Relationships: Myths and Expectations
Separate to the issue of needs and wants, a counsellor may find that clients are expressing unrealistic notions about married life. Strong correlations have been found between certain unrealistic notions that are believed or maintained by married people and their levels of marital dissatisfaction (Tysoe, 1994). It is worth looking at some of these areas and being prepared for them when they arise. The areas that have found specifically to correlate with marital dissatisfaction are:
- Disagreement is destructive. This is the idea that a married couple should not disagree and if they do they should not express their disagreements.
- People should ‘know’ what their partner needs and wants and they should not need to ask.
- People cannot change; we are they way we are.
- Sexual performance levels must be spectacularly high, if not perfect.
There are other areas of expectation that can cause trouble and disappointment in marriages, largely because they are areas of great assumption and few couples take the time to sit down and talk them through. They tend to be expectations about the home, about money, about work, about health and food, family and children, community and friends and about spiritual life (Piver, 2004).
Based on these areas, there are numerous questions a counsellor might consider putting to their clients. What sort of home do they imagine living in? Where is this home to be located? Who should look after the home? Who will be responsible for bringing money into the household? Do they have enough money to meet current needs? How much will be enough? What is their attitude towards debt?
Are they both able and willing to work? What about when there are children? How many children are they thinking of having? Are they going to mix with friends, if so who and when will they find the time? Are they going to share mutual activities in the community? What about spirituality? Are there any conflicting beliefs or different attitudes towards worship?
As stated earlier, these are areas that are usually either taken for granted or simply not confronted by people getting married. Bringing them up now may cause some tension and dispute; this is where the therapeutic skills of the counsellor can come into play, to help to negotiate workable agreements and understandings.
Another area that counsellors should consider, and which they will have some idea about from the initial interview with the couple, is in regard to motivations for marriage. De Angelis (1992) talks about seven reasons for getting married that may need to be seriously reconsidered.
Pressure from family and friends or due to societal ‘norms’. This could include the idea that one must be married by a certain age or be considered ‘over the hill’. Fear of being alone later in life will sometimes be part of this feeling of pressure. Family can also be a source of pressure, such as parents giving their offspring the idea that they must give them grandchildren
Loneliness and desperation. People may want to fill the emptiness of their life with someone. This can include trying to fill an emotional void, covering up old emotional wounds, or filling a spiritual void of lack of meaning and purpose in life.
Sexual hunger. People often joke that getting married is a way of having sex ‘on tap’ all the time. For some the urge to have a regular sexual partner may be so strong that they will convince themselves that they have feelings for someone that will last for the rest of their lives.
Distraction from life. Some people may have a history of going from one relationship to another. Their relationships may take up a lot of time in their life and may actually get in the way of them sorting out essential issues in their life.
To avoid growing up or becoming independent. The world can seem to be a tough place and people may turn to the idea of depending on someone else for their survival, rather than trying to make it on their own. The warning signs here might be where there is a big age difference between the two or a gap in their levels of financial or personal success and resources.
Guilt. Quite simply this is the marriage that occurs because one person could not bring himself or herself to tell the other that the relationship was not what they wanted. Over time, family and friends also become part of the picture and it can take a lot of courage to be able to go against the flow and decide that the relationship should not be made permanent after all.
The counsellor can be alert here to a person in the relationship who does not seem to be asserting his or her needs, who seems to be acquiescing to the other too often, and who perhaps has a history of difficulty in saying no to the needs of others.
Demartini (2007) and De Angelis (1992) in their consultancy work with couples have noted a number of other beliefs held by couples that could be considered to be dysfunctional.
- A new relationship will provide happiness, with little or no effort needed.
- Completeness is possible and only possible with one’s soul mate.
- This relationship will last forever.
- Marriage will bring to an end the troubles that may have existed thus far in life.
- Self abnegation and self sacrifice are necessary parts of a relationship.
Finally, there are a number of other dysfunctional beliefs that can undermine the harmony of relationships. One is that children will ‘complete’ a marriage. This may be true for some, but according to a number of studies the reality for many is that marital satisfaction declines markedly when children arrive (Tysoe, 1994).
The idea that opposites attract is often discarded early in people’s lives. The truth behind the notion is probably that people are seeking, when they look for a life partner, to find someone who complements their own personality by making up for certain deficiencies (Wilson & Nias, 1976).
On a more physiological level, this seems to even relate to people sensing that complementary genetic strengths could be created should they reproduce with that person (Crenshaw, 1996) , but over time this may explain why many marriages flounder so soon after a couple complete the child rearing phase of their relationship.
In those cases where a relationship starts to wane after the arrival and raising of children, and given the tendency of passionate motivations to decline over time, a healthy and clear concept of love and the changes in love in a lifetime may help a relationship along considerably.