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Marriage and Paying Attention

Marriages don't break; they slowly erode and starve to death.

Over the past 30 years, 4,000 couples have explained to me why they are ending their marriages. This large sample offers a window into why marriages fail. Perhaps it also suggests some warning signs for couples to consider.

Most marriages end because at least one, and often both, partners are terminally bored with the relationship and despair of successful new beginnings. Women report that husbands have lost interest in how they feel, have become distant and preoccupied with work and are unable to maintain an intimate relationship or provide the soul-depth companionship that they crave. Husbands report that their wives have become preoccupied with the children, the trivial details of running the household and their own careers. Some complain that their wives have let themselves go physically and that sex has slowly become less frequent and less interesting. Both yearn for passion, connection, and companionship. In the parlance of the new era, everyone wants a soulmate and is disappointed that their spouse ain't it.

The continually amazing paradox is that once upon a time almost all these people believed that the person he/she had married was the proverbial soulmate. They were in love. Each thought the other was an interesting person and an ideal companion. Even at the beginning, most people have some vague notion of each other's defects but believe that the good stuff so outweighs the bad stuff that everything will be OK. They love being together so much that they cannot imagine not being together. Marriage, a lifelong commitment seems compellingly logical.

So how does it happen that so many of these love besotted couples end up in my office five, ten or twenty years later reporting boredom, ennui, and alienation? Could all or even most of them have been wrong in the first place? Did each of them commit some hormone-crazed act of perceptual self-deception and marry the frog instead of the prince? Or, more likely, did they have it right in the beginning and then lose it somewhere in the process?

I'm enough of an optimist that I can't believe that so many of them had it wrong to begin with. Undoubtedly, some of them simply made a mistake in choosing their spouses and should have called a halt before they ever said, "I do." But most of them were about as right as anyone can be who doesn't have psychic powers. So something had to go wrong along the way that distracted them from their mutual enchantment with each other.

I suspect that it didn't happen all at once. When I listen to people's stories, it seems as if that lovely sense of enchantment was not wiped away by a single mortal blow but rather was nibbled into oblivion by a thousand little oversights and omissions. Along the way, the relationship got buried and lost in a pile of distractions. The imperatives of one or two careers didn't help. The hundreds of carpool obligations to endless soccer games, skating practices, tutoring appointments and the innumerable other forms of "enrichment" that we have conjured for our children all contributed. Making sure that the kids had the best schools, the best teachers and the best lessons. Making sure that every homework assignment qualified for a Pulitzer. Making sure that the boss knows that you work late every evening and will always go the extra mile for the company. (America is the only modern country in which the average work-week is actually increasing. It's the only country in which the pernicious concept of 24/7 sends a not-so-subtle message about where your priorities better be if you want to get promoted.)

Most of these divorcing couples got so busy with the details of their hurly-burly lives that they forgot why they got together in the first place. The "we" got lost. Who has time for courting or fooling around or taking a walk or doing nothing when every hour and minute has been preempted by the unlimited details of the modern, upscale, child-centered suburban quest for a better lifestyle in a bigger house in a better neighborhood? You have so much to do that it's hard to pay attention to your spouse, to be sensitive when he or she needs some downtime, some solitude with the soulmate, a little smooching or TLC. But forget to pay attention often enough and forgetting begets forgotten. "When was the last time you told me I was pretty?" When was the last time you paid attention to me instead of the kids?" "How can I have sex with you if you don't court me?" "How can I have sex with you if you're never interested or always too tired?" Marriages don't die with a bang. They quietly tip-toe away and are gone before you know they left. Marriages die slowly under the gradually rising wave of distracted indifference. Finally, one of them pops to the surface, looks around and decides that this just doesn't work, that I have fallen out of love and this is not enough.

And so I find them in my office seeking an amicable settlement of their divorce so they can get on with their lives and with renewed optimism go and find another soulmate. Most of them will be remarried again within five years. Most will find another candidate for soulmate-hood among those rejected by others. So I wonder what is the lesson of all this. And three things come to mind: Pay attention! Pay attention! Pay attention!

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