Some of the emails I've gotten through the years have brought up areas of marriage that raise questions but in themselves don't deserve the dedication of an entire page. So here, in no particular order, is an assortment of marriage related issues for your consideration:
One of the most common complaints I hear from both the "marriage-is-sacred" camp and the "marriage-is-bogus" camp is that wedding vows no longer have any meaning these days. People make vows when they get married, they swear oaths before witnesses, each other, and, depending on whether you believe in the supernatural, before God - and even the government requires that, of all the personal touches one can add to the wedding vows, the words "I take you to be my lawfully wedded husband/wife" must be spoken in order for the marriage to be solemnized. But then, magically, all these "vows" are forgotten a few years later when the parties want to split up and file for divorce. So much for "in good times and in bad", the critics say, marriage vows are about as meaningless as you can get and so why bother even mumbling these words to each other in the first place? Or from the religious front "People take vows, and shouldn't be allowed to break them through divorce. Getting a divorce should be much harder if not impossible." One group uses this to argue for the abolishment of divorce, the other for the abolishment of marriage, and both of them, in their fervor to have their own way, have missed the point of marriage vows completely.
Marriage vows can be spoken in good faith and then "broken" later because they are designed to have meaning and respect throughout the duration of the marriage only, however long that might be. A lifetime, preferably, but three weeks if necessary. They are marriage vows, not lifetime vows, their significance is that they relate to a set of rules and conduct required of a marriage, which, as we all know, can most definitely cease to have any meaning and come to an end.
Look at it this way: in traditional marriage vows, the words "til death do us part" refers to the fact that if one of the partners dies, the vows no longer have meaning. You are no longer expected to "forsake all others" if you are widowed, you are free to marry again. You no longer vow to cherish someone "through good times and bad" if they're no longer alive, you are expected to grieve and then continue with your life. Our society generally accepts that the death of a partner renders the marriage vows null and void. So given that one's spouse might die one day, does that mean people shouldn't take these vows in the first place? Of course it doesn't - and neither does it mean we shouldn't take vows because the marriage might die one day. It is, in its essence, the same thing.
Marriages really do die. People can change over time, especially if they haven't clearly identified their values before marrying. Spouses can change, pursuing different values that might not include marriage to us. Circumstances can change, outside tragedies and events can drive people apart, the parties can mature into different people than when they first walked down the aisle. All of these things can result in the effective "death" of what used to be a loving marriage.
Among those that agree with this assessment are those who argue we shouldn't say "til death do us part" or "as long as we both shall live" at all, that it would be more practical and realistic to remove these promises of forever from the vows and replace them with "from this day onward" or "as long as our love shall last", something that doesn't necessarily connote "eternity". But that casts the same pall over a marriage that signing a pre-nup does: it implies, even in the first thirty-five seconds of the marriage, that this isn't going to last. Whether it lasts or not, whether it's the death of a partner or the death of the marriage that causes the separation, is ultimately unknowable on your wedding day - but building in that provision in your wedding vows pretty much guarantees it will be the latter. Hope is essential in a happy marriage, optimism for the future and a belief that your love will be strong enough to weather the storms is absolutely crucial in establishing the intimacy and sense of partnership needed in a happy union. So leave that part of the vows in, have hope that yours will be one of the many marriages that do last a lifetime.
Will Tragedy Split You Up?
Often you'll hear this kind of story in the news: a toddler falls down a well and the media circus surrounding her eventual rescue shows the world the happy, exhausted faces of her parents as she's returned to their arms. All seems well, like a true happy ending, until we hear that six months later those parents have filed for divorce. In other cases, like that of John and Patsy Ramsey who have fended off accusations and police interrogation for six years in the murder of their daughter JonBenet, this couple seemed as together and in love as they ever did, despite a grueling public persecution and Patsy's eventual death from cancer. From stories like these, one thing seems clear: tragedy rips some couples apart and yet makes others stronger. But no one has an explanation for why, or how to predict which couples will split up and which will make it through. Is there even a way to tell who will survive tragedy and who won't?
I believe there is. Or rather, I believe there are certain factors that contribute to a sustainable marriage even in the face of tragedy. And I don't believe it's simply a matter of one couple being more in love than another couple are. I believe the ones that succeed all have certain things in common.
Couples who survive tragedy generally all have a unified philosophy of life. They have a guiding set of principles and values that are immutable and which they believe in as fervently as any religious person. At some point in their marriage, and usually even before they ever met and married their spouse, they developed a conscious, intentional set of values and beliefs and shared these values openly with their spouse. They are the kind of people that have dealt with other setbacks successfully, people who haven't let crises alter their path or drive them into permanent depression.
Couples who survive tragedy are not the kind that see themselves as "victims". Victimization is incredibly popular these days, everyone's doing it. "I'm being discriminated against because of my sex/race/religion/disability/weight/height" etc, or the ubiquitous protest groups and special interest coalitions that spring up to fight everything from c-sections to beauty pageants to spam email, all claiming that these things 'victimize' people in some way. Just type the word "against" into your search engine and you'll see what I mean. The sheer volume of ridiculous law suits plaguing the courts - suing McDonald's because coffee was hot, suing a hospital because childbirth was painful - shows that the status of victim has become dear to the hearts of whiners everywhere.
When everyone becomes a victim of something, it takes away from those who truly are victims of injustice and deserve to have their cases heard, and it also prevents anyone from ever being happy in life. It's impossible to be a happy victim, and it's impossible for two victims to have a happy marriage. Couples who survive tragedy don't become victims of it for a lifetime, they deal with the understandable feelings a crisis brings up, and then they move on in a positive way.
Another crucial factor is the couple's attitude toward the marriage itself. If a couple actively cherishes their marriage, views it as the most wonderful thing in their life, if they are aware of how difficult it was to find someone they love this much and how rare it is to have a loving, reciprocal, lifelong love affair with another person, then they aren't going to let it disappear simply because something terrible happened. Couples who survive tragedy almost always have a "Big Picture" view of their marriage - they can step back far enough to say "This marriage is a blessing in my life, it's worth protecting. Very little else matters. If the house gets washed away in a flood, so be it, I could live in a hovel as long as I had my wife. If my husband becomes a paralyzed in an accident, at least he's still alive and I am grateful that I still have his wonderful mind and loving heart in my life. And if the worst happens, and God forbid it does, and we lose a child, we'll get through our grief together because that child was the product of the two of us and our love for each other - what a double tragedy it would be to lose both." This is the kind of innate, unquestioning, almost automatic thinking that fills the minds of couples who can survive the worst.
Perhaps the most overlooked factor in deciding who will survive is patience. Couples who love each other and who have this "big picture" view of marriage are the kind who have infinite patience with each other and who are willing to wait out the storm. If your spouse suffered a personal tragedy that perhaps didn't affect you as much - say the loss of his or her parents or a close friend - and became depressed and angry and isolated from you, your reaction shouldn't be to become angry and demanding and impatient with him or her. Maybe it will take him or her months to get over it, maybe even years. Maybe these won't be the happiest years of your marriage, maybe you'll feel left out and unimportant...but if you love this person, try to empathize with what he or she is going through and give them time to get over it.
You must delve into your marriage if you expect it to survive tough times. You cannot be a surface husband and wife with no depth and no acknowledgment of what can happen in life. As macabre as it sounds, you must discuss with your spouse, preferably before you get married, how you think the death of a child would affect your marriage, or any other tragedy you think might have a lasting impact on your relationship.
There are those who say it's too negative and pessimistic to think about or even talk about bad things before they ever happen. There are those that say you can't ever know how you will react to something terrible until it happens to you. That you can't predict how devastating something is going to be until you experience it. Talking about it ahead of time is useless, they say, because you'll be a different person when the time comes and all that talk will mean nothing. But I say you have a much better chance of handling a tragedy properly if you've at least entertained the idea that it could happen, and at least given yourself a chance to think about how you would want to respond to it, so that you don't just get thrown wildly by your emotions and end up ruining the rest of your life. Trying to be prepared for something doesn't hurt - it may not entirely work, you may respond differently than you hoped, but if you never even try to decide ahead of time how you'll react, then you have no hope of coming through it one piece. Don't be broadsided by the unfairness and capriciousness of life, especially when it could mean the end of the one comforting, stable, happy thing you might have left.
Sometimes, It Is Because of the Kids
Very often in after-school specials or saccharine family dramas you'll see some wide eyed child ask his divorcing parents if their split is 'his fault'. The parents' faces will melt into remorse and guilt as they reassure him vociferously that it has nothing to do with him, that sometimes mommies and daddies just fall out of love. They go to great lengths to try to explain their divorce in terms he'll understand, which is largely impossible, and attempt to make it clear that having a family has had no bearing on their marriage at all.
Truthfully, sometimes I think it is because of the kids. But not in the way the child means. It isn't his fault, but it may be because of him.
Sometimes two people with wildly different backgrounds and lifestyles can come together and make a wonderful life for themselves, they can be compatible in enough ways that their divergent personalities make no difference to their marriage. A man who makes a great husband may make a lousy father, and the woman you want to go snorkeling with well into your old age may not make the best mother, and even if you think your spouse would make an excellent parent, sometimes reality proves you wrong in ways you never expected.
The reason is simple. People's values can be hidden, adjusted, disregarded or even changed when they marry someone, they can put aside previous principles they held or ideas that were important to them in order to make the marriage work. They can "compromise", the buzz word of self-help marriage gurus. They can put up with a lot, in fact, and learn to overlook annoying or even offensive behavior in their spouse because the benefits of being married far outweigh the negatives. But bring a child into the mix, and all that flies out the window.
I believe that people generally want to be good parents. They want to give their children a better life than they had, they want to right their own parents' wrongs and be a better parent than the ones they had. And there is no finer showcase of a person's core, unshakable values than how they feel about and intend to raise their children. Previously timid people become barricudas when it comes to their children, people find themselves willing to do almost anything to help their kids or make them happy. If a spouse interferes with that, or influences the kids in a way that contradicts your core beliefs about how they should be raised, that's where the problems begin.
Couples often report fighting over discipline, for example. Mom believes in corporal punishment, for reasons of her own, and dad recoils from it because of his bad childhood and fervent belief in non-violence. Or Dad thinks anything short of hitting a child, including hurling insults and verbal abuse, is acceptable but mom thinks this kind of thing leaves worse scars than any belt across the bum ever would. When the kids get older, Mom thinks it's okay for their girl to wear makeup and nail polish, but Dad has a deep rooted and hypocritical view of sex and sexuality and insists his little girl isn't going to 'dress like a tramp'. Mom thinks her son should be punished for getting into a fight after school, but Dad is proud of him for defending himself and thinks his son did the right thing by fighting back. All of these situations have one thing in common: the essence of each reveals something about each parent's core belief system - their values - and if they are in conflict, the marriage is going to be rife with arguments, disagreements and bad feelings about the way the other parent thinks. This invariably leads to a loss of intimacy, and very often divorce because it's impossible to be in love with someone whose values regarding something as important as parenting are so different from your own.
How do you know, when you're young and childless, sunbathing together in the Caribbean, that fifteen years from now you'll have a raging horrible fight over how your daughter dresses? How do you know, when you see your differences as charming and delightful, that in a few years those differences will drive you apart? The way you know is by fully understanding what your values are, making sure your spouse shares them, and openly discussing them before you have children.
What's wrong with a young married couple having a discussion about their hypothetical kids? Why not ask each other things like "Suppose our thirteen year old girl comes home wearing a crop top and hip hugger jeans? How do you think you'd react?" or "How do you feel about spanking?" or "Do you think kids should be raised with strict routines and rules or do you think they should be more free to exert their own will?" "Do you believe kids "owe" their parents for having taken care of them or do you believe kids never asked to be born and don't owe their parents a thing?" There must be thousands of situations you could envision, everything from how to deal with trouble at school to teen sex, from how to handle household chores and allowances to what type of schooling you think is most appropriate. What this does, if you do it often enough and with enough honesty, is help the both of you get a feeling for the other's person's "parenting style" and their values are when it comes to raising kids. It doesn't mean this is exactly, precisely the way you will be when the kids come along - life has a way of throwing everyone a curve ball and people's attitudes can change over time - but it will give you a sense of whether, deep down, you are both the same kind of parents and would react in roughly the same way to situations that arise with your kids. You already know you're compatible as husband and wife - but are you compatible as Mom and Dad? It's one of the most important questions every potential parent should ask.
The alternative is to know nothing about how your spouse parents until you are right in the middle of it. If you're lucky, you won't be too different, but if you're not one of the lucky ones, your marriage and family life could quickly become one of frustration and anger and dissatisfaction. Why not prepare yourself as much as you can before hand, so that you can decide to have kids because you're so similar or to not have kids to preserve your marriage?
Ah, pornography. The thing we rarely talk about, the thing that nearly everyone has seen at one point or another. I can't comment on every case, and I certainly can't tell what's going on inside each and every marriage, but I do have some common sense opinions on how you should view pornography within your marriage.
First, though, I have to say that this is a segment that's almost too big to write. In doing research on this subject, I came across more contradictory studies, more anecdotal evidence, more horror stories and advocates than on any other subject I've ever studied. I know that there have been some very public and very disturbing stories involving sexual assault and pornography, I know that some women have been unfortunate enough to have violent and depraved husbands or male relatives who used pornography as a mere catalyst to do what they would have done anyway. I am not ignorant of the fact that some people have suffered greatly at the hands of others and that there are vicious and malicious people out there who will defile any value they get their hands on, including sex. And I know that there are some very unhappy marriages out there, tainted by so-called "sexual addiction" on the one hand and sexual apathy on the other. But I'm not going to venture into those muddied waters. I'm not going to go into the extremes or cite the small percentage of cases that make the headlines. Instead I'm going to address this section to all the "regular folks" out there, the people who are neither abusive nor depraved, who are neither perverted or dangerous to their families. I believe there are far more decent, moral, harmless people out there than there are perverts, and they are the most deserving of a little understanding. I can honestly say that I would need to spend years researching every aspect of this issue in order to comment fairly on the overall impact that pornography has, but my initial reaction to it and to the various resources I've discovered, is that mainstream pornography (that is, nothing that involves actual force, violence or kids) is not the evil it is purported to be, your spouse is not a pervert or ready for divorce court if he or she simply views it occasionally, and masturbation, even among the married, is nothing to get so hysterical about.
I think it's important to start with the belief that mainstream pornography, in itself, is not evil, or the devil's work, or some vile plague you have to rid your house of. Even if you don't like it, or don't care to watch it, it's still important to understand that as a form of entertainment, it's pretty harmless. The people in it are usually quite happy with their lives, and are not the drugged out kidnap victims that some anti-porn opponents would like us to believe. Most mainstream pornography features adults over 18 who have chosen this career willingly and who actually enjoy it, who are paid handsomely for what they do and who can leave the business whenever they want. Whatever you think about the morality of the people involved, or whether you yourself find it uncomfortable to watch, you have to accept that as things go, it's not the most moral thing a person can do but there's nothing criminal or "sinful" about it. I personally think it's immoral to become obsessed with a sports team; I think it's immoral for men to spend the most productive years of their lives shooting a ball around - or worshipping other men who do - but that doesn't mean I'd freak out if I found my husband watching the playoffs.
Which leads to the next common argument you'll hear against it. Since marriage is a sexually exclusive relationship, it seems like a violation of your vows to view pornography - or at least that seems to be the common belief among wronged women. Women automatically assume the worst if they find their husband looking at pornography. They leap to the conclusion that he doesn't love them anymore, or doesn't find them attractive, or wants to have sex with the women in the video, or a host of other negative things. They assume that he "needs" the pornography because they aren't sexy enough or thin enough or large-chested enough and they assume - sometimes rightly, but mostly in error - that he's one step away from running off with a stripper or bringing home a hooker for the two of them to share. They may also start to believe that he harbors secret, nasty, misogynistic rape fantasies or other hostile thoughts about women, and may question his true sexual appetites. If they catch him masturbating, it just confirms all of the above and convinces them that they can't be enough for him, or else he wouldn't be doing it.
I have to say that from my point of view, all of this is a gross overreaction. While you may be initially surprised and perhaps a little hurt if you discover him doing this, it's overwhelmingly more likely that something far more benign is going on. Generally speaking, men are very stimulated by visual imagery and find it very exciting to watch images of sex. They like women, they like sex, and as an occasional outlet, pornography gives them a chance to safely, harmlessly and honestly enjoy both.
Sometimes something more sinister is going on, but fortunately, there's an easy way to tell the difference. Talk to him. Ask him to tell you truthfully why he's watching it or pleasuring himself, and ask him why he didn't choose to come to you with his sexual desire. Don't react with hysteria or anger, don't belittle him or treat him like a naughty schoolboy, respect the fact that he's a grown adult with needs and desires that you might not always be able to fill. Make sure he knows that he can talk to you honestly, that you won't react badly no matter how inadequate his answers make you feel. If he's viewing pornography because you've been emotionally or physically unavailable or uninterested in him lately, he has to be free to tell you that. If he was merely trying to ease the tension of a bad day while you were out, let him tell you that without guilt. If he's become a little bored with the routine of your sex life, let him say so. The point is, it may not be easy for you to hear the reasons he gives for why he has done this in secret, but if you want to maintain a healthy marriage, you have to be willing to listen. It's also crucial to remember that you didn't come upon him actually with someone else, or engaging in cyber sex with another real person, you merely found him engaged in a temporary fantasy that in no way violates your primacy or privacy.
There's another way to prevent this from happening, if it really disturbs you. Create an environment in your marriage where he doesn't feel self-conscious or guilty for doing it - in your presence. Let him be who he is, let him know that you accept him and his sexuality and that if, at some future point, he feels a little more amorous than you do he is free to pleasure himself if he wants. Maybe it's a part of sex that he really enjoys and wishes it didn't have to be the sole domain of celibacy, maybe he would like to incorporate it into your mutual lovemaking but hasn't had the nerve to talk to you about it. Maybe he's very happy with you and your sex life but would like to add a little spice now and then by renting an adult video and watching it together, even if it's just to laugh at some of the bad dialogue or ridiculous plots. Maybe he would just like to know that his wife loves him and trusts him, that she knows he isn't a pervert and knows how much she's loved, and would like to be treated with the respect that a decent, moral man deserves.
In conclusion, here are some general ideas on dealing with pornography if it really bothers you:
If you find your spouse (for the sake of argument, let's say your husband) viewing pornography and/or masturbating:
1) Figure out whether what he's watching is mainstream, harmless entertainment. If it isn't, if what he's watching involves some sort of criminal activity, you have every right to be alarmed. But if it's just your typical "Debbie Does Dallas" sort of thing,
2.)Don't overreact. He's probably already feeling guilty for what he's doing. Getting caught, and knowing that he's freaked you out, will only makes things worse and could escalate the situation into something truly unpleasant. Try to react calmly, or with humor if you can. When the initial discomfort of the situation has abated,
3.)Talk to him. Tell him that you are a little hurt (confused, shocked, whatever) by what he's doing, and that you hope he can ease your mind a little. Ask him to tell you why he's doing this, and tell him he can be brutally honest. Tell him what your main concern is, if you can articulate it ("It makes me think you don't find me attractive enough" or "I'm worried that you want to cheat on me" for example) but don't get hysterical about it. Try to turn it into a gentle, loving conversation where you can tell him your fears and anxieties about it and he can tell you what led him to it. If this goes well
4.)Try to come to some understanding. If he understands that it's the secrecy of it that alarms you, then maybe he'll agree not to hide from you anymore. If you understand that he wants to spice up your love life, then maybe your sex life will improve and he won't need this outlet anymore. If he understands that his behavior worries you a little, maybe he can ease your fears. The bottom line is that a loving couple should be concerned about each other's emotional happiness and eager to stay "in love", with all the closeness and intimacy it brings. And finally,
5.)If he's unwilling to listen to your concerns, if he's determined to keep doing what he's been doing in spite of your rational attempts to communicate your fears to him, and certainly if he ever becomes forceful, violent, disrespectful or neglectful, it's time to make a change. Don't remain with someone who doesn't respect you, but remember always that it isn't pornography that makes him disrespect you.If it weren't pornography it would be something else, so don't fall into the trap of thinking that the symptom is all you have to fight against while the disease goes unchecked.
If you'd like to read some common sense arguments against the hysterical anti-porn movement from Betty Dodson, click here.
There are probably many more areas of marriage that deserve a paragraph or two, but what they all have in common is the need for rationality and common sense. You can apply the same thinking in these scenarios to many other situations that arise regarding marriage, and if you do, you'll likely find that many problems or issues aren't nearly as complicated as you once thought.