Why Marriages Fail

During a recent session, a couple who had been married for about five years decided to end their relationship. The wife told the husband very matter-of-factly, saying that “they had simply grown apart and couldn’t stop fighting.” Neither he nor I were surprised given they we had spent almost a year working on their relationship with no improvement in their ability to resolve conflicts or even increase their interest in spending time together. And, although the reality of the words ‘I want a divorce’ initially made him very anxious and distressed, he agreed that they were no longer happy together and didn’t see the point in continuing as well.

Couples in therapy split up more often than you might think. Couples therapy has a horrible track record for two reasons: one is that the couple usually waits far too long to seek help, long after arguments have gotten out of hand and the dyad has drifted in directions that can’t be saved. The other is that “therapy success” is often measured by whether or not the couple stays together. Unfortunately couples often arrive for therapy with some knowledge that the relationship is either hanging by a thread or even that one or both members is seeking a sort of permission to dissolve the connection. In this case a good therapist helps the couple to acknowledge that separation is the best course of action and that it can be done somewhat amicably and respectfully.

The couple who decided to divorce marks the third time in my career I’ve seen a relationship end in session. The first was in graduate school when an extremely young couple – each about age 19, with a child – decided to break up after realizing their youth was preventing them from making a meaningful commitment that could withstand another 60 years. The second occurred during my post-doctoral training when a middle-aged husband left his wife for a significantly younger woman. This couple had been having trouble for well over ten years. At that time I thought I had failed as a therapist. My supervisor, a Psychologist in her late 60’s, pointed out that I was being naïve, not only about the notion that “therapy can fix everything,” but also that “every marriage isn’t meant to go the distance.”

“Sometimes all you can do is give your blessing to a couple that it’s time to move on,” she said. “There’s no shame in that and it’s your professional obligation to do so.” Some might view this as a controversial take on marital therapy, especially Christian counselors, but the reality is it’s unethical to try to force a square peg into a round hole. If people are miserable together, the shrink’s position is to help them separate and live happier lives apart.

The couple’s recent separation got me thinking more about why marriages so often don’t work out. Depending on where you get your numbers, one in two new marriages ultimately end up in divorce. Statistics are dubious entities and this number can vary wildly depending on your source, but even as a simple approximation, a 50% divorce rate is a scary proposition. There is some fluctuation in this number depending on certain demographics: a lower divorce rate is seen in those who are college-educated, as well as those who wait until they are over age 30 before getting married. If you marry in your teens or early 20’s your risk of the relationship dissolving goes through the roof.

What makes this “1 in 2” figure even more sobering is the implication that the 50% of marriages that remain intact are happy ones. I see both individuals and couples who remain in the relationships for a plethora of reasons: financial, religious, a belief that it benefits the children, a belief that one doesn’t deserve better, fear of being alone or simply a lack of desire to deal with the legal red tape. If we look for the number of “successful” marriages that include both a formal retainer as well as mutual satisfaction we are considering a fairly low number that hasn’t been well established in the clinical literature.

With respect to obvious precipitating factors for divorce such as abuse, addictions or adultery, let’s focus on some of the most salient reasons why marriage can be such a difficult business, as well as some things that can help those relationships thrive:

1) Marriage requires compatibility not just at the point of saying ‘I do,’ but across the entire life span.

You won’t be the same person in five, ten, or twenty years. Your goals, ideals, perspectives and interests can all change as you evolve. This isn’t a bad thing. However, as you move along your adulthood as an ever-changing being, your spouse is doing the same thing. Two people who marry at 25 won’t be the same people at 35 or 45, so your compatibility over the lifespan requires that you both evolve in mutually beneficial ways. This is no easy task and is why you often hear of couples ‘growing apart,’ or one partner saying ‘he/she isn’t the person I married.’ Like the couple who recently split up, neither of them were the same people from five years ago. Couples need to realize that they will both change and have to strive for changes that allow them to remain connected in a viable way.

The best way to address this together is to first acknowledge the issue. Couples who are considering marriage should ask themselves and each other: where could one of us be in a year, three years, thirty years? What are the potential barriers to us ‘growing old together?’ What will we do if one of us drastically strays from our current plan? You don’t need to have definite statements, but answers such as “don’t worry, that won’t happen” will not suffice. There needs to be an acknowledgment that a real deviation could occur for one or both partners and that, ideally, it will be discussed and managed together.

This may sound overly scientific, but picture your self-growth as a vertical line advancing upwards with deviations to the left and right. Those deviations could include a change in job focus, a loss of sexual attraction, a newfound desire to have a child (or perhaps more children) or a new area in which you wish to live. Your partner has a similar line and it will move as well, also forward and left/right. If those lines don’t remain at least somewhat parallel to each other over the adult life span, the relationship will become unsatisfying.

2) Assuming that marriage implies monogamy, the institution itself is counterintuitive to biology.

Most species are not hardwired to be with one partner and humans are not different. You’re programmed to be producing with different partners. Almost invariably people report that they often feel a sexual attraction to others who are not their spouse. While most don’t act on those drives, many people view this as a sign that ‘the marriage is not meant to be’ or that the relationship is inherently flawed. This usually happens around the time when sexual excitement wanes and it becomes harder to live a passionate lifestyle in the bedroom. This realization of a damaged relationship isn’t necessarily accurate simply because our make-up promotes the seeking out of new mates. What people need to realize is that the ideal marriage is striving for a greater good than can be obtained in lieu of multiple sex partners. But make no mistake: marriage is a man-made institution, not a natural one. Without an appreciation for the magnitude of commitment prior to starting the marriage, both sexual and emotional, a person can become disenchanted very quickly.

3) There is far too much emphasis on ‘weddings’ as opposed to ‘marriages.’
Pretend that I could marry you and your perfect mate (real or imagined) right now. By simply reading this paragraph, you are married. For women this means no ring, friends, family, flowers, dress, undivided attention or celebration of any kind. For men this means no bachelor party, tuxedo, strippers or Best Man. Neither of you would even be signing papers down at City Hall. Just this and you’re legally committed. Do you still want to be married to this person right now?

If you said ‘no’ or hesitated for more than a few seconds before replying you’re immediately setting yourself up for failure. Don’t confuse the terms ‘wedding’ and ‘marriage.’ Your wedding occurs on Day 1, but your marriage is every single day after that. Can you name any other situation where one would hyperfocus on less than .001% of the pie? Unfortunately, women (and some men) are taught that the wedding day is the most important thing in a person’s life. You don’t need to watch Bridezillas or Rich Bride, Poor Bride to know how inherently self-absorbed people can become when it comes to their wedding because of the magnitude placed on it. It’s a person’s 15 minutes of fame. But the price tag with that comes with that fleeting moment of glory can be colossal. Unless you are fully prepared to be with your partner regardless of the means to get there you’re missing the point of the institution.

4) Many couples do not know how to fight fairly.

This is somewhat cliché in the shrink world but true nonetheless. There are countless books and therapeutic approaches on this topic that go beyond the scope of a single blog post but the long and short of it is that any successful long-term relationship will have its fair share of conflict. This is a natural aspect of emotional intimacy. But too many people shy away from raising their voices or asserting their needs to each other for multiple reasons: fear of abandonment, a belief that fighting is a sign that the relationship is failing, an inherent desire to not be like other couples who are constantly screaming at each other, etc. At the other extreme, there are couples who simply can’t control their emotions, where every day brings a new, explosive battle in the relationship. And of course there are always relationships where one partner is a fighter and the other a peacekeeper. Fair, balanced fighting is an art that many couples simply can’t master. It involves a mutual respect for both your own and your partner’s emotional state, a verbal working through of the feelings and issues, and a resolution (although, as discussed, this resolution does not always come immediately). No shrink would promote verbal or physical abuse in a relationship but those worth their salt know that anger and its expression are part of the human condition and shouldn’t always be suppressed. When they are over a long period of time, resentment and a lack of fulfillment results.

One technique that helps couples was taught to me by a supervisor in graduate school. She called it the Mirror Trick. It works like this: before you approach your partner with a grievance, take a mental peek into the mirror. What aspect of yourself, what issues or ‘stuff,’ either past or present, are you bringing to the discussion about this problem? For example, if you don’t like the amount of time your partner spends with friends, ask yourself “what does his/her spending time away from me mean to me specifically?” It could be an issue of feeling inferior to them or unwanted, something that cuts beyond the core of “a man/woman needs to be home with his/her spouse.” If you can ‘look in the mirror first’ you can then approach your partner with the grievance in the form of your personal idiosyncrasy with the issue as opposed to simply pointing the finger. This will often decrease defensiveness and lead to a more productive outcome. Consider: “When you spend such a large amount of time with your friends, it taps into my fears that you don’t want to be with me. I feel inferior to them.” Compare this with: “I hate it when you’re with your friends so much. You need to be home more.” Which approach is more likely to get the more productive response?

I’ll fill you in on a little known secret: many couples that don’t ever fight eventually don’t have sex either. Why? They are both forms of passion. If you give up one form of intensity you’ll ultimately leave the other as well. It may take many years, but couples have reported this problem to me time and time again.

5) Marriages solve problems.

No, marriages amplify problems. I can’t count the number of times individuals and couples in the office have said “once we got married I assumed he would stop putting me down,” or “after the wedding day I assumed she would want to have sex more often.” A ring or a marriage certificate doesn’t improve an individual’s insecurities, solve problems or alter personalities. The increase in physical proximity and time spent together will probably increase any issues you already have.

The fact that you have problems isn’t a reason to not get married; rather, it’s a sign to start to address those difficulties and not assume they will ‘take care of themselves.’

6) People settle for less than what they want.

Society puts a colossal pressure on people, especially women, to be married. Without a partner many people wonder “what’s wrong with her?” Some of this thought process is natural, as humans are social creatures and we have a natural tendency to come together with another. But many people who enter their 30’s or beyond without having been married are perceived as flawed, or at least weird. Because of society’s demands many make a decision to get married based on flawed reasoning: to have children, to not be alone, to find someone who fits an arbitrary mold or to satisfy their parents and society’s demands. If you are making a lifelong decision to meet ulterior motives, it’s not likely to bring to you much happiness.

7) Couples assume they are immune to reasons 1-6 and believe that hard work isn’t part of the deal. They think that love, sex, children or some combination thereof will be enough.

Research suggests that only 10% of couples maintain that intense “puppy love” experience years into their partnership*. Whether or not that bliss can sustain a marriage in and of itself is up for debate, but the reality is that for most couples, no force other than mutual effort can power a relationship. And if you refuse to buy into the idea that marriage is work, that your feelings will simply carry you through, you’ll ultimately be disappointed. A partnership of such intensity requires a commitment to building and nurturing it. It’s not unlike your physical body: without a decent diet, exercise and various lifestyle issues (e.g., not smoking, keeping alcohol in moderation) you will decay at a rate much faster than nature might want. Your marriage requires maintenance and effort as well or else it will collapse. I’ve had couples say to me, “that’s so unromantic. It shouldn’t be work, we should be able to do this naturally if we truly love each other.” While I wish I could agree with them on that score, it’s simply not reality, and this viewpoint is the precipitator for so many of the marital problems seen today.

The goal of this post isn’t to create a ‘doom and gloom’ notion of marriage. In fact, successfully married couples often tell me it’s the greatest decision they’ve ever made. Rather, this information is to empower people who are considering marriage and to help those who are struggling with their current marriage take a fresh view at what might need to be done. For those who can’t seem to move past their problems in their relationships, for whatever reason, I would recommend seeing a professional therapist with some experience in working with couples. As mentioned previously, the sooner you can begin that process, the better, as my personal experience has shown that couples who don’t wait to seek out help have better outcomes than those who come in as a last resort. Rarely does a person say that saying a marital therapist prove pointless, even if he/she can only say “this helped me to see that it wasn’t going to work out between us.” I would also recommend an excellent book entitled Love is Never Enough by Aaron Beck. This is a practical guide to helping couples navigate through communication problems commonly seen in committed relationships.

* Why this is the case is not entirely clear, but many believe there is a strong biochemical component to this.

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P.S. If you are interested in contributing to a research study on attitudes toward marriage, click here. I know the student involved would be very appreciative.

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76 Responses to “Why Marriages Fail”

  1. Tam says:

    I am probably going to end up marrying the man I’m with now – things are really good. I wonder how hard it will be, ultimately. I really don’t know.
    My therapist has said more than once that contempt is the real destroyer in relationships, and I know in the past I’ve become increasingly contemptuous of partners over time. I worry about that.
    On the other hand, our skills at conflict addressing and resolution (by both fighting and other means) are freakishly good.

  2. Maggy says:

    Just…wow DocRob. This post blew me away. Thanks for all the great advice!

  3. Jim Johnson says:

    I’m too young to actually comment on any of the specifics of this post, but just let me say that it was a great reminder of the range you have as a writer. Most of your posts seem to be a mix of knowledge, self-deprecation, and humor, but this is one is just straight to the point. Good job.

  4. Anonymous says:

    This was a great post Dr. Rob, I really liked it. I am only 25 and my husband is 44 and most people have said from the beginning that we wont make it. But so far we have done everything you have said in this article. Even right down to the marriage part, we chose not to have a wedding, we went to the court house and we didnt even buy rings at the time. We felt that having rings and a bunch of people see us get married was not the point of getting married. We also didnt want to spend the extra money at the start of our new life together. We have been together for almost 5 years, we have two kids and one on the way, we don’t have real fights but we do express our feelings and what we need to each other, but choose to never say anything bad about each other, and keep our arguments private. And the one commitment we made in the beginning is that we will never use the word divorce in a fight, it will never be said unless we are actually filing for divorce. Almost 5 years later we actually have rings now, I got mine before he got his, but we are the happiest couple we know, and it does take a lot of work!

  5. Tracie says:

    Great post, Rob. I love seeing thoughtful articles on this subject. I’m at the point in my relationship where the idea of marriage is looming in the distance. Aside from struggling with the usual gender/generational hangups, I’m really enjoying just hanging back and letting things happen without worrying “Oh my God, are we going to get engaged soon?”. It’s surprisingly difficult at times to keep myself unspastic, but when I can manage it it’s pretty great.
    You have covered the topic indirectly at a few points in the post, but is there anything else you would say to people who are considering getting married?

  6. Joe says:

    Enjoyed the post, especially the part about conforming to other people’s expectations. Is it unethical for a therapist to encourage people to enter into a prenup or postnup? Or to tell them both to get lawyers?
    Family law was not a very difficult class for me. The standards of review are very deferential to the trial court, to the point of effectively escaping review in some instances. When you pair that up with attorneys who get paid by the hour and people who genuinely hate each other, the result is hostility, dishonesty, and base tactics. None of that is healthy. While prenups especially have gotten a black eye, a solid prenup or post nup can truncate the divorce process and, if done before there is real animosity, protect both parties from excessive legal fees and the hard feeling that emerge from a really messy split.
    I’m curious about the therapist’s take on this, since you have a realistic point of view, and not a hearts-and-flowers, can’t we all get along, or Christian divorce is a sin outlook.

  7. If you want some more good research, check out Dr. James Bray’s (of APA Presidential fame) research into divorce.
    I believe accountability is often the root of many marriage problems; I spoke a bit to this in a recent blog if you are interested:

    Glasser’s Choice Theory

  8. K-Dog says:

    Most marriages fail nowadays because women have preconceived expectations of what they can achieve based on false expectations set up by the world around them. They can not all be Kelly Ripa but yet they all think they can and then when reality sets in they fall apart.

  9. Ender says:

    So, as a guy who’s currently trying to pick up a woman in the midst of divorce who got married when she was way too young, what advice would you offer? Is there any merit in that old cliche “I’ll be there for you?”

  10. Limoncello says:

    Dr. Rob, I was so absorbed in today’s awesome post that I burned my nephew’s dinner. Please send pizza money.

  11. Anonymous says:

    How do you fix #1?
    You can’t predict it, even if you talked about it before wedding…
    Do you call it quits?
    It only takes one person to feel/grow this way, what about the other person?
    No one has done anything wrong… right?
    Does one person just suck it up?

  12. Amber says:

    I wish I knew at 17 what I know now at 25. A couple nights ago I cried to my husband and told him I don’t know if I’m in love with him anymore. It was the hardest thing I’d had to do in a long time.
    Thank you for this post. Again…wish I had seen it years ago.

  13. irishnbritish@aol.com says:

    Great job, Rob. This post puts into words everything I’ve ever thought about marriage over the years. Everything.
    I also think, when people are contemplating marriage, there’s a ‘possessive’ thing that goes on sometimes too. I tend to find some people often have too much of a desire to call the other person “my wife” or “my husband” and it’s often for the wrong reasons. To me, both of those labels create an immediate image about what ‘a wife’ or ‘a husband’ is in our heads. We can’t help it or fight it though, we’ve been conditioned, over centuries, to see what we see when we hear those words. To me, what my brain always conjures up is something from the 1950’s mixed with a little Stepford Wives… and, it always seems to involve oven-gloves! Yikes! Anyway, anyway, this is certainly not something that screams ‘partnership’ in my brain. More like ‘ownership,’ if I’m being entirely honest.
    Ultimately, with images such as these permeating our subconscious, surely the other person will always fail to live up to you ideal of what ‘a wife’ or ‘a husband’ is? I guess some people (the one-in-a-million who are right for one another, or those who are wise enough to adapt accordingly) are flexible enough to adapt and reassess their views, if marriage is not everything they hoped it would be. But, in my opinion, most people just can’t do this and therefore marriages fail as a consequence. Plus, if people really thought about it long enough, surely ‘a wife’ or ‘a husband’ is not really something people truly want, anyway? It’s certainly not something I want.
    What I want is someone who brings as much to the relationship as I do. That is all. I prefer it when the title “my girlfriend” moves on to become “my partner.” This description, of whom and what this other person in your life is, sounds so much more like a relationship of true egalitarianism to me. Surely this is what people want? What the word partner says to me is, “I actually really, really want to be with this person… because I love and respect them.”
    ‘Girlfriend’ is fine for a time, but if the relationship is going to move further, then ‘partner’ is what I’d be striving for – certainly not ‘wife.’ Girlfriend is almost a little frivolous and immature sounding after a while. Hmmm, maybe that’s another reason why people decide to marry? They can always change it to partner, though. Partner has a much more serious and grown-up air about it. Oh yeah, and it even sounds much sexier too!


    Hey, why does my post say ‘anonymous?’ It took me bloody ages to type all that dross into those five paragraphs! Pfft!

  15. Nadia says:

    I’ve seen relationships where so much crap has passed that nothing can be done, like you said — I get why it’s recommended that people have couples counseling before they get married, not once the problems start.
    I think that all of these points can be added to any serious relationship, such as a friendship or one with a family member. If the person you’re dating cannot get along with their friends/family in these ways, then they aren’t going to change because of a few rings. They only know how to have relationships of any kind in one way.

  16. Wayland says:

    A few years ago my parents went to Christian Families Today for marriage counseling and they got through the really rough spot they had. They seem to be doing really well now.

  17. Kosta says:

    With regards to your #1 point:
    I recently ended a relationship that was growing serious on the surface of which nothing appeared wrong. People asked me, wondering what terrible thing had happened to end it.
    It’s simple. I realized that, though she and I liked the same things, had similar senses of humor and levels of intelligence – in short, everything that makes people “compatible” – we valued completely different things. And while we are compatible at this stage in our lives, as we aged these values would have us oriented in different directions as we grew. She will never understand my passion for religion, military service, and order in my personal life because she places greater emphasis on the individual and despises routine. I will never understand her goals within academia because I perceive academia as a circlejerk of samey people reinforcing each others’ elevation of the inane to godlike status. Currently, these are topics on which we tease each other. However, not valuing the same things would lead us to ruin in the long run.
    Of course, I’m fortunate in the matter of marriage. My parents have one of the, if not the, best marriages I’ve ever witnessed. They provide constructive interference in the matters that they both value (spirituality, family, thriftiness) and destructive interference where they might err to extremes (my father’s serenity moderates my mother’s intensity, my mother’s intensity helps draw my father out of his serene little bubble and gets him to do things). I have something to aim for in my own life, and I have no desire to settle.

  18. Joy says:

    I have to say Rob that my first reaction is “Who left him at the ‘alter’? Sorry…just had to be real about it. I often read and like your posts however I do find a level of dis-attachment(can that be a term?) and cynicism here- about this topic that saddens me. Sometimes the sarcasm I relate to…this time I could hardly read it all….
    Honestly, ALOT of people do marry without thinking it through. In fact I have a friend who proposed to his girlfriend after baby #2 and to hear the news from him you would think he was telling me he had just run over a box full of kittens…. I worry when teenagers get married… It can be rough and marriage JUST LIKE HAVING A BABY to fix a relationship DOES make things HARDER etc.
    And the wedding industry complex that women get DOES create a programmed need for this ‘beast’ that is a wedding. I am engaged and I easily say yes I would marry my fiance right now if you wanted to do the act. In fact I am beginning to detest wedding planning and may just elope anyway…because you are right- what matters most to me is committing to the man I love.
    Anyway, here is my biggest argument with you… Marriage is not the only thing that persists despite natural and biological evidence/contradiction/lack of animal equivalence… Religion for example? Philosophy? and so on…
    Do animals sit around and discuss their problems with the Dr. Robs of their species??
    There is a great research study (and probably more..but one that I have cited in my own studies)that shows we are becoming more and more lonely and social isolated- That many of us have ONE person (OR LESS)who we truly go to as a confidant. Why in a time where we are suffering because of a lack of true connection in our society would we want to argue against something that brings people together? Enter into it wisely sure! but I’m surely not giving up on the institution of marriage nor my love of art or philosophy (etc.) so quickly just because some people do it without contemplation or because most animals dont do it…. I hardly think I will begin to go naked in public, stop brushing my hair or teeth, or begin to eat my placenta when I give birth (lots of animals do that…) just because it is different than what the animal kingdom does…
    I agree with you on many points for many people. But there is also now scientific data that proves life long love DOES exist in humans, that the brain of some married couples lights up in scans just like that of new couples in infatuation stage. (I’ll go back and find these articles for you if you would like.)
    As far as the growing apart thing…well I can see that. Marriage, just like being a parent or a friend or any social relationship- it takes effort. Sometimes my conservative christian mother probably cant believe that I (a feminist minded liberal among other things) came from her….does that mean tomorrow she is gonna bail and disown me? Nah, we find common ground and we care for each other. Let me tell you my own parents beat the odds too…married very young, struggled for years… grew apart at times and grew together at times….but they always stayed committed to one another and now they have a relationship they never could have dreamed off. 25 years and still going strong, maybe thats why I believe in it…I had a really good, but really realistic example of what married life will be like- through thick and thin.
    I know my relationship, my compatibility with my man is better than theirs was(hell, I’m even a good 7 years older than they were when they got married which as you said helps my odds tho Im not yet 30) and it WILL take work, but I believe the rewards are far far greater.
    And believe me, despite the victorian ideals that make us all think men and the wild beasts never to be tamed… women aren’t that different we like sex too…sometimes with more than one partner in a life time too (OH MY!)….we are just conditioned to act and think and be something else too. So boys cant get off the hook just cause they are “supposed to be” sewing their precious seed.
    haha, okay well I’m sure no one will read all of that. But everyone else seemed to fawn over what you are saying so I had to throw some other thoughts in there for ya…. 😉

  19. Joy says:

    Didn’t catch the “this isnt supposed to be a doom and gloom article” part til now… Maybe that should have been your opening line- as it did give me that feel from the get go. 😉

  20. Esther says:

    I appreciate your point about the wedding. My husband and I had a small wedding with close friends and family. I wanted the ceremony to be short and pretty. It was. Over the last three years of marriage I have had several guests comment on how beautiful my wedding was. It was funny because I hardly decorated, I left out large parts of the ceremony, and had no extra music at all. I agree with you that it is not about the wedding. I just wanted my friends and family there to celebrate a very happy day for me (but not my happiest) and that’s why I decided not to go down to the courthouse. I think weddings in general would be a lot nicer if people did not put so much pomp into how perfect they need to be.
    The other point you make that I really like is about marriage being work. I don’t understand why it’s not romantic to work through differences with another person. In my opinion things would get boring if my husband and I never disagreed. On a more serious note, I cherish the times when we have difficult discussions because when it’s all resolved (and we have committed to resolving issues even if it takes several times talking it through) I feel so much closer to my husband. I’m an optimist. I think that marriage can always get better no matter how good it is.

  21. Steve says:

    Ladies, here are 8 words to make a marriage work:
    – long hair
    – stay thin
    – sex anytime
    – shut up
    Violate any of these and you’re doomed.

  22. George Glass says:

    A 50% divorce rate is scary if you believe you’re moronic enough to believe in the sanctity of marriage or have a lot of money and don’t want the other person cooberating with the state in order to steal it from you!!!!

  23. Kathryn says:

    My husband and I underwent two years of couples counseling BEFORE getting married, and it was one of the best, most brilliant things we ever did. I will forever be grateful that our mutual baggage interacted in a way that produced florid screaming fights rather than simmering passive-aggressive resentment; I could have lived with the latter, but the former drove us to the counselor.
    One of the things our counselor told us, offhand, is that in her experience, the strongest marriages come from couples who have shared values, overlapping interests, and different personalities. That’s a recipe for the kind of stable dynamism that she thought was most robust.
    We’re hardly a long-term marriage; we’ve been married for six years next month, and we have one child. But we were together for seven years before that, five of them owning a house together. I can honestly say that I love him more — differently, but more — with every passing day, and every day there’s new evidence of how much he loves and respects me.

  24. Divorce-E says:

    I was the peacekeeper and my wife the fighter in our relationship. It was one of a very subtle “give an inch / take a mile” scenario. I gave an inch, she took an inch and a half. It was so small, so subtle, that I only realized 17 years later that I had given all.
    At that point, she took to giving just so I had something she could take. I came to realize it wasn’t about having control with her, but the act of seizing it. She would demand a choice, get one, and then override it with no recourse in the end.
    Folks, watch out for the slow creep. It’s not the blatant respect violations about which you need to worry, but the slow and silent assimilation of control that you cannot see until it is too late.

  25. Pat T says:

    I have a major problem with the blunt ‘50% of marriages fail’ statistic. People assume that this means 50% of people who get married will get divorced. That is statistically untrue, for the simple reason that individuals can have more than two marriages. My friend who has married four times has contributed three divorces to this depressing statistic – for more than I can balance with my successful marriage – and yet, his is also still a married man. A better statistic, which is never quoted because it requires a slightly more than brain-dead level of thought, is ‘What percentage of married people have never been divorced?’

  26. Lee says:

    Two caveats on an otherwise good article:
    1) You don’t specifically say that the notion of “if you REALLY love this person, you will never even be attracted to anyone else” is a myth. You sort of dance around it, but some people need to hear it flat-out. Being emotionally and sexually attracted to people other than your spouse is a normal and natural thing to happen; being aware that it happens, and that there’s nothing wrong with it, leaves the person much better able to deal with it than believing that it shouldn’t happen at all.
    2) Your “little-known secret” — that couples who don’t fight eventually don’t have sex either — is not supported by empirical evidence. In fact, it’s more likely to be the other way around; couples who spend too much time fighting eventually lose sexual interest in each other. You appeared to be aware of this in the preceding paragraphs, so I don’t know what happened to your train of thought after that, but it definitely derailed.
    Dr. Rob Note regarding 2): I don’t mean to imply that couples should spend “too much time fighting,” and that’s not the opposite of what I originally wrote. The thrust is that anger is a natural emotion and, when suppressed, damages the passion of the relationship as a whole. When you’re saying isn’t incorrect but it compliments what I’m saying, it doesn’t contradict it.
    I have not located empirical studies to contradict my take on my “little secret.” I am going on my professional experience and will retract it if you can cite empirical evidence to the contrary.

  27. Lost in Orlando says:

    I wanted to say I really needed this topic covered in a professional way, and you did just that. My wife and I have been married nearly 5 years now, and I have been increasingly discontent for the last 3. I don’t blame either of us for our relationship failing. She knows it also, but it is kind of like the 200 pound gorilla in the room we ignore. The sad thing is we really love each other very much…but as a good friend put it, “We just do not mesh well together”. I don’t feel there is a working things out ability here, I mean you are who you are. There is nothing wrong with who she is, or who I am..but the two do not work well together at all. I feel eventually I will have to end this, simply because I love her and myself enough to want us BOTH to be happy. I know it will hurt her, and this rips my heart out, as I never intended to hurt someone I love. You post verified a lot of feelings I have had for a very long time, and I have decided to talk with her about seeing a specialist. Not to try and ave anything really, nothing to save. I just feel that perhaps with the help of a professional we would be able to both learn from each other, and hopefully end our marriage without ending our friendship.

  28. Anonymous says:

    This probably points out a neurosis of my own, but I have to point of that for the wedding day to be .001% of the marriage, they’d have to be married for just under 280 years.

  29. ellena muhammad says:

    not sure what to do but i feel the thrill is gone and just not down for feeling second to friends. i thought when you get married that your husband becomes your friend i guess i got it all wrong want to spend more time wants me to make the schedule to make more time. but hes willing to make time with friends.

  30. crash says:

    Well…if you think 50 percent make it think again…it says fifty percent make it but then …How many of the 50 left suffer?
    From what I see in the world lots…and lots…
    That is why i,m single will probably remain single
    until the day I find someone who can grow with me together…
    Which at the age of 48 isnt going to happen but at least I get to bang young chicks all the time…
    Because of the “Daddy” thing…
    is what it is…I also enjoy watching my ex find out the hard way maybe she should have been a little nicer to me…maybe she wouldnt have drank the “You can do better Kool Aide”
    Life is good ….:}

  31. […] up a bit. I never bashed monogamy. I’m not some family-hating Antichrist. I only said it was a man-made concept, not a natural one, and therefore was a contributing factor in the dissolution of some marriages. That wasn’t […]

  32. Basin taps says:

    Posts like this are what make the internet great, thanks for sharing.

  33. Anonymous says:

    I usually don’t leave comments!!! Trust me! But I liked your blog…especially this post!

  34. […] Dr. Rob runs down some of the reasons why marriages fail and why therapy leads to better outcomes even if the outcome is still divorce. @Why Marriages Fail « Shrink Talk […]

  35. gr8 post bro… says:

    Thank you, this was excellent.

  36. RGD says:

    I was doing some random seaches through google and found your website. Your insight into divorce is not only spot on, but entertaining to read. Thanks…

  37. Sarah says:

    “2) Assuming that marriage implies monogamy, the institution itself is counterintuitive to biology.” Aaaaaaaaaand I navigate away from the page.

  38. Ren says:

    I really think good communication skills are necessary for a successful marriage. It is impossible to get past a “fight” if one person is always attacking, while other is pushing for more distance… My best advice for couples is to keep things individualized; it is not a matter of what “he/she” did but of how certain events caused you to react and why… When we relate though experiences we gain a lot more insight then when we simply target things we find easy to attack.

  39. Candice says:

    Wow, this was spot on. Great post.

  40. Sue Kramss says:

    As my husband and I have always said the success of a marriage in inverly proportional to the expensive of the wedding. Our Wedding cost $1500 and we’re married 28 years and counting. My brother and sister-in-law’s wedding cost about $50,000. He came out of the closet and that’s the end of that.

    More people would remain married if they realized the “good” sometimes comes after the “bad”. The first few years are all hormones, which not enough couples realize will take them just so far. There’s more to a relationship than “lust”. Then comes the tough part – “Effort”, “Acceptance”,” Compromise” and a whole lot of “Teamwork”; without these abilities, you are doomed. It also won’t hurt if the vows were taken to heart as commitments and just not words. Too many couple split when a partner become ill, especially mentally ill; run when times get rough or money runs out. Riding the waves like a champion surfer will get you into shore. And realizing that her sags and wrinkles are no more attractive than a spare tire and nose hair helps. You are in a relationship that will always be in flux, ebbing and changing. The beauty comes from what’s inside the package, not the wrapping.

  41. […] Rob Dobrenski of Shrink Talk has an absolutely fantastic post on reasons why marriages fail. These are the seven he felt worthy of […]

  42. […] of marriage? Read these two complementary pieces: Dr Rob Dobrenski on the reasons marriages fail [LG] and The Last Psychiatrist on how to destroy a marriage [LG] (the former on why they fail from […]

  43. darcy says:

    i completely disagree with you on all of them, i am married it actually helps my problems and his even though he didn’t want to get married like i did,i seen couples fight fairly i know i do but i think some people are just idiots they always try and get back each other and they end up with someone who has a different religion then them which is a huge problem, and racism still plays a big part in marriage, i know i wouldn’t marry a black guy or a spanish guy or any type of tan guy but that’s just how i am its hard to let go of those facts, they must be everything you wish them to be but there is some things that they wont be and that other guys will be.

    i often like other men and fall hard for them no matter how hard i try not to i just do because my husband doesn’t give me his full attention all the time and he does not yet want a baby and i do want one today right now but that is another thing we disagree on that should have been handled with before we got married.. another thing is that you need to communicate every day not just threw text but on the phone too!

    and tell him what you need while he’s out he should be happy to! And he sure is!! 🙂

  44. I know what you’re writing about. I’m dealing with the same thing currently… Thanks for sharing!

  45. […] 4, 2010 · Leave a Comment Oh wow this post right here just destroyed whatever hopes I had of getting myself into marriage. Doctor Rob describe […]

  46. Ron Almberg says:

    Well, I can certainly commiserate with you in my own experience that finds “the couple usually waits far too long to seek help, long after arguments have gotten out of hand and the dyad has drifted in directions that can’t be saved” and/or “that one or both members is seeking a sort of permission to dissolve the connection.” Good grief. I know those stories all too well.

    Helping the couple decide that dissolving the marriage is the best option is not a biblical approach, however. The Scriptures do point to reconciliation and restoration. That being said, there have been a few instances in my experience where the damage had been so severe that separation and even divorce was inevitable. Helping the couple through that is tough but necessary.

    Because so many marriages started out all wrong or developed extremely badly, I am tempted to agree that “every marriage isn’t meant to go the distance.” The caveat would be “except by the grace of God.” Some are just too broken or the people too dysfunctional to continue as a couple. This is a sad truth and one that is not acknowledge by Christians. The fact is that we tend to be in denial about bad relationships/marriages and how broken people can really be in the midst of them. For a few (not many I would emphasize), the answer may only lie in developing as an individual FIRST before entering into – or re-entering – a relationship (even the same one!).

    That being said, I would not treat the statement, “If people are miserable together, the shrink’s position is to help them separate and live happier lives apart,” as a truism. Sometimes, the unhealthy thing is helping them escape the responsible thing “to stick it out and work it out.” What is exactly needed is for them to work through their relational problems in the context of THAT relationship – relying upon the Lord to bring health and healing and wholeness.

    The idea of “successful” marriages being “happy” marriages is a dubious measurement. The marriage covenant, along with one’s commitment to the Lord and obedience to him, is the first priority. We are not always going to be “happy” or “fulfilled” because the other person does not exist for that purpose. God does. Anyway, that for another long discussion. I take a “marriage covenant” view and so depart from most people in this.

    Concerning “compatibility,” in point one, while it is an important issue I don’t think it is as important as we make it in our American culture. After the wedding covenant is made the real issue is obedience and fidelity to that covenant. I would argue, rather, that incompatibility at some level is always the case. Regardless, a couple can find ways, in their incompatibility-ness, to work out and work with their differences to maintain a healthy and happy covenant relationship.

    I won’t even go into point #2 as it may be “counterintuitive to biology” – that’s another argument for another time – it is certainly not biblical or the way God designed it. That is a result of The Fall. Yielding to the salvation work done in the cross and resurrection as well as the work of the Holy Spirit helps us to overcome that sinful inclination – a battle we do sometimes lose, but nevertheless are called to continue to wage. Biblically, marriage is not a man-made institution but a God-made one.

    Point number 3 is a great point and a great question! I’ve always said that it should be tougher to get a marriage license than a driver’s license. I like the author’s point, “Unless you are fully prepared to be with your partner regardless of the means to get there you’re missing the point of the institution.”

    As to number 4, it is certainly true and one of the reasons why, in my pre-marital counseling, I spent two sessions on communication and one on conflict resolution – 1/3 of our time together (I had nine sessions). I like “The Mirror Trick” and am going to have to remember it.

    And, isn’t number 5 the truth!? This was always something I emphasized to pre-marriage couples.

    I think #6 is more problematic for women than for men, at least in what I’ve seen and experienced. I especially see this in older divorced, widowed or women from abusive relationships. They tend to want to settle so they won’t be alone. Being alone frightens them more than being in a bad relationship. And it almost always gets them into trouble.

    As to number 7, it is true: “no force other than mutual effort can power a relationship.” I couldn’t agree more. Marriage is a difficult relationship that requires a lot of constant work. I couldn’t agree more with the author that a couple must always seek creative ways to improve themselves as individuals and then as a couple. I, too, have found that “couples who don’t wait to seek out help have better outcomes than those who come in as a last resort.”

    This is a great article. Thanks for getting us thinking!

  47. Major thanks for the post.Really thank you! Keep writing.

  48. Anonymous says:

    The style of this is superb.

  49. Anon. says:

    I’m a person who does not believe behaviours and acts are normal just because many people do it. It is a bias and inaccurate way of defining what in normal in humanity. In this society is it is the norm to date anyone one wishes, but in other societies this is looked at as immoral and not what humans should be doing. I for one definitely believe humans are NOT LIKE ANIMALS, and the other this we share in common is our anatomical structures, although some of our behaviours are similar, MANY are not. We are physically, socially, psychologically and mentally different, and I believe just because animals do it we should to doesn’t cut it. I think many people us this false ideology to rationalize there actions.
    For someone to trully love someone, they would not succumb to having an affair with someone else when they know what damage they will be doing to their love.

  50. KateTX says:

    Excellent article. I wish I’d read it before I married just over 20 years ago. Instead, we had to stumble blindly and it was only luck that led us to several terrific therapists during tough times over the years.

    We did learn to fight fairly, to realize that crushes on other people are not problems unless we act on them (our marriage is not open, I’m not judging those that are), and to invest time in being kind to each other even when being unkind was so much easier.

    I’ve come to think of our marriage as two paths in a forest. Sometimes the paths come together and it’s so easy. Sometimes our paths drift apart and it takes effort, sometimes a lot of effort, to work out way back to the same path. But we’ve come to have faith that even when our paths are far apart, we are slowly but surely working out way back to each other. It’s no longer a time to panic or fight but rather to be sure to check in with each other while giving that space the respect it deserves. And always to be gentle with ourselves and each other.