Note from Dr. Banschick: This is the third part of a series focusing on enjoying your marriage (or committed relationship), despite all the pressures of living an active life. We hope that you are finding the series useful.
I am a fan of the innovative writer and psychoanalyst, Erich Fromm (1900-1980). As a man ahead of his time, Fromm understood the ills of the modern world before most of us knew that we were in trouble. He saw that a modern life is often empty and can lead to desperate behavior, all in an attempt to “be happy.” In short, Fromm warned that we were increasingly becoming alienated from ourselves and others, leading to addictions, a lack of healthy satisfaction, and disposable relationships. Boy, I wonder what he would have thought of Facebook, Twitter and even texting.
Erich Fromm wrote a slew of self help books: The Art of Loving (1956), Escape from Freedom (1941) and Psychoanalysis and Religion (1950) are among my favorites. Here’s the thing; the problem of modernity is also its strength – a powerful sense of the individual. What’s good for me reigns king. A sane modern society encourages individuals to individuate and thrive – while imposing little on others. The rub is that while this sounds good in theory; love, family and community can get lost in the translation.
Misery in marriage and divorce: Marriage and divorce first interested me because I saw how angry marriages and messy divorces simply hurt children. And the data bears this out. Kids exposed to parental nastiness—in a marriage or in a divorce—have a less optimistic outcome than those who are protected from such drama.
It's not hard to have compassion for a failing marriage—or worse—a failed divorce. There are few psychological pressures more painful than not being loved—or fighting for what seems like survival with someone who had once loved you. For better or worse, after seeing so much purposeless pain, I was driven to start The Intelligent Divorce Project.
The Intelligent Marriage: Yet, a failed marriage can also teach us much about marital health. So, here, as an expert in divorce, I find myself compelled to write about marriage through the back door. Starting with failure, we can reconstruct what broke, to understand where things go wrong and why. In this effort I appreciate those who have done this before like Erich Fromm, James Hollis, Mary Jo Barrett, John Gottman and Harville Hendrix . Each thinker has contributed to the science (and poetry) of marriage – and each has touched the world with the depth of their work. Any Intelligent Marriage Project needs to pay homage to those that have paved the way.
Recently, we wrote about the natural course of a marriage—now it’s a good a time as any to dust off Dr. Fromm’s work, The Art of Loving, and offer it to a new generation.
It’s like we’ve forgotten how to love.
So, let’s have a frank discussion about love. Yes, love.
Pick the right person for the right reason: When you get married, find someone who you enjoy being with. Yes, you should find him or her attractive, but do you really like this person? This will count a lot when you have to live with him or her. The ability to give and take really counts in the long run. Does he have to win every argument or make every decision? If so, think again. Find someone who thinks for themselves, and yet cares about what’s important to you. As James Hollis tells us, one plus one can equal three. So, find someone who understands that love is bigger than just the two of you. In other words, love someone who really knows how to love. But, also understand that he or she is asking the same of you.
Love is very much a two way street.
Making love is a great idea: You may “fall in love” but most happy couples literally “make love” happen, and we’re not just talking here about physical intimacy. You find love everywhere, in all kinds of places. You love the way she looks. And, yes, you also love her for not being sure that she looks okay, because her insecurity is part of who she is. It’s good to love a person’s vulnerabilities—it makes her feel safe with you. You love her for believing in you in the first place. You love her for her and you love her for the way she values you. We all need to feel valued, and when it slips away from a marriage, the marriage slips away as well.
You love the way he plays with your baby boy or the way he adores your eleven year old daughter. You love the way he respects your parents, or tends to the children, or sometimes makes you dinner. You love the way he works his tail off, either at the gym or at work. And, yes, you love the way he looks at you and the way he makes you feel. You marry a complete package and while love starts with the two of you, it doesn’t end there.
The poison of modernity: Too many people ask themselves, what is she doing for me, or why can’t he just do what I need him to do? Now, we all have needs and that’s legitimate. But our needs cannot always be central. If so, we’re only in love because someone is taking complete care of us, and that’s childish. Taken to an extreme, it’s narcissistic.
On the other hand, if you give yourself over completely to taking care of others while ignoring your need to be valued and cared for, your marriage will wear out like a broken machine. Too many marriages lose the love that makes the whole project work. Resentments build up over time, undermining the best of intentions.
Take note, because resentment is poison to love.
And, if one person “wins” all the time, love loses.
Communication helps: We all know that love is a requirement for a good marriage. But resentment can poison any love. Time can help, but communication helps more. You need to learn how to make up – not by stonewalling—but by talking it through, letting go and coming back to the relationship having both learned something new. Trust counts. And, if it doesn’t come naturally—you may benefit from outside help to nurture it along.
In the heat of making a living, raising children and dealing with the stresses of life, truly making love happen is not always easy. For many, a marriage therapist can really help to make this process work. She can help with the trust, give you tools, and help you understand how injuries from before the marriage are triggered in the present—only to cause resentment and hurt. A good therapist will help you feel compassion for your wife’s issue with her father, or your husband’s insecurities at work.
The project of a loving marriage is bigger than the two of you—and yet it takes you both very seriously. Don’t let resentment undo all the good you can have together. And don’t be shy to get outside help. For many, the art of loving is something they have to learn, and does not come naturally.
Learn to love: So, the art of loving is a journey—a process—and a skill. It requires an ability to know your needs and sometimes transcend them. Work on having a big imagination and a big heart. You love for many reasons in the many nooks and crannies of life. Don’t lose out. Love is out there—and so is the poison of resentment. That is just the way it is.
It is a set up of sorts. We are told that we are to be loved; but not really taught how to love. As we fall in love we see an infantile portrait influenced by great sex, endorphins and a wondrous feeling of happiness. Who doesn’t want to fall in love?
And then comes the disappointment, the acting out, addictive behavior or just hurt. For many, divorce is the only sane option. But for most, we must abandon the twenty first century preoccupation with coming first—and find a way to be part of something bigger than you.
The failure rate for second and third marriages is upsettingly high, so why not work with what you have? Grieve the marriage you wanted and commit to the one you have. Yes, you can leave if things are intolerable, or if your husband or wife has simply burnt too many bridges. But, start anew by doubling down on your efforts to deal with your hurts, even before he or she came into the picture. And forgive if it is humanly possible.
Then look at each other as two people who want something special. You are both wounded souls (we all are), and carry unique hurt or disappointment. But, you can each heal the other if you do it right. Here, Harville Hendrix and his Imago work is spot on. Marriage can be the place of real healing. The art of loving is to love the wounded soul of your wife or husband, and to build something together, step by step that is bigger than just meeting the needs of the moment.
You may fail, but the true modern is bigger than just the self. That is Erich Fromm’s message. The true modern man or woman wants to be part of something; and a good relationship is hugely bigger than the sum of its parts.
Despite everything, if a couple has chosen well, worked hard and been graced with some luck, they can build a real relationship, and perhaps a strong family. It happens everyday.
Love's in the nooks and crannies.
Who can ask for more?
The Divorce Project: The Intelligent Divorce book series, online course, newsletter and radio show is a step by step program to handling divorce with sanity - from raising healthy kids to dealing with an impossible ex.