My New View On Marriage

In late September of last year I wrote an aggressive article that articulated my strong distaste for the cultural practice many of us know as marriage. Due to boldness and high controversy of my arguments, the piece understandably warranted backlash and dissatisfactory feelings from fellow colleagues, readers and people within my social group.

However, I reserve the right to two things: 1) I reserve the right to be wrong and 2) I reserve the right to change my mind.

           It isn’t news that roughly half of American marriages end in divorce, and for a long time, I allowed that statistic to cloud my judgment of what healthy marriages looked like (and, quite frankly, if they even existed). Upon writing my initial article, I concluded that the high numbers of divorce stemmed from people entering marriages with “wrong” intentions I believed were rooted in selfishness. However, upon enrolling in a course titled Close Relationships taught by the University Psychology Department’s Eddie Clark, Ph.D, I was quickly stripped of my title as “relationship expert,” humbled and put in my place. For those interested in taking the course, Close Relationships is a 4000-level psychology elective offered every Spring. 

     Today, I am here with a new perspective as I present this idea with full confidence: through my time in this class I have come to accept that any and all relationships, regardless of their natures or what intentions they were entered for, have the potential to last forever. The steps to obtaining and maintaining a healthy relationship are surprisingly not as complicated as one would think. However, it all depends on one key factor: the individual and their attitudes towards the partnership. With that being said, my one and only intention of writing this article is that it restores one’s faith in love, even if it is just one person. 

   Aside from learning many meaningful lessons on having healthy arguments, communication and attachment styles, the Close Relationships unit that stood out the most was the one on love. A common theme throughout this segment was that in order for an intimate relationship to last, a friendship needed to be present, with its fundamentals being rooted in trust, care, loyalty, respect and commitment. Surprisingly, “movie-like” love that manifests itself into nervousness, euphoria and butterflies in our stomachs wears out the fastest, often going away entirely after a couple gets married. It was companionate love, however, that was identified to be the most effective and longest lasting form of intimate relationships. Its stability and increase in intimacy through the years guaranteed the most satisfactory attitudes in couples, despite being slow to warm up at first. As further emphasized in a study by Drs. Laura Stafford and Daniel Canary, the five most necessary relationship maintenance techniques were sustaining a positive attitude towards one’s partner, expressing the willingness to be open, assuring their partner in times of need, having stable social networks and sharing tasks together. They also recommended incorporating mediated communication and humor, especially during times of conflict. 

   However, the real game-changer of relationship science is showcased through the work of Dr. John Gottman, also known as the “Godfather” of relationship psychology. Before the foundation of his well-renowned therapy workshop the Gottman Institute, Gottman and his best friend Bob Levenson found themselves in repetitive unhealthy relationships. In an attempt to find answers as to why they kept experiencing these dynamics, the two started a “Love Lab” in 1974, later joined by Gottman’s wife Dr. Julie Schwartz-Gottman in 1992. The lab implemented questionnaires that focused on areas of strength and dissatisfaction in intimate relationships, as well as interviewing couples and measuring their vitals when they interacted with one another. Over the next 45 years, the trio interviewed over 40,000 couples, and through these numbers, they were able to predict divorce or stability and happiness in relationships with an accuracy of 90 percent. The effects of the initial study were replicated by Gottman six different times. 

         So what predicts these factors? What separates a couple that is at a high risk of dissolution versus low-risk? Gottman emphasized that those who were unhappy in their relationships were at a 0.8:1 positive-to-negative emotion ratio during conflict, while couples who were satisfied with one another were at a 5:1 ratio. With the index established, Gottman wondered how he could make a difference and authenticate a system for people in dysfunctional relationships to reconcile and achieve peace. This realization allowed him to develop a theory, which was that people who were in happy and fulfilled relationships all had three things in common: trust, maintaining a physiologically calm attitude towards their partner, and commitment. 

“When people are calm,” Gottman emphasized, “they can take in information. They can listen. They can be empathetic. They have access to their sense of humor…But when they’re flooded, when there’s a diffuse of activation of various parts of the autonomic nervous system, they are much more likely to be in attack-or-defend mode, making it harder for couples to relate to one another.” 

       Gottman added that higher trust in romantic relationships leads to better intimacy and sex, while low trust leads to loneliness, emphasizing that loneliness is the number one cause of infidelity. Building trust comes from always having both parties’ best interests in mind, and doing small things one knows will bring joy and happiness to their partner. Lastly, commitment comes from what Gottman calls a “turning point”, a period during which when things aren’t going well and one’s partner may be irritable, hostile, and emotionally distant. However, if at this time an individual is cherishing their partner, loving them, and being grateful for their presence in their life, it establishes a firm and profound sense of loyalty that will significantly strengthen the relationship. Betrayal, however, happens during these scenarios during which one begins resenting their partner and creates comparisons between real or imagined alternatives. 

      “There is magic in love that lasts forever…” Gottman says with a smile, “and that magic is achieved through three things: calm, trust, and commitment.”