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  • Dr. Steve Lower

Responsibility in marriage in 21st Century

Too many young people (and some not so young) enter marriage (or any other form of mutual commitment) with no further preparation than what they observed their parents doing with and to each other. Our adolescents’ education suffers from a serious gap. While the national discourse is still spinning its wheels on the debate over sex education versus protected ignorance, birth control versus abstinence, nobody considers the importance of relationship education. The result is an abysmal lack of awareness in our young people of the responsibility of each participant in a relationship for its health and growth.

Given that they come from two different sets of parents, their ideas and assumptions about the way couples interact are bound to be different and often clashing. Once the blush of passion begins to fade, mutual patterns develop which can carry the seed of profound dissatisfaction. The most common of these is the need to assign blame. Somehow, if they can figure out who is right and who is wrong, everything will fall into place automatically. Unfortunately things do not work that way. Nothing is going to change until they let go of the notion of “right” and “wrong” and start searching for constructive solutions.

A second possible pattern is that of disengagement. He “may be held back by some unpredictable business meeting.” Or “she has a headache” or “her sick aunt needs her.” Disengagement can take the form of an affair. A spouse can use a child as support in a marital conflict, or a parent, or just about anyone who will agree to a particular viewpoint. Not unlike disengagement is the strategy of denial. One partner insists that everything is just fine and cannot understand the other’s dissatisfaction. “If only he/she would just settle down and take things the way they are we would not have all these arguments.”

Another category of defensive interaction liable to lead to the destruction of a relationship is the result of one partner seeing him/herself as the other’s victim. The spouse “always does…” or: “is just like his father/her mother.” The implication is that “I am powerless in the face of an immutable situation and I need rescuing.”

Couples starting marital counseling must consider very seriously the crucial axiom: nobody can change another person; we can only recognize our own shortcomings and commit to making every effort to correct them. Once partners are ready to acknowledge their own responsibility for the marital mishap without humiliation or shame the battle is half won and progress can begin. Furthermore, any change by either partner unlocks the prison of hostility into which they have confined their married life. The door is now open to change.

We have done away with the stringent matrimonial rules of the past but we have not developed a new concept on which to guide the new twenty-first century marriage. If we are serious about our “family values” discourse we must become clear and educate ourselves and our children about the realities of modern marriage.

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