Most people get married or commit to a relationship believing that this is the beginning of the dream of their ultimate happiness.
This commitment provides many with the stimulus to create a family home, a foundation for the raising of children and the eventual accumulation of financial wealth (investments, businesses, retirement funds) as well as years of precious memories with their beloved. I doubt that on that special day, either of the parties are thinking that one day everything they are yet to co-create together will be torn apart and come to a sudden and bitter end.
The facts are that about 4 out of 10 New Zealand couples who make a life long commitment to each other, end up with their dreams shattered and their lives in disarray on average within 13 years of announcing their love and eternal devotion to each other.
For some, the love they once experienced is eroded away gradually like a slow death and, for others, it comes as a sharp realization that their once-blissful relationship has forever changed. The trust, respect and security they once enjoyed has disappeared and the harsh reality kicks in that the love of their life wants the relationship to end, or even worse, is giving the best of themselves to someone else.
Many who “tie the knot” do so accepting that they are making a life long commitment and do so willingly. Why is it then, if there is such good will on the big day, before too long so many people end up to feeling like they have made the biggest mistake of their lives? It is quite common when a relationship is struggling, for people to believe they have married the wrong person and end up seeking out family lawyers, support groups, therapists, and dating sites as attempts to curb the pain, get even, gain access to children and finances, or find another partner with whom they may be better suited.
As a counsellor who works with couples facing difficulties, I can’t help wondering about what often changes in the first few years of committed couple life? What transforms excitement, hope and love to boredom, dread and resentment? How much of these changes are linked in with the signing of a contractual agreement that has death as the only out clause? Why do some relationships struggle?
Why is it that many couples second time around, are adamant that they would rather advocate for an alternative agreement or arrangement, that will have a better chance of keeping the love they experience alive?
Could something within the process of getting married or an equivalent ceremony that binds couples together “forever more”, no matter what, be inadvertently contributing towards the demise of that relationship?
Just think about it for a moment. An intelligent, educated, aware, couple cohabit or get married with the intent of having a family and building a life together. What usually happens? The female partner may decide to get pregnant. As a result, she loses a degree of independence. And often, as a result, her career is sacrificed or suffers. Her source of identity and financial freedom take a hit – all for a life dominated by endless and thankless cleaning, cooking, shopping, child-rearing and on top of that the possibility of also working outside the home.
She is often expected to drive the family station wagon or a car that is definitely not in the same league of her money-earning partner. She may be given a modest budget to stick to. She maybe inadvertently made to feel guilty for spending too much on the children, on her own wardrobe, getting her hair or nails done, or on morning tea with other mums – who are finding their way in a world dictated by suckling and demanding babies with minimal support. At the same time it is perfectly ok for the man (being the main money earner) to shout his mates a round of drinks or even the odd lap dance on a regular basis! Hmmm…..
Much has been written over the last few decades in academic circles about this sense of male privilege, a taken-for-granted sense of entitlement that men across many cultures grow up with. It is almost as if there is an unspoken and unchallenged expectation that women in committed relationships should sacrifice and take up support roles and even keep earning some money, while taking care of the children and all domestic tasks as well.
Some would say that both men and women are conditioned to take up these roles and men are also victims to these dominant gender ideas. They end up working long hours and chasing big dollars to prove their masculinity and potency, or because their partners overtly expect them to. For some men, the expectation of going out and doing battle every day is also a tragic story. But so many find it too emasculating to admit it, let alone do something to address the internal conflict they experience.
I’m not surprised, however, that it is often the women who instigate change in the dynamics of the relationship. They often encourage their male counterparts to couples counselling and the like. Usually they are the ones with more invested in creating an alternative future or a preferred way of cooperating with their male partners. These partners are often oblivious or rather blinded by their position of privilege to see what the problem is, or that there is even a problem at all.
As a counsellor with a special interest in relationships, my thoughts are that we need to move beyond popularized and simplistic understandings of what men and women want, need and expect from each other. Traditional resolution strategies and techniques often sideline the political context that keeps gender struggles alive.
It is my belief that starting to wise up and question how males and females are set up to see each other as the problem, can open up a whole new conversation that holds more hope and possibility about the sort of relationships people prefer to create, rather than the ones that many of us are raised to emulate.
Chris Caruana (B.A., MCoun, NZAC)
271 Kepa Rd, Mission Bay,
Auckland 1071, New Zealand