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Monday, May 5, 2014

The "Perfect Marriage" Travels a Rocky Road

Perfection is an adaptive concept people have built to motivate themselves to greater heights. Of course, nothing is wrong with the desire to strive for flawlessness and to set high performance standards. Many extremely successful individuals employ a concept of perfection to achieve great productivity and superior accomplishment. They view perfectionism as a means to provide the motivation to persevere in the face of discouragement and obstacles. These people understand perfection within reason.

As good as this may seem, many people unfortunately believe that ideals of perfection exist in an absolute, real, and permanent state. In this maladaptive form, perfectionism drives people to attempt to achieve unattainable ideals akin to a supernatural accomplishments. As they pressure themselves to achieve unrealistic goals, striving for perfection inevitably sets them up for disappointment.

Maladaptive perfectionists actually fear imperfection. Unlike those who strive for excellence, perfectionists cannot take mistakes as incentives to work harder. Unhealthy perfectionists consider their mistakes a sign of personal defect. For these people, anxiety about potential failure is the reason perfectionism is felt as a burden. They also tend to dissociate themselves from their flaws, or what they believe are flaws, and become very hypercritical of others.

In its pathological form, perfectionism can be extremely damaging. It can take the form of procrastination when used to postpone tasks and self-deprecation when used to excuse poor performance or to seek sympathy and affirmation from other people.

The Perfect Relationship?

The desire to be perfect ironically dooms many people in loving relationships to ultimate unhappiness. The Maker did not construct humans to be perfect. Instead, like machines, His human creations wear down and need repair. If those in relationships don't realize that certain cogs in their coupling also deteriorate due to constant friction and aging, they will refuse to change and refuse to seek reparation. Then, they view the lack of perfection in their union to be the fault of themselves or of their partner. Of course, blame is applied and relationships can break.

When you think about it, who could tolerate a partner who is perfect? A perfect mate would constantly be concerned about being less than impeccable. Consumed with ideals of precision, that person would find little in others to satisfy their own high expectations. The perfect person would be entirely self-absorbed in egotistical endeavors to maintain a false sense of self.

And, to me, it would be the same with the perception of a "perfect" marriage. Those who believe in a perfect marriage lose all touch with humanity. And, I'm not talking about acknowledging the occasion disagreement or serious crisis. Some naively believe a perfect marriage is one with few problems. In my view, any lasting coupling endures nearly as much stormy weather as it basks in sunny days. Understanding the inevitability of incoming storms is essential to building a union that can withstand the intensity of the rainfall that occurs year after year and to forming shelters that preserve the spousal alliance.

To have an elevated opinion of union can be so detrimental that it may lead to one person leaving the relationship at the first hint of imperfection. Without forgiveness and compromise, any marriage, no matter the initial romantic interest, is either phony or insincere. When I see photos of couples with captions that read something like this: "Forty years together and still in love," I think not of perfect love and soul mates, but rather of patience, adaptability, and mutual hard work.

Young lovers, if I might give you some personal advice based strictly upon my experience, I would offer the following: "Any state of marital happiness in longevity is achieved by mutual agreement and dedication by both spouses to repair inevasible misery, not by blind acceptance that the strength of an unwavering and unchanging love will always bind the union."

I am not belittling Christian vows of wedlock and love; however, I do believe at the time of marriage, the rust has yet to accumulate on the relationship, and most couples have no idea what to do when it does. They, in their loving intoxication, sincerely believe faith alone will suffice. I, for one, don't buy that mere faith and trust in love do this with regularity. The divorce rate proves Christian married couples who take solemn pledges of union do divorce in great numbers. Partnerships that last require both spouses to learn to modify and to adjust their initial concepts of the "perfect marriage."

Some psychologists would say the closest thing to achieving perfection lies in the ability to be fully present. Without any distracting thoughts, measuring or grading themselves, people would be free to really be in the moment. Yet, who can really achieve this? I don't think it is possible to live in this state, and I do know perfectionists couldn't because they would be constantly critiquing the past while replaying their every decision or worrying about their futures.

As far as couples go, seeking vitality seems to be a far better strategy for success than seeking perfection. These days, doing this is usually described by peaking sexual satisfaction with prescriptions, vibrators, and other genital stimulants. But, in fact, revitalizing a marriage involves more of a mind adventure launched by employing the most important organ, the human brain. The brain is the member that rescues relationships during their darkest hours -- it contains storehouses of mystery, novelty, and invention.

Mary Laner, professor of sociology at Arizona State University, studied the marital expectations of unmarried college students. She compared their expectations with those of people who have been married for about 10 years. The significantly higher expectations held by the students, she says, come straight out of the “happily ever after” fantasy.

“'Such irrationality can lead us to conclude that when the ‘thrill is gone,’ or when the marriage or partner doesn’t live up to our inflated ideals, divorce or abandonment of the marriage in some other form is the solution,' Laner says.

“'We think that our partner can meet all our needs, know what we’re thinking, and love us even when we’re not terribly lovable. When those things don’t happen, then we blame our partner,' Laner says. 'We think that maybe if we had a different spouse, it would be better.'”

(Tara Blanv. "The Myth of the Perfect Marriage." Psych Central. 2012)

It seems rather harsh to advise young folks to stop believing in a perfect marriage. Although the advice of accepting the perfect marriage as is myth demands lowering expectations of bliss, it is a necessary lesson for those about to take "the plunge." People who expect too much in the union frequently doom themselves to disappointment.

This impervious demand for unrealistic marriages seems to be happening all around us. The idealistic view of perfection has led so many to a point where they expect one person to meet an impossible volume of needs. It has even made researchers question a promising future for traditional marriage.

According to Laner, "It’s our common lot in this kind of society to place very high expectations on those primary relationships to fulfill all of our needs, to match our dreams, to do everything for us that the seemingly cold outer society doesn’t do."

She believes the move away from tribal or village economies into a mass society also has fostered the sense of individualism; a sense that has had an impact on our expectations.

“When you break away from those kinds of economies and get into more depersonalized societies, you get individualistic thinking,” Laner says. “We tend to think ‘when I marry, this is what I want, these are the expectations I have for getting married.’ More collective thinking would be: ‘when I marry, it will be what’s good for my village.’"

Damn, that idea really puts a monkey wrench into my skull. "Marrying for the village" seems generous enough, but it also seems to suggest others in the village may be needed to fill a person's most basic human needs. Trust and jealousy are such major issues in love that I question whether communal concerns with coupling would improve anything.

Besides, Laner doesn’t foresee that expectations will change.

“Why would we go back to a time when marriage was an economic or political kind of deal? We don’t live in the kind of society where families or tribes or villages want to tie themselves to one another through the marriage bond,” she says. “If anything, we’ll have more individualism and more failed expectations.”

I wholehearted agree with Laner about one of her conclusions. She says, “We don’t adequately prepare anyone for marriage, even though we know that somewhere between 70 and 90 percent of the population is going to be married."

“People expect too much of one another. All that does is cause so many bad relationships,” one of Laner's students says. “People need to be more open-minded and educated more when they’re younger.” I say, "Amen," to that observation.

The Eagles sang, "Love will keep us alive." It's a great, romantic lyric, but it feeds the myth of perfect union. Romance, hot and heavy passion, and undying love are wonderful, beautiful parts of marriage that add to its longevity, yet I still think when the manure hits the instrument producing nasty currents of muck, the resulting emotional bruises and stinking messes require patience and compromise for a return to happiness. And, these virtues can only be applied and allowed to work over a course of time, not on the spur of the moment. Crappy crises between couples are inevitable, so cleanup is a required part of a successful union.

Well, now that I have degraded just about everything sacred in marriage, I might as well leave with one last questionable cliche to extend the metaphor in the last paragraph. Both partners in a marriage must occasionally bite, chew, and swallow equal parts of the old shit "sammitch." Thank goodness, a good marriage has so much other good cuisine. A nasty gob or two every now and then actually reminds us that we don't live in a fantasy world. Striving for perfection is so much better than expecting perfection, and I believe it makes all the difference in the pleasant "taste" of a union. 

"Wasn't marriage, like life, unstimulating and unprofitable and somewhat empty when too well ordered and protected and guarded. Wasn't it finer, more splendid, more nourishing, when it was, 
like life itself, a mixture of the sordid and the magnificent; 
of mud and stars; of earth and flowers; of love and hate and laughter 
and tears and ugliness and beauty and hurt." 
~Edna Ferber, Show Boat, 1926

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