The Difficulties of Loving

by Bruce Linton, Ph.D

There is no more difficult task in life than having a satisfying marriage. As we approach Valentine's Day, our "national" holiday for celebrating the one we love, I think a closer look at how we can have a satisfying marriage might be valuable.

Divorce is a well-researched subject, but what it takes for a marriage to endure is less well understood. Many men and women often feel that a personally satisfying marriage is not really possible, that marriage is something you tolerate, in the service of raising children and being a family. Today there are both women and men who feel that the gender differences between the sexes make it impossible to expect that men and women can be emotionally close or intimate. As a family therapist, I have consulted with many couples who have felt their own parents just survived being together but never experienced any real joy or energy in their marriage. Many individuals think they must give up on having a meaningful and fulfilling marriage and accept that raising children and finding some financial stability is the best they can hope for.

Not true! Although marriage is fragile and difficult, it is possible to understand how you can work toward a marriage that is inspiring and satisfying.

Life is difficult today. Economic demands are intense. There are many competitive pressures on our lives. Our lives have become more and more impersonal. A marriage can become a refuge and oasis to help balance the depersonalizing forces assaulting our lives. If a couple chooses to have children, they can make a connection with the continuity of time that raising children brings.

While marriage is both a complex and fragile relationship, perhaps more than at any other time in history, it has become easy to give up on it and leave. Statistics do not look good: 50% of marriages end in divorce. In the past, law, religion, traditions, and family values helped keep people trying to work on their relationships. Today staying married is totally voluntary. The ease of getting a divorce allows couples to quickly and simply decide they want out.

There is no other relationship, no other endeavor we undertake in life that we get less information about than marriage. Little instruction, less information and few role models exist to help guide us through the often stormy waters. Marriage, I believe, is a doorway to a truly deeper understanding of ourselves, as we struggle to make our relationship with our partner work. Being able to acknowledge our conflicts and struggle with those conflicts in the relationship takes courage and hope. The subtle childhood needs we bring to our marriages cause tension and also point to the creative edge of our own personal growth.

We are not prepared for this kind of "work." We are taught to view marriage as something that will bestow "happiness" and "fulfillment" upon us. We are not told that learning to love another person will be difficult, tiring and frustrating. We tend to miss the "cues" that let us know that the problems in the marriage are really attempts to move closer, to be understood better, to be more intimate with our partners.

Marriage is an ongoing, lifelong process of working on something that is greater than either one of the individuals involved. It is more than a commitment to another person. It is a journey with specific landmarks and developmental transitions. Judith Wallerstein and Sandra Blakeslee have outlined nine tasks that every marriage struggles with in their new book, "The Good Marriage." Here are the stages they see a marriage traveling through:

  • Every marriage starts with working out separating from each person's family of origin. There is so much we just assume about life and relationships. Having some psychological understanding of these forces can free us to connect with our partners in a more open and authentic way.
  • The next stage is the struggle with needs for autonomy and togetherness, and with it, the need to balance our domestic life and our need for individual growth as part of the relationship.
  • The third task is struggling with the decision of whether to be or not to be parents. Either road taken can lead to a fulfilling and satisfying life. The task is how the couple works out this important life decision.
  • All relationships have crises, deaths, illnesses and, job losses, and how you work through these is the fourth task.
  • Making a safe place for conflict is the fifth task. Having trust that you can argue with your partner and that both you and the relationship will survive is important in creating this place.
  • Exploring the sexuality of marriage is the sixth task. As a family therapist, I often see couples who come into therapy struggling with this. It seems sexuality often opens discussions to many of the other "tasks" the relationship is working on.
  • Sharing laughter and keeping individual and common interests alive is the seventh task. Finding life stimulating and having a sense of humor is a vital ingredient for longevity in a marriage.
  • The eighth task is providing emotional nurturing. This comes with really feeling that your partner "sees" you. Do you and your partner feel an empathetic connection; being understood for how you feel, free of judgments and criticism.
  • Their ninth and final task is how to provide for a "double vision." This double vision shows us how we see where we started in a relationship and our life now. It also shows us how much can evolve over time in the living a life time with someone.

These "tasks" don't occur in a linear fashion but overlap and recur to be worked on again over the course of time. Wallerstein and Blakeslee have created a terrific map to view marriage where traveling through the countryside of marriage can be a great adventure. Take time with your partner to reflect on how much your relationship has given each of you. Although the "tasks" of marriage are difficult, having committed yourself to loving another person is truly the most noble of all our human endeavors.

For Further self-reflection and discussion:
  1. What "stages" that Wallerstein and Blakeslee describe are you "working through?"
  2. Why is loving another person so difficult?
  3. How do you feel about the way your parents expressed their caring for and "loving" each other in their marriage?

About the author: Bruce Linton, Ph.D. is founder and director of the Fathers' Forum programs for expectant and new fathers. He is a former contributing editor to "Full-Time-Dads" magazines, and columnist for Parents' News in San Francisco, California. He is the author of Finding Time for Fatherhood (Berkeley Hills Books, 2000). Bruce is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapists and received his doctorate for his research on men's development as fathers.

Copyright © Bruce Linton. Permission to republish granted to, LLC.