“She just didn’t appreciate all I was doing to make her happy.” He fed the babies, and he changed their nappies. He gave them their baths, he read them stories, and put them to bed. He bought a bigger house and took on the financial burden, working evenings to bring in enough money so his wife could stay at home full-time.
He thought the solution to the discontent was for her to change. But once on his own, missing the daily interaction with his daughters, he couldn’t avoid some reflection. “I didn’t want to go through this again. I asked whether there was something I could have done differently. After all, you can wait years for someone else to change.”
What he decided was, indeed, there were some things he could have done differently, like not tried as hard to be so non-controlling that his wife felt he had abandoned decision-making entirely. His wife, he came to understand, felt frustrated, as if she were “a married single parent”, making too many of the plans and putting out many of the fires of family life, no matter how many chores he assumed.
Ultimately, he stopped blaming his wife for their problems. “You can’t change another person. You can only change yourself,” he says. “Like lots of men today, I was very confused about my role as partner.”
After a few post-divorce years in the mating wilderness, Katz came to realise that framing a relationship in terms of the right or wrong mate is by itself a blind alley.
“We’re given a binary model,” says psychotherapist Ken Page. “Right or wrong. Settle or leave. We are not given the right tools to think about relationships. People need a better set of options.”
Sooner or later, there comes a moment in all relationships when you lie in bed, roll over, look at the person next to you and think it’s all a dreadful mistake, says family therapist Terrence Real. It happens a few months to a few years in. “It’s an open secret of our culture that disillusionment exists. I go around the country speaking about ‘normal marital hatred’. Not one person has ever asked what I mean by that.
“When the initial attraction sours, I call it the first day of your real marriage. It’s not a sign you’ve chosen the wrong partner. It is the signal to grow as an individual — to take responsibility for your own frustrations. Invariably, we yearn for perfection but are stuck with an imperfect human being. We all fall in love with people we think will deliver us from life’s wounds.”
Real recalls attending an anniversary party for friends who had been together 25 years. When someone commented on the longevity of the relationship, the husband replied: “Every morning I wake up, splash cold water on my face, and say out loud, ‘Well, you’re no prize either’.” While you’re busy being disillusioned with your partner, Real suggests, you’ll do better with a substantial dose of humility.
A new view of relationships and their discontents is emerging. We alone are responsible for having the relationship we want. And to get it, we have to dig deep into ourselves while maintaining our connections. It typically takes a dose of bravery. Its brightest possibility exists, ironically, just when the passion seems most totally dead. If we fail to speak up for our deepest needs, life will never feel authentic, we will never see ourselves with any clarity, and everyone will always be the wrong partner.
Romance itself seeds the eventual belief that we have chosen the wrong partner. The early stage of a relationship, most marked by intense attraction and infatuation, is in many ways akin to cocaine intoxication, observes clinical psychologist Christine Meinecke. It’s orchestrated, in part, by the neurochemicals associated with intense pleasure. Like a cocaine high, it’s not sustainable.
But for the duration — and experts give it nine months to four years — infatuation has one overwhelming effect: it makes partners overestimate their similarities and idealise each other. We’re thrilled he loves Thai food, travel, and classic movies, just like us. And we overlook his avid interest in old cars and online poker.
Eventually, reality rears its head. “Infatuation fades for everyone,” says Christine Meinecke, author of Everybody Marries the Wrong Person. That’s when you discover your psychological incompatibility, and disenchantment sets in. Suddenly, a switch is flipped, and now all you can see are your differences. “You’re focusing on what’s wrong with them. They need to get the message about what they need to change.”
You conclude you’ve married the wrong person — but that’s because you’re accustomed to thinking, Cinderella-like, that there is only one right person. The consequences of such a pervasive belief are harsh. We engage in destructive behaviours, like blaming our partner for our unhappiness or searching for someone outside the relationship.
But instead of looking at ourselves, or understanding the fantasies that bring us to such a pass, we engage in a thought process that makes our differences tragic and intolerable, says William Doherty, psychology professor and author of Take Back Your Marriage. It’s one thing to say, “I wish my partner was not just watching TV every night but interested in getting out more with me.” That’s something you can fix.
It’s quite another to say, “This is intolerable. I need and deserve somebody who shares my core interests.” It’s possible to ask someone to go out more. It’s not going to be well received to ask someone for a personality overhaul, notes Doherty.
No one is going to get all their needs met, he insists. He urges fundamental acceptance of the person we choose and the one who chooses us.
Now in a long-term relationship, Elliott Katz has come to believe that marriage is not about finding the right person. “It’s about becoming the right person. Many people feel they married the wrong person, but I’ve learned that it’s truly about growing to become a better husband.”
* Reprinted from Psychology Today
ALTHOUGH there are no guarantees, there are stable personal characteristics that are generally good and generally bad for relationships.
On the good side: sense of humour; even temper; willingness to overlook your flaws; sensitivity to you and what you care about; ability to express caring.
On the maladaptive side: chronic lying; chronic worrying or neuroticism; emotional over-reactivity; proneness to anger; propensity to harbour grudges; low self-esteem; poor impulse control; tendency to aggression; self-orientation rather than an other-orientation.
Situations, such as chronic exposure to non-marital stress in either partner, also have the power to undermine relationships.
In addition, there are people who are specifically wrong for you, because they don’t share the values and goals you hold most dear.
Differences in core values plague couples who marry young, before they’ve had enough life experience to discover who they really are.
Most individuals are still developing their belief systems through their late teens and early 20s and still refining their lifestyle choices.
Of course, you have to know what you hold most dear, and that can be a challenge for anyone at any age, not just the young.