All right. That wasn’t exactly what the large letters at the top of April 28’s Wall Street Journal declared, enticing one to read the related article in the Personal Journal section. It was actually “Here Come the Baby; There Goes the Marriage.” But wouldn’t my suggested title work as well? How about any of the following:
Here Comes the Mortgage; There Goes the Marriage
Here Comes the Illness; There Goes the Marriage
Here Comes Real Life; There Goes the Marriage
Statistics cited in the article claim that, “About two-thirds of couples see the quality of their relationship drop within three years of the birth of a child.” Counseling services, psychotherapists and classes are stepping up to help married couples keep the lines of communication open during this stressful period.
I don’t know many people who buy a car based only on how the car performs in good weather and great roadway conditions. We want to know how the car holds up in stop and go traffic, on pot-holed roads and in a collision. When we buy clothing we want assurances that our new dress won’t look good only when it is new but also after repeated laundering. A teacher’s mettle is tested around children who aren’t ideal students and a doctor who handles strep throat flawlessly but who falls apart when a patient has more complex symptoms isn’t a very good doctor.
Why are we surprised when couples who are happy before their marriages hit the inevitable bumps in the road, struggle once complicated and messy real life kicks in? Until the marriage is tested, whether by negative occurrences such as job loss or the death of a parent, or by joyous occasions like the birth of a child, getting a job promotion or a monetary windfall, the marriage is still in the show room or on the hanger. Taxing events do stress marriages, but they often reveal fault lines which up till then were camouflaged.
I’m not minimizing the upheaval that arrives with a new baby, particularly the first-born. But I question how out of touch with reality young couples are if they need to spend hundreds of dollars to be taught that keeping lines of communication open and making sure to have non-child-focused time together is important. Could it be that the base assumption so many bring into their marriages – this marriage is about making me happy – is wrong?
In college, I took a course on the immigrant experience in America. Our term project included interviewing an immigrant, and I took the opportunity to chat with my grandmother. At that point, she and my grandfather had celebrated close to sixty years of marriage and in my eyes their relationship was as solid as the heavy, wooden armoire in their guest room. The atmosphere in their home was peaceful and joyful. With the self-centeredness of youth, I assumed it was naturally that way.
As my grandmother answered my questions, I remember being dumb-founded as she uncovered memories from years long past. At one point, she recalled how, early in their marriage, her father-in-law arrived from Europe to stay with them. He was a difficult man, and almost as an aside, my grandmother said something which granted me marriage wisdom I never forgot. She said, “That was a difficult year. I guess if it was today, we would just have gotten divorced. But who knew from that then?”
While my great-grandfather went back to Europe, the years that followed were full of different challenges. Intense poverty during the Depression and my mother’s contracting polio were among other trials they faced. My grandparents watched three sons go to war and while they rejoiced in their safe return, the end of the war brought with it the knowledge that their parents, siblings, nieces and nephews in Europe had been murdered by the Nazis.
I’m sure there were extended periods of time when there wasn’t one ounce of energy to give to the relationship. There certainly wasn’t the 1920’s equivalent of $500 for six sessions of pre and post baby counseling. There was, however, something more than divorce just not being common. There was commitment, a long-term view and an attitude that stressed the marriage rather than self. There was faith in God, belief in family, and gratitude for what one had rather than yearning for what was missing. There was a maturity that understood that some days, months and even years were going to be hard and that asking oneself constantly, “Am I happy?” was a foolish thing to do. Paradoxically, over the course of a long marriage where the basics of commitment and responsibility were sacrosanct no matter what one’s feelings, the joyous times far outweighed the tough ones.
I’m a big believer in actively working on one’s marriage (see my husband and my audio CD, Madam, I’m Adam) and while it would be best to work on it consistently from day one, if a life-changing event spurs effort, that’s great. Could it be though, that too many marriages fail not because they are fatally flawed, but because constantly taking the temperature of one’s happiness is an exercise that encourages dissatisfaction and short-term thinking?
I wasn’t surprised when the article noted that, while the decline in marital satisfaction in the five years after a baby’s arrival was lower in those who had pre-baby couples counseling, the divorce rate among those who underwent counseling and those who didn’t was the same. Counseling that is geared to facilitating a healthy relationship is wonderful, but if it reinforces the unrealistic expectation that you can eliminate the tough periods and that constant smooth sailing is possible it just might make more problems than it solves.