In my last post I suggested that the secret to a happy marriage was picking the right person in the first place. That we are not very good at this is clear from the failure rate of marriages. I also opined that the conventional wisdom that "All relationships are hard work" ought to be reexamined since it is my view after 40 years of practice that the true admonition is that "All BAD relationships are hard work." Those that require less work are created by couples that believe that we are entitled to receive only what we are prepared to give.
      Marriage therapists spend their time (and make their livings) preaching the gospel of negotiation and compromise to people in failing relationships who present themselves for help. (That minority of couples in good marriages are obviously not going to darken our doors.) There is an underlying assumption, amounting to a mythology, that people can be taught communication skills that will cause them to fall back in love with each other. How often do you suppose that happens?
      This exaggerated assumption fuels the "marriage enhancement" industry that runs teleseminars and weekend retreats. All of us who do psychotherapy are, to some extent, open to the accusation of profiting from human misery, but we ought to be more honest about our limitations. If we were, our proffers of help to people in relationships that threaten to collapse under years of boredom or antagonism would contain the following disclaimer: The content of this therapeutic effort will focus on improved communication and instruction on how to renegotiate the marriage contract in the direction of fairness. If you apply the lessons we teach, especially the part about working hard at your relationship, you will probably be able to live together civilly and cooperate in raising your children. It is, however, unlikely that you will recapture the love you felt for each other at the moment you decided to marry. Nor will your fantasies of lasting happiness be fulfilled if the person you are married to is unprepared to put his or her needs and desires at the level of your own.
      Don't hold your breath waiting for this level of honesty from our colleagues. Who would attend such a seminar or participate in marriage counseling with this caveat when others are promising to teach them how to fall in love again with the person who has disappointed (and possibly betrayed) them? You know, the one who makes you scratch your head as you try to remember what you were thinking when you married him or her.

      Another message from my previous post was that people can be taught when they are young the skill of "pattern recognition," including the ability to identify certain "red flags" that indicate that someone you are attracted to may be an unsuitable choice for a lasting relationship. Several people wanted me to be more specific, so here goes.
      Traits that cluster together in the "people to be wary of" category are those that suggest that our prospective partner is excessively self-absorbed. Some of the questions we should be asking ourselves about potential friends, the group from which we are likely to select the person we fall in love with: Does he know how to listen? How does she react to criticism? How important is his need for control? How kind does she seem? How competitive is he? How impulsive is she? How well does he tolerate being alone? How does she treat people who are providing a service? What kind of driver is he? What makes her angry? How rapidly does his mood change? What is her attitude toward money? How honest is he? How does she react to adversity? What things does he worry about? How optimistic is she? Does he have a problem with alcohol or other substances? Does she learn from experience? Does he hold any unconventional beliefs? How does she feel about the scientific method? What things is he afraid of? Would you buy a used car from this person? The time required to answer questions like these is the reason I favor long engagements.
      Apart from avoiding the wrong people, what we are looking for are those who display traits we admire (and presumably are trying to develop in ourselves): Kindness, courage, loyalty, tolerance, honesty, humor, intelligence, to name a few. The operational admonition here is "First deserve, then desire."
      My contention is that both aspects of our search for a good marriage, on which our future happiness largely depends, can and should be taught. If it is true that character traits are relatively stable over time, then we need to find a way to teach our children how to recognize them early, rather than the current paradigm that depends heavily on trial and error. None of us has the time for this learning style alone. Why not figure out a way to educate ourselves and those who follow us about people to avoid and people to cherish.

About the Author

Gordon Livingston

Gordon Livingston, M.D., writes and practices psychiatry in Columbia, MD.

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