One night a couple weeks ago, instead of telling me about the best and worst parts of her day, as is our tradition, my five-year-old daughter asked a surprising question: “What do you think the best problem to go to therapy for is?”
“I don’t know,” I said, not wanting to derail her train of thought. “What do you think?
“Problems getting along with your husband or wife. Because that’s totally normal,” she explained. “It means nothing’s wrong with you.”
This response wasn’t totally out of the blue, but it required some synthesis on her part. I’ve spent a decent amount of time criticizing Disney’s happily-ever-after endings. My husband and I have been pretty careful to explain conflict and model resolution. And she knows more than the average 5-year-old about therapy because she asks questions about what I study, write, and teach. But I’m still impressed with the way that she tapped into a question that many of us are afraid to even ask. What does a “normal,” even “happy,” marriage look like, if it doesn’t mean some terminal state of bliss?
As a society, we talk a lot about marital satisfaction and dissatisfaction. But we don’t necessarily do it in a very nuanced way. In these conversations, a good marriage is often an ideal in which our spouse acts as our best friend, meeting our needs efficiently and effectively, and always doing it with a good dose of romantic love. When we talk about marital dissatisfaction we usually mean imminent divorce.
Humanistic psychologists (about whom I’ve written a book, which comes out today!) have done two contradictory things for this discourse. On the one hand, they’ve perpetuated the problem by giving us a language of expressive individualism that might nurture unrealistic ideas about the role of our spouse in fully valuing our uniqueness and in facilitating the realization of our fullest potential. They’ve raised the ceilings on our expectations and on our hopes for ourselves, and by default for our marriages.
At the same time, though, they’ve urged us to think more realistically (but also more boldly) about successful marriages, embracing a definition that views struggle as part of the process. In 1958 psychologist Sidney Jourard created a scale intended to measure health. The marriage item looked like this:
- Feels a complete failure as a spouse. Gets no satisfactions out of being a spouse.
- Can perform marital role with borderline adequacy, gets no enjoyment out of it.
- Adequate as a spouse, gets more satisfactions than frustrations out of it.
- Adequate as a spouse, gets positive satisfaction out of it.
- Adequate as a spouse, the relationship is growing.
On this scale, the best we can hope for in our marriages is to be “adequate” with a sense of continuous progress. For most of us, “adequate” is the farthest thing from our minds when we choose our spouse, buy our wedding dress, speak our vows. Still, we know on some level, because we’ve spent some time living in the world of humans, that no couple is happy all the time, that intimacy waxes and wanes, that anxiety and frustration can’t be eliminated. Perhaps we’d be better off if we could see most of the problems in our marriages like my daughter does: as just standard fare.
Jessica Grogan, Encountering America: Humanistic Psychology, Sixties Culture, and the Shaping of the Modern Self (New York: Harper Perennial, 2013).
Sidney M. Jourard, “Notes on the Quantification of Wellness,” prepared for meeting of the Subcomittee on the Quantification of Wellness of the United States Department of Health and Human Services’ National Committee on Vital and Health Statistics, Washington, DC, November 18, 1958 (Murphy Papers, Box 1076, Sidney Jourard folder, Archives of the History of American Psychology, Center for the History of Psychology, University of Akron), 4.