, "Do you like her?" The Lt. answers, "Well I just said I..." Stewart cuts him off and says, "  No, no. You just said you loved her. There's some difference between lovin' and likin'. When I married Jennie's mother, I-I didn't love her - I liked her... I liked her a lot. I liked Martha for at least three years after we were married and then one day it just dawned on me I loved her. I still do... still do. You see, Sam, when you love a woman without likin' her, the night can be long and cold, and contempt comes up with the sun."

I think that scene is brilliant and speaks as well to the situation the studies are trying to address as anything I have seen or read. Simple, I know, but not simplistic in my estimation. What is comes down to is freedom. 

Catholic moral theology, believe it or not, is based on human freedom. Most of us learn it from people who do not understand it and it comes out "you can't do that, it's a great sin!" (often sexually based!"} But what we tend to ignore is the Catholic teaching on sexuality as one of the greatest gifts God has given us. Read the mystics and deep into the underlying layers of document after document of the Church and you see this absolutely beautiful expression of the gift of human sexuality...ok, ok, WE still have a ways to go to get our due....but some day we will cross that barrier also. 
 Now look at the studies that are being done just on this issue alone. Look at the results of surveys from marriages that failed. Look at how often people have said that they felt pressured into the marriage. Then look at the first question the church asks on the day of your wedding, and throughout the preparation process - have you come here freely and without reservation to give yourself to each other in marriage. MOST ANSWER YES BUT MANY MEAN NO. It is a brilliant question. 

I like to think we, as Church, as a Wisdom Community, still have something to offer the world. It is the freedom to be human and to be the happiest and most purpose-filled people we can be. For generations there was a societal taboo against living together! Human communities recognized that if you live together prior to marriage, you often had issues that you had to be aware of that others who did not live together did not have to deal with. You may know more about the other person while not having a real grip on what you know/feel about yourself. This does not mean that you cannot make it in a marriage relationship. It only means that you might have some things working against you from the start if you don't do a bit of extra soul-searching in the process. The physical/intimacy bond is a powerful force. It has certainly clouded judgement of many people over the ages . How one keeps oneself free to be the person they ultimately want to be in terms of real long-term happiness is the question of the surveys. Often the answers seem to go against our modern sensibilities. Doesn't mean they are wrong.
I know that this is only touching on the answer that could be given to your question. But in my experience counseling others (and personally) I think there is much value in the studies.

Here is an interesting article from this past week's NYTimes  I think it touches on the above.  

Glad you are recuperating from all the festivities!   


The Happy Marriage Is the ‘Me’ Marriage
By TARA PARKER-POPE   New York Times    December 30, 2010
A lasting marriage does not always signal a happy marriage. Plenty of miserable couples have stayed together for children, religion or other practical reasons.
But for many couples, it’s just not enough to stay together. They want a relationship that is meaningful and satisfying. In short, they want a sustainable marriage.
“The things that make a marriage last have more to do with communication skills, mental health, social support, stress — those are the things that allow it to last or not,” says Arthur Aron, a psychology professor who directs the Interpersonal Relationships Laboratory at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. “But those things don’t necessarily make it meaningful or enjoyable or sustaining to the individual.”
The notion that the best marriages are those that bring satisfaction to the individual may seem counterintuitive. After all, isn’t marriage supposed to be about putting the relationship first?
Not anymore. For centuries, marriage was viewed as an economic and social institution, and the emotional and intellectual needs of the spouses were secondary to the survival of the marriage itself. But in modern relationships, people are looking for a partnership, and they want partners who make their lives more interesting.
Caryl Rusbult, a researcher at Vrije University in Amsterdam who died last January, called it the “Michelangelo effect,” referring to the manner in which close partners “sculpt” each other in ways that help each of them attain valued goals.
Dr. Aron and Gary W. Lewandowski Jr., a professor at Monmouth University in New Jersey, have studied how individuals use a relationship to accumulate knowledge and experiences, a process called “self-expansion.” Research shows that the more self-expansion people experience from their partner, the more committed and satisfied they are in the relationship.
To measure this, Dr. Lewandowski developed a series of questions for couples: How much has being with your partner resulted in your learning new things? How much has knowing your partner made you a better person? (Take the full quiz measuring self-expansion.)
While the notion of self-expansion may sound inherently self-serving, it can lead to stronger, more sustainable relationships, Dr. Lewandowski says.
“If you’re seeking self-growth and obtain it from your partner, then that puts your partner in a pretty important position,” he explains. “And being able to help your partner’s self-expansion would be pretty pleasing to yourself.”
The concept explains why people are delighted when dates treat them to new experiences, like a weekend away. But self-expansion isn’t just about exotic experiences. Individuals experience personal growth through their partners in big and small ways. It happens when they introduce new friends, or casually talk about a new restaurant or a fascinating story in the news.
The effect of self-expansion is particularly pronounced when people first fall in love. In research at the University of California at Santa Cruz, 325 undergraduate students were given questionnaires five times over 10 weeks. They were asked, “Who are you today?” and given three minutes to describe themselves. They were also asked about recent experiences, including whether they had fallen in love.
After students reported falling in love, they used more varied words in their self-descriptions. The new relationships had literally broadened the way they looked at themselves.
“You go from being a stranger to including this person in the self, so you suddenly have all of these social roles and identities you didn’t have before,” explains Dr. Aron, who co-authored the research. “When people fall in love that happens rapidly, and it’s very exhilarating.”
Over time, the personal gains from lasting relationships are often subtle. Having a partner who is funny or creative adds something new to someone who isn’t. A partner who is an active community volunteer creates new social opportunities for a spouse who spends long hours at work.
Additional research suggests that spouses eventually adopt the traits of the other — and become slower to distinguish differences between them, or slower to remember which skills belong to which spouse.
In experiments by Dr. Aron, participants rated themselves and their partners on a variety of traits, like “ambitious” or “artistic.” A week later, the subjects returned to the lab and were shown the list of traits and asked to indicate which ones described them.
People responded the quickest to traits that were true of both them and their partner. When the trait described only one person, the answer came more slowly. The delay was measured in milliseconds, but nonetheless suggested that when individuals were particularly close to someone, their brains were slower to distinguish between their traits and those of their spouses.
“It’s easy to answer those questions if you’re both the same,” Dr. Lewandowski explains. “But if it’s just true of you and not of me, then I have to sort it out. It happens very quickly, but I have to ask myself, ‘Is that me or is that you?’ ”
It’s not that these couples lost themselves in the marriage; instead, they grew in it. Activities, traits and behaviors that had not been part of their identity before the relationship were now an essential part of how they experienced life.
All of this can be highly predictive for a couple’s long-term happiness. One scale designed by Dr. Aron and colleagues depicts seven pairs of circles. The first set is side by side. With each new set, the circles begin to overlap until they are nearly on top of one another. Couples choose the set of circles that best represents their relationship. In a 2009 report in the journal Psychological Science, people bored in their marriages were more likely to choose the more separate circles. Partners involved in novel and interesting experiences together were more likely to pick one of the overlapping circles and less likely to report boredom. “People have a fundamental motivation to improve the self and add to who they are as a person,” Dr. Lewandowski says. “If your partner is helping you become a better person, you become happier and more satisfied in the relationship.”


Coop said...


The article that you posted and the comments are fascinating.

I think a lot of individual people approach marriage with ideas from romantic stories, hearing married couples gush about how great it is, the songs, etc. etc.
I guess the reality of two individuals (their likes, goals, dreams, idiosyncrasies) uniting gets lost in the shmaltz.

One of my closest friends and his now-wife lived at opposite ends of Massachusetts for FIVE years.
They both re-settled in their hometowns after college. She even bought a house.
I wonder... does "Pressure" play a role in decisions to get married?
"When are you two getting married???" etc.

Gary Kelly said...

Not only very interesting but also most enlightening. Thanks, Pat.

Gary Kelly said...

For some reason my comment didn't appear, so I'll say it again.

Very interesting and most enlightening. Thanks, Pat.

JustinO'Shea said...

I do what I can. . . sometimes things get behind a bit. . .I am currently 'dancing' as fast as i am able. . .given the circumstances.

JustinO'Shea said...

Gary.... thanks for your comments. I have appreciated many of your comments this past year and a half. You gave me one of my most pleasant moments in months with your image of Justin jumping up and down frenetically in one place. Thanks for that..and Happy New Year

JustinO'Shea said...

Coop... I do believe "pressure" often plays a big role in the decision to get married or to stay in many a relationship. As you said, in the past there was the pressure from the outside, eg. arranged marriages for the sake of the family, business, nation etc. Today, family pressures can still be seen to be at work in many couples. Those are the "easy pressures" to help people see. While they are interesting, what is of most interest to me is the internal pressures we put on ourselves when it comes to relationships. These pressures are the more difficult ones to recognize or deal with even when we do recognize them. I love Rufus Wainwrights Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk from his Poses album. He looks at desires and considers how compulsions can rule our lives. I can relate to his sentiments.

I appreciate your struggle with sexual expression not being a performance but leading to a healthy union. How we act does have consequences, (put aside religious expression for a moment), and consider what psychologists and neurologists have been studying for decades.... here's one example...not hard to find hundreds of keeps getting repeated over and over..this is from this mornings paper!

You wrote:

I want sex to be a union, not a performance.
Could I have only one man sexually? I'm not sure. I cannot make the decision right now with my heart and my mind.

Believe it or not....the connection between the head and the heart has always been at the center of a healthy Judeo-Christian spirituality, or I would suggest ANY healthy spirituality.. Too often we just read the Tradition from the surface with disastrous consequences. Augustine wrote that the head cannot buy what the heart does not buy and vice-versa. In other words, the whole person has to be involved. So your struggle is a healthy one. Not an easy one, but a healthy one nonetheless. I wish you well in it. Spiritual traditions down through the ages have struggled with the same issues as well and have had interesting conclusions based on lived experience. No spiritual tradition should be read as YOU MUST, OR CAN AND CANNOT. I like to think that somehow our human family has collected some wisdom as to what makes for a well-lived and satisfying life. The method is supposed to help one live into that wisdom. But one has to be seeking it to find it. Good luck on that journey. Many of us are on it with you. Pat

Anonymous said...

PAT asked me to post 2 comments for him [ he has his own reasons). . One for COOP and one for GARY.

When I post like this, they come out as "JustinO'Shea said. . ." Nothing I can do about that.

Hmmmm. . .PAT can post as Anonymous...that will work. . . .

Just know they were from PAT. . . .

cheerios. . .

Coop said...

Thank you for your comments, Pat.