What happened to the “lifetime commitment” aspect of marriage in the U.S.? Divorce is almost as prevalent as marriage. Not really, but compared to 50-100 years ago, the number of divorces has increased exponentially. That’s an exaggeration too, but the increase in these numbers has been a source of dialogue in many circles including the political rhetoric of our age. The issue of gay marriage has brought this to the forefront of many a debate. The LGBTQI community was only just granted the right to legally marry and while opponents of this legislation purported that this would crush the very cornerstone of American society (the nuclear family), the average length of the “lifetime” commitment in America has been steadily declining arguably since after WWII. Long before unions of varying composition outside the concept of 1 man + 1 woman were established.

So what has changed?

The whole answer is, of course, beyond the scope of this opinion article. However, I suggest the fissure in the foundation of American marriage and commitment lies in a more global shift of what it means to be an American and to pursue the American Dream. The infrastructure of support, validation, sanctioning, accountability and necessity of the “traditional” nuclear family has been effectively eroded by ideas of equality, individual responsibility, equal opportunity, religious freedom, the discovery of issues like codependence, domestic violence, mental and emotional health and well-being, as well as the national and local economic landscape. What does it mean today to survive and prosper in America? It no longer requires a “partnership” to do so in the most fundamental ways. We no longer only allow men into certain occupations, we have seen the family owned and operated business become all but extinct and we encourage our young people to “find themselves” and break away from the status quo. Like it or not, the “traditional” family structure, expectations of family loyalty and necessity of this family unit for survival kept marriages intact and families together. Now, before you assemble a lynch mob to drag me through the streets and hang me from the highest tree, let me be clear. I am in no way saying that the answer is to return to these values and expectations that perpetuate the male dominated structure of American society. Let’s remember the diseases that found fertile ground in this safe yet putrid environment – depression and other mental health problems, suicide, substance abuse, domestic violence, child abuse, etc. Much of which was left unchecked by the larger community and allowed to be perpetuated or dealt with at the discretion of the male head of household (“it’s a family issue”). A steep price to pay for such refuge.

What worked then ain’t workin’ now.

Couples no longer rely on each other in the same sense of “partnership” as they did even 50 years ago. We have evolved as a society. Socially, morally…for better or worse, we are not the same creatures we once were…the nation as a whole no longer requires the union of one man and one woman to facilitate the American Dream. There is no longer just one dream and often two (or more) people in the same committed relationship do not share the same dreams and aspirations. They may be pursuing separate goals personally, professionally and spiritually. They may have separate careers, sometimes separate faiths and beliefs. Marriage and relationships are about…*gasp*…LOVE! Love, desire, passion, chemistry, attraction, etc. All of which have historically proven for many to be unstable ground to build a life on with other humans. Without the need for each other to survive, what will keep us together when the infatuation fades and the stresses of life build? How many unions are dissolved due to one party’s complaint they are “no longer in love,” or say, “we just grew apart,” “people grow and change,” etc. When we no longer desire to be together, how will we honor our “lifetime” commitments? The truth is, many of us don’t, can’t or won’t. Why? Because we, as a community, as a social organism, no longer know how. We assume it flows naturally into happily-ever-after and often don’t see the neon warning signs of miscommunication, disproportionate self-sacrifice, projections from our past, entitlement, resentment and differences in fundamental values and expectations that create unhealthy, divisive and destructive patterns of relationship dynamics. A dance we learn that often has us deftly toeing around one another unseen and unheard. We lose sight of each other in plain view. And then, as often is the case, we can no longer find each other at all. Even when we try.

So what do we do?

Should we teach relationship skills starting at the same age we start preschool? Make open and effective communication, conflict resolution, the science of emotional intelligence and expression, trauma resolution, empathy, compassion and love part of the core curriculum?
I haven’t used Algebra since I finished school. But I did discover that I was wholly unprepared and ill-equipped to sustain an intimate relationship no matter how much I desired or loved my partner. No matter the dreams or goals. Because I had only images from a bygone era of being together forever… easily, naturally. It’s just how it was – like a biological phenomenon – a stage of life where a new set of organs matures and we suddenly, instinctively know how to mate for life.
We get more training and instruction on how to drive a car or solve for X than we do in maintaining our intimate relationships.

I vote that we teach more love; less algebra. If you need help in navigating this brave new world of relationships, love and marriage please call us at Thriveworks Counseling Austin512-649-2270. You can thrive; we can help.

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