It has been amusing listening to the religious right’s argument that marriage must be between a man and woman for one simple reason: the institution itself has been crumbling for decades.
This is not to discourage monogamy or the attempt at commitment. Many of my friends, myself included, enjoy the idea of sharing intimacy with one person alone. The distance between an idea and reality, however, can stretch rather far. As this recent Quartz article suggests, a really great marriage is possible, though hard to put into practice. The actual picture of it is far from a Hollywood ending:
What we as a society should probably be telling married people is, “If you have love, passion, companionship and equality in your marriage, you are wealthy beyond words. If you don’t, you have two choices. You can decide that your marriage is the best you’re going to get and try to be content. Alternatively, you can leave your marriage to play the lottery of finding that perfect partner, accepting that you are unlikely to win and may have to stay single for the rest of your life.”
In truth this fits the actuality of what most of my friends experience. Thing is, I do know a few that are completely happy in marriage. It’s inspiring to watch the work they put into their relationship, and that’s usually the greatest distance between the idea and reality that others feel trapped by: work. So basic in theory, so challenging in implementation.
Cultural shifts in how we use our technologies do not seem to be aiding the plight of committed relationships: Tinder, an app no deeper than looks and hook-ups had over ten million daily users in April 2014, while services like Ashley Madison specifically target married individuals looking for other married folk. The company’s tagline is ‘Life is short. Have an affair.’ Twenty-one million people have signed up worldwide.
Part of the romanticism of relationships involves the dividing of love and marriage from sex. While it is only one component, it is rather important. Pretending otherwise is a fatal flaw. Just how important, though, is tough to tell at times. Studying human sexuality is especially daunting given the nature of research. It’s hard to become aroused if you’re in an fMRI machine or trying to get it on with scientists watching.
Not so for rats. Researchers inserting catheters into rodent brains found that a male rat’s nucleus accumbens was flooded with dopamine when separated from a female rat. Once the barrier is opened and the male gets what he wants, levels of the hormone drop sharply. Show him another female and dopamine surges again. Rats are used in labs because their DNA is not far from that of humans.
I’m sure many women would agree the terms ‘sex’ and ‘rodents’ go together. Yet it's also clear that monogamy, and therefore marriage (in the traditional sense), goes against our evolutionary ascendence—which is why marriage is a discipline like any other endeavor.
A new ethos emerging from our sexual proclivities might save some marriages, even if they don’t look like our grandparents’ households. Therapist Esther Perel, dubbed a ‘sexual healer’ by the NY Times, has extensively researched the benefits of affairs. On this topic she writes,
Very often we don’t go elsewhere because we are looking for another person. We go elsewhere because we are looking for another self. It isn’t so much that we want to leave the person we are with as we want to leave the person we have become.
A powerful insight into the fragmented nature of identity. It's hard to commit to someone else when you don't know who you are or when you'll search for your 'other.'
In my life I’ve cheated and been cheated on. Neither has left me fulfilled. The best relationships I’ve been in were the most honest. This dance is never easy. There is precedent: researchers have found that basic kindnesses expressed by couples were key to sustaining a relationship.
Psychologist John Gottman and his colleague Robert Levonson divided the couples he spent decades researching into ‘masters’ and ‘disasters.’ When a man called his wife over to look at a bird outside of the window, her response made a huge difference in the longevity of their marriage. A master expresses interest and goes over, even if she doesn’t really care about birds. The disaster checks her phone while telling him to leave her alone.
The Quartz article does not offer advice in regards to what constitutes a good marriage. From what I’ve seen over the years, there is no singular answer. Instead of focusing on the institution or the romanticization, however, Gottman and Levonson got it right: you need to focus on and communicate with the person you’re with. From there a foundation can be built. Anything less and the structure will crumble.
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