When we were teenagers, my brother said something really insightful to me:
Americans don't get divorced when they fall out of love. They get divorced when it's less trouble than staying married.His point was that many people stay in unhappy marriages because to them, it's better than being alone. But ultimately he's hinting at a rather pragmatic view of marriage. There's so much description of marriage in terms of love and everlasting commitment, but I think that glosses over this simple fact:
People get and stay married because it improves their life.
Simply stated, people think they are happier married than single. The list of common causes for divorce looks strikingly like common causes for depression:
- Financial trouble
- Child raising issues
- Sexual incompatibilities
- Lack of Communication
- Physical or Mental Abuse
- Lack of Compatibility
But so can any stress. When parents disagree about how children should be raised, they are likely to blame problems the children create on the other spouse's decisions. If one spouse wants sex once a day and the other wants it once a month, then at least one person will be unhappy, but probably both.
The secret to a successful relationship is using it to reduce life stress rather than create it.
That's why love is necessary but insufficient. Love is merely the motivation that makes you decide the other person is worth the effort. The secret ingredients are solid communication skills and a willingness to compromise.
Good communication prevents small problems from becoming large problems. For example, suppose one partner says, "Lets talk about that later" whenever she's feeling a bit overwhelmed with an issue and needs some time to process alone. But her husband interprets that as, "I don't want to talk about this at all." He might end up feeling emotionally shut out by her. And she might feel neglected because he never initiates the conversation at a later date. This problem is completely avoidable as long as both people take the time to express how they interpret what the other person says and does. The misinterpretation would be immediately clear. Without taking time for that though, these irritations build up into years of needless emotional pain.
Of course, sometimes both people understand each other perfectly well but disagree about what they want to do. In the case of a husband who wants to buy a fancy car and a wife who wants to travel abroad, trying to do both will put them in financial trouble, so that's not an option. Sometimes they just have to compromise on what they want for the sake of the other person. Maybe that means buying a Nissan instead of a BMW, and that they travel to Miami instead of Paris. Or maybe it means they travel to Paris this year, but they buy a BMW in two years. Both people need to realize that their needs can't be the first priority 100% of the time, nor can the same be true of the other person. The overall happiness of the couple needs to be more important than any one particular desire.
There are also situations where couples understand their differences of opinion and are unwilling to compromise. Abusive relationships fall under this category. When the husband believes it's okay to beat up his wife and the wife disagrees, they shouldn't compromise by saying it's only okay to beat her on certain days of the week. If you can't agree to disagree, that's a sign the relationship needs to end. No amount of love or compromise will stop an abusive spouse or convince someone to quit their drugs. They've declared what they want out of life, and it's simply not compatible with what you want.
This is really the category of "irreconcilable differences", and applies to innocuous things as well. For example, desired frequency of sex. If one person is unwilling to have sex more than once a month and the other person wants sex daily, there aren't a lot of options. One person could start having an affair, they can agree to an open relationship (essentially a sanctioned affair), they can "compromise" by only having sex monthly and building long term resentment, or they can break up. Breaking up seems like it causes the least emotional pain in the long run in most cases, which means it's often the best choice. There's no shame in breaking up when you realize things won't work out. You just weren't the right people for each other.