On Psychology

Jewish World Review August 5, 1998 / 13 Menachem-Av, 5758

Dr. Wade Horn

When a marriage
goes stale

By Dr. Wade F. Horn

Q: I enjoy your column and appreciate the various topics featured in your articles. I have been with my wife for over 10 years and married for almost 6. We have two children 4 and 2.

My wife and I have completely drifted apart and I am no longer in love with her. We entered counseling and have been told by the counselor that sometimes when things drift apart and you have fallen out of love that it may not come back.

A: The issues that I am trying to deal with are: (1) Should I stay in a marriage for my kids; (2) Can I fall back in love with my wife; and (3) Can I still be an excellent and active father if I am not with my wife?

There can be few more shattering experiences in life than to feel that the person we once held more dear than any other, the person we pledged to cherish through sickness and in health, for richer or poorer, is now someone we no longer want to be around. Unfortunately, if divorce rates are any indication, about half of all couples who marry, eventually reach this point. And it is the inevitable result of a common mistake of our modern age: to believe that marriage is first and foremost about love.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not saying that love is irrelevant. Love's got quite a lot to do with it. But in today's world we see marriage as almost exclusively about love. And love is a very thin reed upon which to build a life-long marriage.

In fact, the idea that love and marriage "go together like a horse and carriage" is a relatively recent idea. Historically, marriage has been about bearing and rearing children, and the combining of assets. Love has always helped, but the idea that if one "falls out of love," divorce is the solution, is something that would have shocked our ancestors as recently as a hundred years ago.

There are at least two reasons why marriage based upon love is so tenuous. First, when we elevate love to the most important aspect of marriage -- and especially passionate, all consuming, let's hit the hay at every opportunity kind of love -- we are all too quick to conclude that we should give up on the marriage when that kind of love inevitably changes into something else. But lust is not the same thing as love. Mistaking the two is lethal to a marriage.

Second, when we say we have "fallen out of love" with our spouse, what we usually really mean is "you know longer fulfill my need for personal happiness." Expecting one person to fulfill all our needs for personal happiness is to expect the impossible. When we expect it will, we get disappointed, if not downright angry, at our spouse for failing us.

If for a successful, lifelong marriage, love is not "all you need," what is? Here's my answer (are you sitting down?): children.

In a marvelous little pamphlet titled, Marriage in Crisis? (Princeton, NJ: Scepter Booklets, 1976) the Monsignor Cormac Burke put it this way: "Marriage is not meant to remain (and is not likely to survive if it does remain) just the love of two people for each other. It is meant to broaden, to spread out, to include more. Married love is really designed to become family love. The love of husband and wife is meant to grow and, in growing, to extend to and embrace others, who will be precisely the fruit of that love."

In other words, married love grows through procreation -- through bearing and rearing children.

Why? Because, as Monsignor Burke puts it, "Other couples may live in houses identical to theirs, or may choose the same model car, or television set, or much more expensive ones, [but] no one but they can have their children... The spouses who love one another, love everything that brings them together and unites them. They hold nothing in common so much as their own children."

In other words, merely staying together for the sake of the children is not the answer. Focusing on the sake of your children is. For what couples need to get them through the difficult times is a significant motivation to do so.

There is no more powerful a motivator to work at staying loyal to your spouse, sacrificing for him or her, and learning to love the other person in a deeper, less self-centered way, than children.

This doesn't mean that childless marriages are doomed. Obviously not. There are many childless couples who sustain a wonderfully enriching marriage. But doing so frequently requires focusing on some other shared task involving giving to others and sacrifice. That's one reason successful childless couples frequently are so involved in charities and community affairs.

So my answer to this letter writer? First, fire your counselor. You need to go to a counselor who knows that mutual love, while important, is not the most important aspect of sustaining a successful marriage.

Instead, you should get into couples counseling, in which another couple, who has gone through the difficult times and survived, offers mentoring both in communication and negotiation skills, but also in perspective. A perspective that says, "Yes, things change in marriage, but staying together is worth it.

We know, because we've been there."

Second, focus not on what differences you have, but on what you have in common. And the thing you have most in common is your two children. Understand that they are the ultimate expression of your love as a couple, and the ultimate motivation for saying to yourself, "I will fight with all my strength to keep on loving my spouse."

The wonderful surprise when one does this is that you not only are better able to love the other, but you make yourself more lovable to the other. Making yourself more generous, kind, considerate, self-sacrificing -- for the sake of the children -- makes you the kind of person your spouse will want to love, not just today, but forever.

JWR contributor Dr. Wade F. Horn is President of the National Fatherhood Initiative and co-author of The Better Homes and Gardens New Father Book. Send your question about dads, children or fatherhood to him C/O JWR


6/29/98: Do bad 'authority-figures' make good parents?
6/24/98: When to tell the truth
6/17/98: An ode to a dad who stuck around
6/11/98: No-fault divorce and the partner who "wants to make things work"
5/28/98: The oys and JOYS of fatherhood
5/21/98: When child-support becomes a 'catch-22'
5/15/98: Why ‘shacking-up' for marriage's sake fails
5/6/98: Collision with a pathetic reality
4/26/98: It's time parents learned to 'Just Say No!'

© 1998, Dr. Wade F. Horn