By Hara Estroff Marano, published on July 1, 2004 - last reviewed on July 5, 2005
Still, undeniably, people like to pair up. The need seems to be
built into us. And surveys show that most people believe that a good
marriage is essential for a happy life. More and more, we rely on our
private relationships for our mental health. But at the same time, they
are becoming less satisfying.
"There are few positive models of marriage," contends psychologist
David Olsen, Ph.D. "People make the assumption that love is sufficient."
It isn't. And then when their marriage goes downhill, "unhappy couples
can hardly remember what brought them together in the first
For good models of marriage, we have to look at animals, he told the Smartmarriages conference, the world's largest
gathering of relationship experts. And with that he dimmed the lights and
showed video clips of Winged Migration. Downright inspiring!
Among the information presented at the conference:
Tension in the parents' marriage affects kids. It is often
the cause of teenage defiance.
When parents fight, children withdraw from their
In the first three years after the birth of a first child,
67 percent of couples experience a drop in relationship satisfaction. The
drop occurs first in the mother, then in the father.
Everybody handles conflict poorly when a discussion turns
negative. What saves romance is attempts at repairing the relationship.
"I'm sorry," counts.
After affairs or other transgressions, forgiveness is
necessary for healing. But some people forgive too cheaply. Forgiveness
is not the job of the hurt party alone; genuine forgiveness must be
earned. Forgiving too cheaply keeps people from using the experience to
develop more intimacy. They also fail to gain insight into their own
contribution to the situation.
Refusing to forgive is unhealthy, physically and
emotionally. "Not forgiving is literally poison," said psychologist Janis
Abrahms Spring, PhD.
After an affair, the offender must pay attention to the
partner's pain if they want the partner to move on.
"Physical abuse is not a relationship problem, it's a
self-regulation problem," says Steven Stosny,, Ph.D. "Abusers are filled
with shame, an internal punishment system controlled by someone else.
When you violate attachment bonds you feel self-hate. Abusers lack
compassion for themselves."
"The instant we become an adult is the moment when the
instinct to love is greater than the desire to be loved," Stosny
"We kill love by how we treat our partners, by not handling
negative feelings well," says Howard Markman, Ph.D.
Lack of commitment is subversive in a relationship, says
Markman. Couples are not making it clear that they are choosing each
other and giving up all other options. Then when problems arise they feel
"I didn't clearly decide I wanted to be in this," and they don't push to
resolve the issues -- which will just crop up again in the next
"Love doesn't last forever because we need the opportunity
for growth and healing," says Israeli psychologist Ayala Malach Pines,
Ph.D. ""Being with a partner who pushes your buttons is good. The button
points to the place that is most important for us to work on."