Many of us who came of age in the era of divorce and public-square adultery don't truly believe in happily-ever-afters. Some are willing to settle for close-enough-ever-after. A growing number don't see the point in making promises that seem to be so easily broken.
Who wants to end up in a bitter or resentful lifelong commitment? Or even worse -- as soul mates who eventually become emotionally distant roommates?
Psychologist Mark O'Connell has reframed the notion of marriage. He argues that staying married has the potential to fundamentally transform our innermost selves, helping us find deeper meaning and purpose in our lives. O'Connell is a clinical instructor in psychology at Harvard Medical School and a marriage therapist. His new book, The Marriage Benefit: The Surprising Rewards of Staying Together (Springboard Press, $23.99), is based on his 25 years of working with couples.
He's the marriage therapist you wish you had. While many of us would simply settle for better cooperation -- fewer fights about money, chores or better listening skills -- O'Connell challenges us to reach for more in our most intimate relationship. Marriage is about more than negotiating our daily to-do lists or a competition of who's right or wrong.
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"I could help people get along better,'' he said, "but they weren't necessarily happier.''
So, how exactly do we mine our marriages for our own happiness and personal growth? Not surprisingly, it requires some painfully honest self-awareness and a willingness to trust, talk and truly listen to your spouse. It may require us to make a connection from the traumas of own our childhoods, looking at our relationship with our parents and those shortcomings to realize how those same fears replay in our grown-up relationships. I was a little skeptical of being able to analyze my relationships as described in parts of this book.
But as I did, I realized it cast my husband and our recurrent battles over cleaning the kitchen in a new light. I may not be able to keep the counters clean, but I wanted my husband to realize how much I struggled just to get decent meals on the table while working all week. It wasn't a power play, it was a desire to be heard.
These sorts of realizations won't "fix'' a marriage, O'Connell said in a recent phone interview. But, it can make you more open to understanding what you're feeling and why.
"In really subtle ways, it will cause you to feel differently toward the other person, who will respond a bit differently,'' he explained.
It seems paradoxical to make the case for marriage by falling back on the narcissistic fixations in our current culture: "What's in it for me?'' "How is this about me?'' But, O'Connell's message focuses on the opposite: "We can have a stronger sense of self by being less self-centered,'' he said. By being more open, interested and willing to change, we will learn more about ourselves than we normally choose to face.
By using real-life examples from the couples he's counseled, O'Connell offers this advice: Turn off the television an hour earlier. Spend that time in your spouse's arms, talking to each other as if you were strangers who had just met. Really listen, engage and you may be surprised by who you meet.
And as my husband has suggested, once in a while, use paper plates.