Did I marry the wrong person?
I recently read about efforts by university researchers to develop an app that would help individuals avoid marriages likely to end in failure. The idea was prompted by a well-known divorce lawyer frequently hearing clients bemoan, "I married the wrong person".
The idea of the app raised a few questions in my mind; was the wrong person ‘wrong’ from the outset? Did they become wrong over time? Does the app allow for the possibility of changing wrong characteristics or are they assumed to be fixed?
Can lasting compatibility be screened for?
The idea of matching desired characteristics is the underlying basis of all dating apps. Presumably, by intention or default, the computer matching-programs screen out undesirable qualities as well as identifying desirable ones. If that could be achieved it would be reasonable to assume that all ‘matched couples’ would live happily ever after. Patently that is not the case. It raises the question of whether sustainable compatibility – or more romantically, enduring love - can be reduced to an algorithm.
All couples go through a continuous process of psychologically separating and reconnecting.
One key difficulty is that people change. One theory about couple relationships advanced by Bader and Pearson in their book In Quest of the Mythical Mate is that all couples go through a continuous process of psychologically separating and reconnecting. The ability to do so – to achieve dependence and interdependence - is the hallmark of an enduring relationship. Some couples will do so automatically others may do so via counselling. But it is difficult to see how the potential ability to reconnect could be screened for in advance of partnership.
A common issue in problematic relationships relate to attachment styles, first classified by the psychologist Mary Ainsworth building on the behavioural theory developed by John Bowlby.
An individual who has an ‘insecure-avoidant’ attachment profile, typically needing their own space, may be experienced by their partner as unavailable. Alternatively, an individual who is ‘insecure-ambivalent’, typically needing closeness and validation, may be experienced as needy and controlling. Conflict can be particularly intense when partners have these diametrically opposite attachment styles and rows are characterised by a ‘flee and pursue’ dynamic.
However, empirical research on attachment styles shows that they are changeable. Identifying attachment styles and helping individuals to understand and moderate associated behaviours is an important tool in couples counselling. More generally, relationship therapy aims to identify core ideas, beliefs, and past experience which underlie negative patterns of interaction and to enable change – to turn destructive cycles into healing ones. Relationship therapy rests on the principle that people can change. Therefore, to simply say, "I married the wrong person", seems unduly pessimistic, and also fatalistic.
I am aware of instances when individuals have had major misgivings on their wedding day but feel ‘it’s too late.’ I would counsel them to listen to their instinct. However, with the possible exception of arranged marriages, relatively few people say to themselves "I’m marrying the wrong person" as they take their vows. It is easy to be wise some years after the ceremony. Moreover, all experienced relationship counsellors will have encountered couples who separate after many years together. Does divorce in those circumstances mean the marriage was a failure? Did they really marry ‘the wrong person?’
One reason why relationships fail is that phantasy – unconscious desire – is not fulfilled. Theory posits that phantasy relates to the desire to replicate an early positive relationship with a primary carer, or to compensate for a negative one, or to project unwanted characteristics of oneself onto a partner and to learn to manage and re-own them. It is hard to see how unfulfilled phantasy can be predicted at the outset of a relationship.
A second reason why relationships fail is that individuals grow apart. Sometimes this will result in an affair. Alternatively, it might simply mean they lose connection with one another. This is not uncommon when individuals marry when young and grow in different directions. Again, it is hard to see how developing along different, dividing paths can be predicted.
An alternative approach
Counselling offers three strategies in addressing a problematic relationship – change, acceptance, or separation. For couples who decide to separate after trying counselling, the inference is that neither acceptance nor change was possible. That in turn raises the question of whether such intractability – inability rather than an unwillingness to change - could have been identified at the outset of a relationship. Are there basic differences or characteristics that cannot be changed?
The above raises the question of whether any attempt to predict long-term relationship sustainability is doomed to failure. Having reflected on the question, I do not believe that a dating-app-style approach based on wide-ranging criteria would provide an answer, since so many of the characteristics are changeable. However, I do believe that identifying what cannot be changed, and is likely to cause irreparable incompatibility, could be a fruitful avenue to explore.
The three danger zones
Based on that concept I believe there are three broad areas where couples do need to be on the same page from the outset if a relationship is going to last. I have identified these areas - ‘danger zones’ - on the basis that they are fundamental, extremely hard for an individual to change, and extremely hard for another party to accept, thus significantly increasing the risk of separation.
The first danger zone is commitment. Both parties need to have compatible views or levels of commitment. The concept approximates to working on the relationship whether it is ‘in sickness and in health’. The verb ‘working on’ is important because all relationships need ‘work’ even when they are flourishing. Like a plant, they need to be fed and watered. Just as individuals need to work on their own physical and mental well-being so relationships need to be nurtured and maintained. Both parties need to have that mindset.
It does not mean the relationship has to be endured if it becomes ‘unworkable’. But both parties need a shared level of commitment to ‘the contract’ between them and make a sustained effort to keep it in good health. That needs to be understood and trusted from the outset.
One common difficulty is that the contract – essentially expectations of a relationship – are not made explicit. Hence, making the invisible contract visible – making it clear what is expected and determining whether it is feasible – would be an essential part of screening that couples are on the same page on commitment.
Shared basic values and vision
The second danger zone relates to shared basic values and a shared vision. I have paired values and vision because if couples do not have shared values it is hard to see how they can achieve a common vision. Shared values result in seeing the world in a similar way, resulting in emotional intimacy, often expressed by couples as being soulmates. Having to look outside your primary relationship for your soulmate – someone who sees things in a similar way – suggests a major potential fault line.
Examples of values that potentially impact on a relationship include roles, division of domestic chores, work/life balance, parenting, wider family relationships and wider social relationships and friendships. It is unrealistic and unnecessary to seek 100% correspondence but significant divergence signals possible ‘danger ahead.’ A relationship vision is a personal view of a deeply satisfying love relationship – what it would look like. Exercises to construct a vision can be found online. The identification of features that are really important to one party, but which would be extremely hard to achieve in the relationship is another potential ‘danger ahead’ signal.
The third danger area is physical intimacy. Touch is an important part of communication in a romantic relationship. If one person is perceived as physically unavailable or conversely too smothering, it does not bode well. Sex is important in bringing closeness and communicating love. Frequency is not important as long as both partners are happy about it. While sexual expressiveness can be taught, libido is largely fixed. Significant differences signal a further ‘danger zone.’
When a marriage ends it is easy to say, "I married the wrong person". But could it have been predicted? I am sceptical about identifying criteria and applying them to find a good match between individuals, resulting in an enduring relationship.
Also, people change, sometimes developing in different ways along different paths. I am sceptical about predicting the extent to which a person, or two people, might change in the future and predicting the ability of a relationship to withstand those changes. However, I do believe that potential fault-lines – defined on the basis that they are fundamental to relationship longevity and hard to change – can be identified. These areas that I have called ‘danger zones’ are commitment, vision and values, and physical intimacy.
Whether individuals would be willing to reflect on and reconsider a relationship based on screening against the ‘danger zones’ is questionable. The reason the phrase love is blind resonates so well is because we all know how true it is. Nonetheless, it seems a worthwhile quest to stop an individual charging recklessly down a blind alley and, sometime later, announcing, "I married the wrong person".