When I wrote this there was a royal wedding fast approaching. I thought it would be interesting to consider what advice could be given to any young couple approaching marriage. If we bring together psychological, sociological and philosophical work on relationships, as well as the experiences of relationship therapists, what are the key things that we could offer to people on the point of tying the knot?
Perhaps the first thing to say is that, whilst a royal wedding is rather an extreme situation, it also illustrates very well some wider patterns that are present in relationships today. Many commentators have linked their wedding to the recession, and certainly marriage is often found to be an almost ‘recession proof’ industry. When things are bad economically, people still want to get hitched.
Also, the desire to wed remains despite our knowledge of the high chances of the marriage ending at some point. In terms of UK statistics, one in ten marriages will not last five years, and somewhere between a third and a half will eventually end in divorce (more exact statistics are difficult due to yearly fluctuations). Of course, there is probably even more pressure on in the case of the royal wedding, due to the high rates of separation in the royal family (three out of four of the Queen’s children having been divorced).
So what does it mean that people are choosing to marry despite all of this? Perhaps it speaks to a great deal of hope that is being placed on romantic love, to the extent that some have suggested that it is almost a new religion in its own right. At a time when work is precarious, and when many people do not have strong religious beliefs, relationships are often the place that they turn to seek out validation, meaning and belonging. This is quite a change from past times when relationships generally served more practical purposes to do with finance, work and the raising of children. As historian, Stephanie Coontz, puts it: ‘people have always loved a love story. But for most of the past our ancestors did not try to live in one’. These days we do try to live in a love story, seeking out The One and hoping for a happily-ever-after despite all the evidence against this being the most likely outcome.
The pressure is on relationships to fulfil us in every way throughout our – increasingly long – lives. However, we also know that relationships are a point of great potential struggle and pain. Living up close alongside somebody for many, many years may be one of the most difficult things that any of us do. Indeed, Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson argue that romantic relationships are the most dangerous places to be because they are where we are forced to confront ourselves and to learn about how we are capable of behaving. It might be possible to keep up a shiny, happy veneer with our work colleagues, our neighbours, and even our families once we are no longer living with them, but our partner gets to see us when we are at our most tired, stressed and ill.
This is something that is well captured in the Christian wedding vows. It really will be for better and worse, richer and poorer, sickness and health, and at the worse, poorer and sicker times we all (us and our loved ones) have the capacity for cruelty, coldness and cowardice. There will be times when we find ourselves frustrated, angry and bored with the love of our life and scared about what that may mean, as well as times when we see the loving gaze slip off their own faces to be replaced by something else. Such times can be terrifying if we have invested in this relationship the idea that it is a constant validation that we are okay and secure. It can be even harder if what we were expecting was some kind of constant perfection and happiness.
This may sound depressing and defeatist: an argument for not marrying at all, but it is not. Even if we didn’t get married, or form romantic partnerships, we would still get intimate and connected to people, and these struggles would still arise. What I am arguing against are the industries that continue to sell us dangerous myths of perfect people and eternal happiness: the ever-smiling billboard, television and movie couples, and the self-help books and magazines that promise to reveal the secrets of ‘successful’ relationships which will lead to impossibly happy-ever-afters. This is what so many publishers, advertisers and film-makers sell, because they know that people want to hear it. But our constant saturation in these messages is the very thing that is leading to so much pain and struggle and heartache. And the image of the perfect love may well result in us leaving a relationship too quickly assuming that there must be something wrong with it, or staying in a tough relationship too long because we don’t want to admit to ‘failure’.
Perhaps instead of loading all these expectations and pressures onto every marrying couple we could offer something different: a recognition that relationships will be tough at times and that there aren’t any simple tricks to constant happiness. As Beck and Beck-Gernsheim have pointed out, along with wanting a great deal from relationships, relationships themselves have changed so much in the last few decades that we can feel lost and uncertain. Old rules, for example about rigid gender roles in relationships, no longer apply, but there are no new rules out there for us to follow either. As they put it: ‘love is becoming a blank that lovers must fill in themselves’.
If love is a blank then the thing that is, perhaps, most needed to fill in that blank is communication. The wedding gift that we might give to couples, based on all the relationship therapy and research about relationships, would be communication.
A Wedding Gift: Communication
I’ll use the wedding vows that royal couples make to demonstrate both the importance of communication these days, and also the ways in which it might work. We make a lot of explicit, and implicit, promises to each other all the way through relationships, but we often fail to think much about what these promises mean, or to check whether they mean the same thing to both people. Research suggests that young couples actually often disagree quite strongly about the things that they thought they had both signed up to.
Royal wedding vows are the ones from the Church of England 1662 Book of Common Prayer. This means that they will go something like this:
‘I, xxx, take you, xxx, to be my wife, to have and to hold from this day forward; for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and cherish, till death do us part; according to God’s holy law. In the presence of God I make this vow.’ (and vice versa)
And later: ‘With this Ring I thee wed, with my body I thee worship, and with all my worldly goods I thee endow.’
There are a lot of promises in there. To pick out some key ones, it seems that in marriage people are promising the following:
- To stay together, through whatever happens, till death
- To love each other throughout this time To have, or belong to, each other
- To be sexual throughout the relationship (with my body I thee worship)
- To share their worldly goods (usually understood as living together and sharing money)
In terms of the first promise, it might be useful – giving the statistics on separation – for couples to talk through this commitment. Would they want to stay together in exactly the same way, for example, if they found that they were fighting all the time in ways that hurt themselves and those close to them, or if one or both of them changed such that they found themselves with very different life goals. Some recognition that people and relationships change over time would be helpful here, and perhaps thinking about what they might do when such changes happen. Would the relationship staying in its current form be prioritised over their well-being? The idea that relationships can shift and change might take the pressure off a little as it offers something in between staying together exactly as we are, or completely ending the relationship.
In terms of loving each other throughout, it is worth talking through what love means to each person and how they express it, or like to have it expressed. People often feel very differently about this, for example, with one person liking regular declarations of love and big romantic gestures, whilst the other prefers practical signs that the other person has taken them into consideration (by doing the washing up, for example), or thinks about them during the day (the odd text message).
In terms of having and holding, it is very important to consider to what extent people belong to each other and to what extent they are free. This is at the root of so many big relationship conflicts. For example, one person might make a decision about their career which the other would have expected to be consulted upon, or one might think that they were free to be closer to certain friends than the other is happy with.
There is also often an expectation that marriages will stay sexual throughout, but there tends to be very little communication about what sex means to each person and what they actually enjoy. Research has found that people who have been in relationships for over a decade still haven’t told their partners all of their sexual likes and dislikes, and of course these can change over time. It is useful to talk through what people want sex for, which actually differs quite a lot (e.g. from a release, to an affirmation of their attractiveness, to a reassurance about the relationship, to an expression of intimacy, to a sense of a physical need that requires regular fulfilment), and also recognise that this will fluctuate through the relationship too.
Finally, it is well worth communicating about what will be shared and what will be separate. Does sharing worldly goods mean having joint finances, for example, or keeping some separate? Do we expect to spend all our time together, or to have periods of separation? What are the limits on what would be acceptable (e.g. can we go on holiday with other people, or work apart for a while)? And what about space? Are we planning to live together, sleep together? Will there be any separate space? Who will be responsible for keeping shared space clean and tidy (and to what extent)? Or for caring for children, pets or plants? Will we have any things we keep private (e.g. certain activities or information)?
It is likely that with all these kinds of questions and more, there will be some aspects that both people agree on, some where they disagree but are able to reach a compromise which meets each other’s requirements as well as possible, and some where they simply can’t agree. These last ones occur in every relationship. They are points of tension which are likely to crop up every now and again, but can be a lot easier to cope with if there is awareness of them and respect for difference (rather than each person trying to force the other into their way of thinking). It can be very hard to respect that, while you would like to share everything, the other person really values keeping some things to themselves, or while you like lots of public displays of affection and ‘I love you’s’, the other person prefers more private intimacy. Also, of course, both people will change over time, so it is worth revisiting these promises and seeing whether things have altered and any renegotiation is necessary, rather than ‘you’ve changed’ being a fatal accusation.
Hopefully a grounding of mutual commitment to communication, to respect for difference and change, and to understanding and forgiveness for behaviour when things get tough, will be a better basis for the rough and the smooth to come, than the expectation of perfection (in oneself and one’s partner) and a fairytale happily-ever-after.