Marriage as Survival, Enrichment, and/or Formation

Every one knows the statistics: Half of all marriages end in divorce. Conclusion: Marriage is hard (Yes, I needed a Ph.D. to figure this out).

Therapists basically know what happens when marriage fails. We know that some couples have no business getting married in the first place. We know that some couples do not have the resources or maturity to handle the inevitable stresses and strains of marriage when they arise. We know that some couples could, but are unwilling to do the work that marriage requires. John Gottman is probably the only marriage researcher out there who has developed anything approaching a scientific model for studying marriages, and he concludes that marriages fail because, when stress hits, friendship erodes and is replaced by either apathy or, worse, contempt.

Many therapists have developed models for how to think about the erosion of this friendship (mine can be seen by clicking Alienation Cycle), but having a model and having a solution are two completely different things! Nonetheless, models DO generate ideas about how and when and where to intervene in this alienation cycle.

Lately, the following idea has taken shape in my mind, and seems to have been of some help to the clients I’ve started discussing it with.

I’d summarize it like this:

Most marriages in America fail because couples are
unable or unwilling to shift from a survival or enrichment
view of marriage to a formation view of marriage.

In my previous entry I described three core values that shape life: survival, enrichment, and/or formation. I also said that I believe a person’s life will be fundamentally shaped by which of these three values he or she chooses to place at the center.

When I take this idea and apply it to marriage, I come up with three core reasons to be in a committed relationship:

  1. Marriage as Survival – I marry in order to survive.
  2. Marriage as Enrichment – I marry in order to be happy.
  3. Marriage as Formation – I marry in order to mature.

I’ll be using my next three entries to say a bit more about each of these.

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About Wes Eades

I've been a pastoral counselor, marital therapist, and overall listening ear since about 1989 or so.
This entry was posted in Marriage, Spiritual Formation. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Marriage as Survival, Enrichment, and/or Formation

  1. Paul Carron says:

    Wes,

    I like the idea of using the three-fold schema to identify why people marry and perhaps help identify why people divorce. I think that the three are useful, and as you say it is always more complicated than any short schema can encompass, but I have to say that I find number 2 little confusing, perhaps because I think that you are equivocating on happiness. Happiness and enrichment seem to me like two different things. Happiness for many ancient thinkers (i.e. Aristotle) was not simply pleasure-fulfillment, but human flourishing, which seems much closer to number three to me. But our society obviously does think of happiness more as pleasure fulfillment than flourishing, so perhaps I would either change the main title of number two or subdivide it into two categories. Changing number two to Marriage as Pleasure-Fulfillment would perhaps be my choice, where pleasure is not simply feeling-oriented (like sex or admiration) but can run much deeper to what I think you mean by enrichment. That leaves true enrichment (which I see more as flourishing) as virtually synonymous with formation or maturation. But just a suggestion.

  2. Practical Spirituality says:

    Thanks Paul… words matter, and I can see how the ones I’ve chosen can lead to some confusion. I’ll think about how I want to change this…

  3. Anonymous says:

    There is to some extent a level of sensual gratification or pleasure in marriage, but must we depend upon a recent societal definition of “happy” that has also meant “fortunate”, “well-adapted”, or “content” to so many since the 14th century? The word “enrichment” has also been used since the same time period and tends to point toward the addition of some desirable quality. The word “formation” defines the growth aspect of marriage very well, as in the growth of a plant or body, but it lacks a stronger emotion that is present in the word “enrichment”. If not the word “happy”, may just use “fulfillment” or “contentment” or even “accomplishment” to describe enrichment?

  4. Practical Spirituality says:

    Hmmmmm… more issues with word choice…

    Later posts define what I’m getting at with my choice of words, but I can see how my use of “enrichment” is confusing…

  5. Anonymous says:

    What happens after 46 yrs of marriage and the male partner is satified with “you stay on your side and I will stay on mine.”

    Why should I change or make any room for a imtimage relatinshiop when it is all “out of my range of comfortable” says the one that is comfortable.

    • Wes Eades says:

      These are hard questions. After 46 years of marriage, so many habits have been set, and it is particularly difficult to change them. Many people settle into a survival mindset – “Well, it’s easier to just keep doing this than to leave…”

      If you want more than this, though, then the only way I know to get there is to continually invite your partner to more.

      Easier said than done, I know.

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