About 50% of new marriages end in divorce, so why do most people get married, even for the second time? Why are these odds so poor? Its because many people are unable to love dangerously, not physically, but psychologically. Bungee jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge or hang gliding in the Rockies is a piece of cake compared to the inherent dangers of loving. Many people refuse to risk truly loving, so wander the world seeking a partner who will not demand that they risk the vulnerability of self-exposure. We learn very early in life to defend against being teased, mocked or rejected.
The first thing that must be done in a marriage is to replace the "I" with "We." In most marriages, the first year is the "shakedown cruise." The couple negotiates who will pick up whose socks, who is responsible for putting the toothpaste cap back on and who will take out the trash. In the grand scheme of things, these are minuscule events, but through such decisions and compromises a couple forges itself into a "We." As children, most of us are loved unconditionally. As a child, simply existing is sufficient reason to be loved. While our parents may not like us sometimes or be angry with us, they usually love us. You hear this on TV when a distraught mother says, "Well, Johnny was wrong to shoot that man, but we love him and will stand by him because he is our son."
Unlike the love from parent to child, love between adults comes with conditions and without guarantees. Since marriage is a partnership, one must transcend "I" and become "We." Coming together just to meet our needs and fantasies of endless romantic love, creamy, soft skin, perfumed hair and great sex really only emphasizes "Me." if the focus is on you, it doesnt include your partner. Fear in a relationship may provoke efforts to try to control the other person. Out of fear we may shift blame onto the other person in some variation of "If it weren't for you?." Fear may also provoke avoidance. If we fear that our partner will say no to our desire to have sex, to buy a car, to get pregnant or to move to a different city, we are not likely to be open and share the desire. To risk being open, is also to risk rejection. From someone you love, rejection can be deeply wounding.
The greater, more authentic satisfaction in marriage grows from self-disclosure, which encourages reciprocal self disclosure, which leads to true intimacy. If you have ever been in love, you probably experienced the delirium finding someone you can talk to, love, and share your hopes and dreams with. While a possible introduction to a lasting relationship, this delirium merely opens the door. It does not lay the foundation. Self-disclosure is a gradual process, often guided by how safe a person feels in a relationship. Undoubtedly, you have met people who self-disclose intimate details of their life too quickly. It often causes discomfort and withdrawal by the recipient.
To be decidedly unromantic and practical, a healthy marriage must be based on evolving mutual goals. There will be his goals, her goals, but most importantly, our goals. If I love you, want you to succeed, and you do, then the "We" of our relationship is enhanced because your success becomes my pleasure. Not only do you serve yourself by reaching your goals, you serve us because we are a team with common or overlapping goals. In this sense, marriage is like developing a mission statement for a developing company. What is our shared aim as a married couple needs to be reviewed and affirmed or updated. Couples in most successful marriages do this without labeling it as we have here. The answer may be "to raise children well and improve the world" or "provide for our domestic comfort with trips or a beautiful home." Each marriage needs shared goals.
Happiness is a byproduct of what we do. One can't force happiness, but one can seek it by doing what we enjoy and what gives us a sense of accomplishment, be it learning to sew or volunteering to teach English as a second language. Similarly, a lasting and happy marriage emerges from shared goals and a passion about reaching those goals, doing what "We" (not "I") like to do. If one partner abandons the shared goals to excessively pursue his own, the relationship is not a healthy marriage. "We just drifted apart" is often the explanation offered. To risk openness is to love dangerously. But, its is the only way to create and maintain a healthy marriage.
E. Robert LaCrosse, Ph.D. and Christine A. Coates, J.D. are authors of a new book, "Learning from Divorce: How to Take Responsibility, Stop the Blame and Move On." (Jossey-Bass, 2003, $24.95). Both practice in Colorado and specialize in working with high conflict divorcing couples. For more information email: email@example.com.