Why are so many people unhappy in their relationship?
That’s a hard question to answer, although that doesn’t stop people from trying to figure it out.
According to Dana Adam Shapiro’s research for his book, You Can Be Right (or You Can Be Married), very few married people are happy — he says about 17 percent. What derails their marriage? A lack of communication, dishonesty, and adultery are among the top problems, he notes.
One poll finds that about six in ten of us are unhappily coupled, four out of ten say they have considered leaving their partner and one in ten don’t even trust their partner anymore.
The poll goes on to detail the most-mentioned problems, the top five being lack of spontaneity, lack of romance, terrible sex life, no time to give each other attention, and lack of time to talk.
Instead of a poll, I thought I’d venture over to the Experience Project to read the real-person responses to a question “Why are so many people unhappy in marriage?”
Here are snippets of the 140 answers:
• “Finances and unmet expectations.”
• “Marriage isn’t natural. It isn’t really natural for a person to WANT to be permanently bonded to someone, with no real option of getting out (without a lot of trouble). Society and cultural norms and history have made marriage something that seems totally normal, when in reality, only certain types of people and certain types of personalities are going to be naturally able to make marriage work. Everyone else is going to have to work at it.”
• “People getting married when they shouldn’t: too early, not compatible, etc. If you’re bored after a few years of marriage it’s definitely not gonna work. A real lifelong relationship should have many stages.”
• “I’ve been against marriage because I had the idea that my parents are suffering so much in it and I hated the idea of being so miserable. The funniest thing is that they actually get along really well, the problem was in the image movies and fairytales give about marriage — happily ever after, endless romance etc.”
• “I suspect that a large chunk of the unhappiness can be traced back to dubious reasons for getting married in the first place. That is, the foundation of the troubled relationship is fragile and built on superficialities such as watching the same shows, loving the same favorite band, or even the theatrics of having a wedding itself.”
• “If more marriages are failing right now, I’d say the number one cause is our lack of knowledge of how to build and maintain one — not that we aren’t suited for it.”
• “Because people don’t want to accept that relationships are work.”
• “People just assume too much; they fill in the blanks with what they want to believe rather than having the hard conversations to find out for sure. Or they don’t know themselves well enough to be able to answer truthfully if the right questions are asked.”
• “If they view a relationship as the end result goal in itself, rather than a beginning of new types of opportunity, then what?”
• “People are unhappy in marriage because they do it for the wrong reasons. If you choose to be married, you have to maintain your own identity and be willing to communicate and make known what your needs and wants are and be willing to listen to those of your spouse. It isn’t all about you, you need to compromise, but at the same time know what your boundaries are and be comfortable enough to be able to stay true to who you are while allowing someone else in. It’s difficult, It’s work.”
• “Not all people are cut out for marriage in the first place, even if they take the time to make things work. Some people seem to have this natural resilience, where they can remain faithful and loyal to one person without becoming extremely bored, so that their eyes aren’t wandering. Other people seem less resilient by nature and just give in to feelings of boredom and discontentment, as perhaps they need more than one person every few years. For these people, marriage just isn’t something for them. It’s a social construct which merely forces them to suppress their natural tendencies and feel socially inadequate.”
• “It sounds cliche but I think that if both people had great relationships with themselves before they got married, there would be a better chance the relationship would work out. If you depend on someone else to make you feel complete, when they don’t live up to your expectation, you will just end up resenting them, when really it is your own issue.”
• “I find that communication is a huge factor in any relationship and I think the lack of communication along with finances, stress, infidelity and any sort of negativity can ruin a marriage in a heartbeat.”
• “There’s so much societal pressure to have a bf/gf as a means to validation and self-worth that it’s not hard to figure out how horrible marriages result.”
• “A society that teaches independence instead of interdependence and also, teaches that emotional vulnerability is a weakness.”
• “If a couple told me they’re married I subconsciously question how much of the relationship was based on free will versus societal and parental pressures/expectations.”
• “In a lot of cases, a person will try to alter their partner, who they see as kind of fitting the mold of their ‘ideal partner,’ they just need a little bit of fixing and it will make them both happier.”
You’ll find similar responses over at City-Data Forum, along with, “My spouse is more like a roommate (friend, maybe, I’m not sure) than a lover these days. We just exist in the same house, and that’s it.”
So, we have the whole shebang — unrealistic expectations (including a need for “romance”), communication issues, societal and internal pressures, and the lack of knowledge of how to maintain a healthy marriage. How do these responses stack up in your own relationship?
Which brings up the question of whether we are expecting our relationship to make us happy, or whether we are bringing our happiness into our relationship. I wish it were as simple as that, but it appears to be much more complex; even happy people with fulfilling lives can marry and find out that they made a mistake — and then feel trapped in a marriage that crushes their spirit.
What Susan Pease Gadoua and I are trying to do in our book, The New I Do: Reshaping Marriage for Cynics, Commitaphobes and Connubial DIYers, is get people to marry more consciously and avoid these problems, plus create marital models that set them up for success. As Shapiro says, “I don’t think a marriage that ends in divorce is a failure. It could be good, loving, you raise kids together, and maybe 20 years down the line it’s not working, and that’s okay.”
We’re saying that, too.
Beyond that, I do think people need help understanding how to maintain a healthy relationship for the long haul. We are able to do that with friends — generally. Can we glean things from those relationships to make our romantic relationships work better? And that might be related to what someone notes above: our society encourages independence, and that creates conflict with intimacy (which Andrew Cherlin explores in his book, The Marriage-Go-Round).