Can a healthy marriage last?
October 5, 2012 11:46 AM   Subscribe

How do I regain my trust in marriage when my role models of healthy marriage are separating?

I met and have been close to a couple (let’s call them Couple X) a while ago, during a year of volunteering abroad. They have a happy, healthy relationship, which I found both admirable and amazing, as I had not met a couple in a healthy marriage before. While I know lots of couples who seem happy, I do not know any of them well enough who have been married for 5+ years to gauge the honesty of their love, respect, and affection toward each other. My parents have not shown real affection toward each other; sometimes I wonder whether they would both be happier without each other.
I assumed that the feelings I have had toward partners would not be able to last, and would eventually end - best case scenario - with tolerance of my partner. I see so many relatively new happy couples and so few truly happy marriages; I presumed that this was the path any relationship I partook in would end. Couple X was my first real hope of the kind of family I want to be a part of: their kids are secure and obviously well raised, he was the affectionate husband I want, and she was the caring wife I want to be.
Recently, they have decided to separate, citing some incident over the past summer that they have not elaborated upon and have not been able to get past as the catalyst to their divorce. This seems unreal, because while they have problems similar to many couples and families, they cared and loved each other and were genuinely happy. This one event changed their whole relationship from something that worked, something that benefited and fulfilled them. I feel like my faith in marriage is shaken.
How do I cope with this? How do I regain faith in marriage when I have no role models of it, especially as I have recently gotten engaged? Are there any resources to uplift my uncertainty, or do you have any anecdotes that are encouraging?
Also, how can I best support Couple X during this shattering period? Others have written them words of condolence. Is this the best way I can support them? I’d like to do more, but I live in another country. Any other suggestions would be appreciated.
I am a mid-twenties female in the US, FWIW. Thanks, hivemind.
posted by horizonseeker to Human Relations (16 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: All relationships end. One way or another.

The good news is that the quality of a relationship is not measured by it's duration.

These people made each other happy for a very very long time, they had children who they raised well and helped each other build wonderful lives.

What is happening now does not invalidate that. It does not travel back in time and give them unhappy lives.

Things being finite is an issued challenge. A challenge to live vibrantly everyday. A challenge to love deeply. A challenge to always improve yourself. A challenge to fight for love and goodness and peace.

You do not need to have infinite love to have true love.
posted by French Fry at 11:55 AM on October 5, 2012 [48 favorites]

How do I regain faith in marriage when I have no role models of it, especially as I have recently gotten engaged?

If you're marrying because you want someone else's marriage, call it off and save yourself the heartache. There are no guarantees on anything. There's just love, and hard work.
posted by ellF at 11:57 AM on October 5, 2012 [10 favorites]

How do I regain faith in marriage when I have no role models of it, especially as I have recently gotten engaged?

I have hardly seen any marriages that look all that good to me. Usually I see signs of bad treatment or major ongoing conflicts or one-sided or mutual delusion, or if they do seem genuinely happy, it looks really boring. But, rather than taking this as a sign that marriage can't be good, I remind myself that it is their marriage, not mine, and of course it's not going to be what I want. Each relationship is a world onto itself, a private universe for two, and no one else really knows what is going on from outside, nor should they. What matters is that they are happy with their relationships, and that I concentrate on looking for someone I can be happy with.

I feel the same way about role models for individuality. I'm just too realistic a person to really idealize anyone or anything as a whole, and the only value in scrutinizing other people's actions lies in my learning about specific behaviours or ideas that will work for me. I suggest you do the same. Stop idealizing and be realistic and focus the real and the possible.

Also, how can I best support Couple X during this shattering period? Others have written them words of condolence. Is this the best way I can support them?

Tell them both they are still your friends, and that you are available if they want to talk, and don't take sides. And leave it at that. People have to run their own lives.
posted by orange swan at 12:01 PM on October 5, 2012 [2 favorites]

Best answer: do you have any anecdotes that are encouraging?

My grandma and grandpa, from what I understand, didn't have the best of marriages- they loved each other and didn't divorce, but suffice to say it wasn't perfect. Of their kids, three have married and divorced multiple times each, and one has never divorced his first wife of nearly 30 years. That's my dad.

I think he just decided, at some point, that marriage was a Big Deal to him, and he wasn't going to do it until he was really ready. So while his siblings went and got married to people they loved, my dad waited, because I think he figured just plain love wasn't a good enough reason to get married. The default for him was NOT marrying. So he was over 30 when he met my mom, and he'd turned down at least one woman for marriage before that.

You barely mention your fiance in this question. So I think the question you should ask yourself is, do I want this person in my life forever, and the best way to ensure that is marriage? Or do I just want to get married, and I love this guy so why not marry him?
posted by showbiz_liz at 12:01 PM on October 5, 2012 [3 favorites]

Best answer: It's hard. The best I can tell you is that, well, they aren't you. Marriage is a weird thing (I'm not married, for what it's worth). There are certain expectations we grow up with (especially as women) for the "perfect" marriage and what that means. But it's different for everyone because everyone is different. I watched my parents go through a painful divorce after nearly 30 years of marriage a few years ago, and it shook me to the core. I've watched couples I adore split apart because one cheated. I've watched couples who seem to LOATHE each other stay together for years and have happy families. Everyone's different. Every marriage, every partnership is different. There's a million and one reasons this couple split, and, quite frankly, none of them are your business. Their marriage isn't about you. That's what took me a long time to figure out after my parents split, that it had nothing to do with me and my feelings (regardless of how unfair that felt at the time). Support your friends by not taking sides and by listening, but please don't make it about you and your faith in marriage. Also, talk to your fiancee about this. Say "hey, this happened, and, yannow, I'm kind of shaken." Get some reassurance. Don't bottle this up. It could just be that this event is sparking in you an existing fear of commitment that maybe needs to be talked out with a professional.
posted by picklesthezombie at 12:01 PM on October 5, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Marriage is like a career -- if a friend started working somewhere and said, "Yeah, this is the sort of thing, in this place, along this trajectory, that I want to do for the next forty years or so," that's perfectly normal and logical. But what if your friend's great boss goes somewhere else and the new boss sucks? Or if your friend gets promoted a few times and realizes that the new aspects of this career, that seemed so attractive when looking upward at them, actually suck? Or the industry changes profoundly and your friend doesn't like the way it is now? Or, or or... There are dozens, hundreds of ways that perfectly rational people can grow disenchanted with a career path. That doesn't mean that no one else should do it, or that you shouldn't try on a different path, or that the very concept of "careers" is invalid.
posted by Etrigan at 12:04 PM on October 5, 2012 [5 favorites]

Best answer: You're asking to be given faith in an institution (and an abstract one, at that), which I think is perhaps the wrong question. The only realistic and healthy faith you can build is in your partner and yourself -- both as individuals and as a couple. How many legs of the proverbial five-legged table do you guys have? If you're lacking one or more, are those things you feel you can both build together? Or, to switch the metaphor, do you feel like you're both ultimately on the same team? Do you each have each other's back? Are conflicts more about finding a resolution that works for both of you, rather than winning vs. losing the fight?

These are among the (many) common factors in happy, healthy, long-term relationships. And, at the same time, you have to accept on some level that even the happiest and healthiest long-term relationships may not last until death. People are complex and life is gloriously, messily unpredictable. At the end of the day, there aren't any guarantees -- just the opportunity to do the best we can, for ourselves and our loved ones, for as long as we can.

Long-term partnership is tough work, with lots of ups and downs; in the end, some couples are better at it than others. But the fact that your friends split up, in and of itself, doesn't say anything about the kind of marriage you and your partner might have. That's up to you guys.
posted by scody at 12:09 PM on October 5, 2012 [12 favorites]

Best answer: I'd say that no marriage/long-term partnership really looks happy from the outside - at least I've never seen one. And yet I've talked to a couple of friends very frankly about their relationships and they value and want to preserve them, despite [large obvious drawback]. My own relationship has what probably seems to outsiders like a Large Obvious Drawback, but I am happy every day that I'm with my partner.

When you look at a relationship, you're going to notice the things that rub you the wrong way first, especially things you wouldn't put up with yourself.

Similarly, consider every other long-term social relationship you have - doesn't every one of those relationships have a Large Obvious Drawback? My best friend and I have developed a major ideological difference over the years about something that's really important to both of us. My family and I have, like every other family, a history of mutual hurt, missed cues, failures. One of my other close friends is kind of snappish and not always fully emotionally present. Another can be a real intellectual snob in a way that has hurt and undercut me in the past. A third is a delightful person with no patience whatsoever for any kind of complex discussion or ideas. But life without these people? Unthinkable! I'd be sad and lonely. I'd miss them. I'd miss out on what they bring into my life.

Can you have an unhappy marriage? Of course! Will even a happy marriage have some bad patches or bad aspects? You betcha!

My advice: Enter into a serious, money-commingling, life-strategy-sharing partnership only late, and only when you're really, really sure. Pay attention to the models your partner had for marriage and what they think of those models. Be wary of substantial differences in social/economic privilege and uneven career trajectories - the common kind of dude whose wife supports him through grad school/professional training/career establishment only to be ditched for a younger model, don't be that dude and watch out for getting serious with him. Don't get serious with a guy who isn't a feminist. Don't get serious with a guy who can't talk to women as equals. Don't get serious with a guy who has to be persuaded that just maybe racism and class inequality might exist maybe. Don't get serious with someone who is addicted to thrills and novelty, or who feels entitled - you don't want to get stuck with a whiner who will cheat because he can't deal with the fact that his middle-aged ass is married to a middle-aged woman.

My father always used to quote something about how a novel is a 250-page piece of fiction that has something wrong with it. Similarly, a marriage is a long-term partnership that has something wrong with it.
posted by Frowner at 12:23 PM on October 5, 2012 [13 favorites]

You might like this dear sugar column:
posted by foxjacket at 12:35 PM on October 5, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: While I know lots of couples who seem happy, I do not know any of them well enough who have been married for 5+ years to gauge the honesty of their love, respect, and affection toward each other.

You probably never will. What you see on the outside is hardly ever what's going on on the inside. Marriages have rich interior lives to which outside parties are not privvy. Marriages you think are perfect are masking abuse and misery. Marriages you think are filled with conflict feature deep devotion and swingin' sex. Marriages you think are dull and suburban involve deep kink or middle class drug addiction or amateur porn production. You really never know.

Recently, they have decided to separate, citing some incident over the past summer that they have not elaborated upon and have not been able to get past as the catalyst to their divorce. This seems unreal, because while they have problems similar to many couples and families, they cared and loved each other and were genuinely happy.

There is no guarantee of forever and if they've chosen to part with the best regard and future hope for one another, I would still qualify this as a good marriage. I sometimes think the real measure of a marriage is the end, be it through divorce or death. How the parties are left standing on that day says a lot about the life-long journey they took to get there.
posted by DarlingBri at 12:40 PM on October 5, 2012 [3 favorites]

Best answer: You really can't tell anything about people's partnerships from the outside.

Anecdote 1: One of my best friends' Facebook is plastered with photos of her and her boyfriend being lovey with each other. Friendship, shared activities, etc. As her best friend, I know that she is not all that into him and they also have sex problems, and she routinely ponders breaking up with him.

Anecdote 2: My grandparents were together for 70+ years. My grandfather was spewing lovey monologues about my grandmother on his deathbed. In private conversations, she admitted that never liked him, they didn't have sex for decades, she cheated throughout, and she considered the love of her life another guy who she met when she was in her 70's. My grandparents traveled together, played bridge, socialized, and looked perfect from the outside. I don't think she was just talking. I think she was deeply unhappy with the relationship for most of her life.

Anecdote 3: My most outwardly perfect seeming relationship was with a guy I had very little connection with and eventually broke up with. Friends looking at us would have seen us treating each other really well, supporting each other, traveling together, and having a great friendship. All of which were true. I would rather be in short-term relationships forever than be in that relationship long-term.

Anecdote 4: Well not really an anecdote, but I can think of lots of relationships with Large Obvious Drawbacks as Frowner mentions that have stood the test of time and seem to be cherished by their participants. (Course, I could be just as misguided about this impression from the outside.)

Moral of the story... though I'm sure you can find your own examples... looking at examples of individual couples as role models gives you very little acccurate information about what makes a good relationship. The length or observable cuddliness of a relationship doesn't indicate that it's a good one by any useful metric. Any time you spend looking for clues on the outsides of other relationships, you could probably spend better looking for clues on the inside of your relationship.

(That being said, I think there is some useful information to be gleaned from large studies e.g. John Gottman, from individuals who have a lot of professional level experience like therapists, and from individuals who know you and your situation very well on a personal level.)
posted by kellybird at 12:45 PM on October 5, 2012 [4 favorites]

Best answer: I am somewhat amazed by the number of people posting who have not been around couples in a long term happy marriages. I've been married for 27 years and we're still very happy. Ups and downs? Certainly but for both of us our relationship is the core of our lives. I know a lot of other couples of similar or greater longevity. Both sets of our parents were married for more than 50 years, my husbands parents for almost 70 when my father-in-law died.

For us the key things have been to be supportive of each other through changes, hard times, and uncertainty. We try very hard to not go to bed mad. We make time for the two of us separate from family time, work time and chores. We don't do everything together - we have some shared interests and some things we pursue separately including friendships. No marriage is blissful all the time of course!

For your friends I think the best thing you can do is offer them your emotional support whether they end up together or separate.
posted by leslies at 12:48 PM on October 5, 2012 [8 favorites]

Best answer: There's a passage in the book The Sparrow where a character asks about another's long and seemingly blissful marriage. Her reply is that this isn't their first marriage. That they had made it so long because they had come together and apart repeatedly, redefining that relationship as they grew and changed, so that they were now by her reckoning on their seventh 'marriage'.

That's what has happened so far, and I hope will for the future in mine - twelve years of marriage after five years of dating and living together, with five kids. We've come to the rocks at least three times, and our marriage has changed each time. Is this current 'marriage' better than previously? No - it's just truer to who we are at this point. We have shared memories and trust and affection and children so there's a deep commitment to making these big changes when our marriage as it is stops working, rather than divorcing. But it's bloody hard work each time. For some people, the cost may be higher than they can emotionally afford.

Try not to take sides with either of them. Don't judge them or blame them, they'll be doing plenty fo that already. The kindest thing is to be their friend and especially to be kind and helpful with their kids who are in the middle of all this. Can you take the kids out for daytrips, babysit, etc? It would be great to be able to know the kids had a good fun day with someone who wasn't badmouthing mom or dad in the middle of what is a terrible time.
posted by viggorlijah at 5:44 PM on October 5, 2012 [10 favorites]

Maybe it's time to find someone who find pain working on something long term rewarding, and in love with the idea of love too.

I'm tired of 3 year relationships too. What do we have to show after each relationship? A complete waste of life and resources.

There's surely got to be a way to find these people... dating sites?
posted by jago25_98 at 4:32 AM on October 6, 2012

As a contrasting example to your role models, I think from the outside my relationship of 5 years, 2 years of that married, might look rather strange to people, might seem rather uncomfortable - certainly not "role-model worthy."

It would be difficult for people to judge the depth of caring, maturity, and intimacy in our relationship by watching our interactions in public. We have very different social "fronts." Both of us get nervous around other people (for different reasons) and behave very differently with each other than we do in private. Character flaws on our parts - absolutely. Reflection of the status of our relationship - not at all.
This is actually in some ways our biggest, and in the most literal sense "Obvious Large Drawback" (thanks Frowner ;-) - we are not really a good "social" couple. But we do our best, it's getting better all the time, and since both of us are homebodies its not a big issue anyway.

That is always on my mind when I watch other couples interacting, and as I watch my own reaction to other couples interacting. I'm not saying that couples are not behaving "genuinely" with each other when observed, but I have to remind myself often that outside obvious red flags, it's impossible to say what their couple-universe is really like. And that my own reactions are a reflection of what is important to me, rather than what is true about their relationship.

I'm sure you already have, and can nurture further, those great aspects of Couple X's relationship - respect, affection, caring, teamwork. Their breakup is not a failure of those things, just a reminder that we don't know the whole story - and never will. Good luck in your future marriage!
posted by Pieprz at 4:41 AM on October 6, 2012

Like Leslies, I'm fascinated and saddened by how many people haven't seen happy marriages. My wife and I recently celebrated our fifteenth wedding anniversary. Marrying her was the best decision I've ever made. She makes me incredibly happy.

My parents have also been happily married for many decades, as have my wife's parents. I don't think this is a coincidence. My wife and I grew up with excellent role models; we both learned that you are supposed to respect and support your spouse, and that you have a right to expect your spouse to do the same.

I mean, we and our parents are human, so we can get grouchy, or say or do the wrong thing, or whatever. But if you knew us, you'd probably recognize us as happy, healthy couples.

Obviously I don't know you or your fiance, but as a really rough general guideline, here's the opinion of a married middle-aged guy who is crazy in love with his wife:

If you and your fiance treat each other with respect; if you have talked about the big difficult life issues (whether you want children; how you view money and work; etc) and come to some sort of agreement; if you have fun with each other, and are also able to have fun separately; if you have been through at least one major stressful life change together (a death, a move, a job loss, etc) and you each survived it better for having each other to lean on; if you feel that he understands you when you talk to him, and you understand him; if you feel that you can be completely yourself with him, and he feels the same way with you... then odds are, you're on track for a happy and lasting marriage.

If your relationship is missing some of those things, it's absolutely not a death knell. Relationship skills, like other skills, can be learned and improved. But based on what I've observed, the absence of one or more of those things tends to trip a couple up. The presence of all of those things tends to make a relationship long and happy.
posted by yankeefog at 6:06 AM on October 6, 2012 [7 favorites]

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