Let me obliquely relate the outcome of two couples. They both had rather tumultuous dating relationships. Their issues involved trust and stemmed from their childhoods. They married anyways. One relationship ended in divorce. The other continues to grow.
- The first couple was sincerely trying to make their marriage work. They shared a dedication to creating a life together based on very sincere religious values and accompanying lifestyle. Their common mission gave them a lot of strength and helped to pave over some of the rough spots. Communication and consideration of each other's feelings continued to be issues. However, when one of the partners started to rethink their religious commitment, the marriage stated to unravel. Both were very spiritual people. But, when dissatisfaction now arose, try as they might, the love they shared was insufficient to overcome their challenges. They ended up divorcing.
- The second couple were also very sincere in their attempt to make their marriage work. In some ways they were more challenged than the first couple. They had more issues to contend with such as anxiety and financial struggles. They too created their relationship based on being dedicated to creating a religious family. There were frequent disappointments along the way. One of partners did not embrace the lifestyle with as much enthusiasm as the other was expecting. In time, their children started to struggle with their own place in their community. Yet, this couple continued to love each other. And they are striving and thriving to this day.
Why the difference between the two couples? I would like to propose an idea that I've borrowed from a different context. However, I think that it really illuminates a key feature of why some marriages succeed but other ones do not. Moreover, I will try to show why this feature is so important for couples today.
Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, former Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom, in his brilliant book "Not in God's Name," searches for a religious approach that will undo the tearing apart of societies due to the increasing violence being carried out in the name of religious extremism. At one point in the book, he examines the question of social altruism which has posed an intellectual challenge to the selfishness required by Darwinian evolution.
From an evolutionary perspective, how is it that altruism exists? Logically, people who sacrifice themselves for the sake of others will end up producing no children or less children and these genes will disappear from society. Yet, all societies hold altruistic people high regard. Darwin's answer to this conundrum is that while natural selection operates from the perspective of the individual, we live in societies. Sharing and dedication within the society helps the group. Since the individuals in the small groups that formed early societies were related to each other, even if one sacrificed himself for the group, if the group was stronger because of his actions, their children would still carry many of his genes. In other words, altruism was a viable strategy to ensure the distribution of one's genes.
Rabbi Sacks goes on argue that there was a limit to how large a group could be. Each group would compete with nearby communities. Something was needed that would allow trust to develop between the various groups. Enter religion. Smaller social units could create larger societies because shared religious beliefs created both shared expectations and dire consequences to individuals who would not comply with the rules of society. Noncompliance would be punished both in the physical and spiritual worlds.
Larger societies could now form based on these norms. In these societies, marriages were founded on a set of expectations, requirements and prohibitions. Never before, however, has there existed the level of affluence or personal freedom that is now common in developed countries. Back in the day, families and small tightly knit communities were considered essential for survival, both in terms of raising children and in terms of support if you were lucky enough to grow old.
Due to both historical and social reasons, we live in very different societies today. People with all kinds of backgrounds (geographical, social and psychological) develop relationships and marry. They no doubt love each other. But what happens when they don't share a common dream?
Here is the idea I would like to propose: a couple needs a common narrative in order to overcome the stresses of life. There will be times when difficulties will increase. Giving and being considerate are absolutely essential to a healthy marriage. But they may not always be enough.
Why would a couple that love each other but start to differ in their religious outlook move apart and divorce? The same could be said of lifestyle preferences. A couple formed a unit. Why isn't it sufficient to just be kind?
This is where the idea of a shared narrative explains and, in fact predicts, a couple's future. We are willing to be altruistic and sacrifice happiness when we feel that the benefit overrides the cost. Since no relationship is completely without issues, every couple will at times suffer a decrease in the amount of love they experience in their marriage. If social pressure, religious conviction or the general quality of the marriage is sufficiently high, there will be stability during those times. When those factors are not as supportive, the marriage is at greater risk of dissolving.
It is interesting that you can find many couples where the husband and wife have different religious beliefs but these relationships are nevertheless secure. They likely have a very strong narrative of who they are: "We are Jack and Jill and we are united in our pursuit of running up hills. We cherish each other and despite our other differences, we feel blessed to be together." This works. When they encounter an issue that brings stress to their home, they excuse each other's occasional tumbling. They generously apologize and move on because their narrative is very robust: "We are the couple that overcomes."
Another marriage may have people who share many values together. Two seemingly nice people met at the gym and enjoyed their shared high energy levels. They had fun together. Their marriage, however, did not last. Why? Stan was selfish and verbally abusive when upset. Rhoda was short tempered and very self-focused. When their financial situation deteriorated, Rhoda frequently became upset. Stan responded negatively. Fireworks were common. Their shared activities were not a narrative. They were together because it felt good. When it didn't, they separated and eventually divorced. There was no overriding story to keep them together.
If we look back at the two couples at the beginning of this post, we can learn out an important lesson. The first couple shared a narrative that was based on their being representatives of this larger religious lifestyle. When that collapsed, their motivation to be loving and caring also went south.
The second couple felt that they were fortunate to have each other. Despite the issues that they faced, their narrative was larger than their problems: they were the couple that overcame their background; the couple that struggles with their growth. Most importantly, they struggle together.
Is a relationship condemned when narratives are not shared? Let's look at another couple. Alice and Eric liked to party. Weekends were spent getting together with friends, drinking and smoking up. Over time, Alice realized that she was developing an issue with alcohol use. She needed them to change their lifestyle very significantly. But Alice doubted herself. If she would not be a party animal, who would they be as a couple? With trepidation, she shared her needs with Eric. He supported her attempts to stop drinking. He would not, though, give up on his friends.
At this point Alice and Eric had an opportunity to create a new narrative. They could be the couple who overcame a challenge and traded a toxic lifestyle for a healthy one. They would develop other interests and even other friends. Alice desperately needed this. But what did Eric prioritize, his partner or his lifestyle? He chose his lifestyle. Alice felt compelled to accompany Eric to the parties. She struggled to refrain from drinking despite an atmosphere around her that was toxic. Alice was exasperated. She complained to Eric. But he was no longer as interested in being caring. They drifted apart.
When we enter into a relationship, we come with expectations of a purpose together. If partners don't realize that their narratives are different, their chances of long-term success are far lower. On the other hand, even if a couple start our with a shared narrative, but one partner changes their lifestyle, the couple can still modify their narrative and preserve their relationship.
One way to retain their concordance is for both spouses to adopt the new narrative. This might have saved the couple who liked to party. They could have become the couple who meant so much to each other that they created a whole new lifestyle together.
Couples no doubt have sub-narratives, too. On these they can differ. She is into running. He is into sitting. He likes being very casual and wears a t-shirt around the house. She is more formal. But if they appreciate and respect each other because they have a larger narrative, they can succeed. However, when a couple do not have a shared narrative that is larger than the issues they face, their relationship is at risk.
People will use expressions such as 'shared goals' to express their hopes for the future. A couple needs to have a long-term view if it is to try to get somewhere actively. These goals, however, shouldn't be confused with their narrative which is larger. It will encompass how they want to achieve their goals, how they will live in the meantime, why they are making sacrifices and why it's OK that they differ on smaller matters. Their narrative also incorporates alternatives for what will happen if something derails their plans.
What is your shared narrative? What keeps you together when times are tough? Identifying and appreciating your shared narrative will strengthen your marriage.